Experiencing Alexandria: The city as text and context

Daily News Egypt
21 Min Read
The iconic design of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina makes it one of the most important landmarks of the city by the sea (Photo by Thoraria Abou Bakr)
The iconic design of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina makes it one of the most important landmarks of the city by the sea (Photo by Thoraria Abou Bakr)
The iconic design of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina makes it one of the most important landmarks of the city by the sea
(Photo by Thoraria Abou Bakr)


By Ismail Serageldin

Thinking and writing are quintessentially solitary endeavours. In that plenitude of solitude that the learned mind can bring, where one reflects on things that people living unexamined lives pass by with unseeing eyes:  I reflect on the city. The city and how we see it, how we experience it and how we relate to it.

We look at the city as whole. Or do we? We recall individual parts of the city, for the experiential reality is that you are in one part of the city at a time, and the different parts of the city vary enormously in character and disposition. At each of these parts, we invariably have this sense of place, this sense of unique three-dimensional space, populated by people who bring it to life. There may be crowds or a few couples, or some old people at a café with children playing nearby. People are doing something. Their activities provide not only character, but also pace. Languorous, brisk, or restful – that pace of activity also provides the fourth dimension of time.

Yet many architects are determined to look only at the three dimensions of the buildings.  The volume and the facade, the void and the solid, the aesthetics of the composition, the experience of going through the spaces one after another; for architecture is not just to be looked at, but must be experienced. But architects have the professional curiosity to admire the craft of putting a building together and are sometimes impatient with the crowds that impede the admiration of the building and somehow should get out of the way.

Photographers, however, usually are interested in people. They take close-ups of expressions or compositions of people in particular spaces to capture that sense of place: a frozen moment that lives on forever by the power of the lens. Here, the buildings are the backdrop for the people; they are the context.

Images of the city that we carry in our minds and memories are either the result of our own experiences or the magic of the photographer, whether still or video. Iconic buildings and structures or natural compositions and unique spaces have come to define cities. Unique natural compositions include most famously Sugarloaf in Rio de Janeiro. For structures and buildings think only of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim Museum or the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Other iconic buildings can actually symbolise both the march of time and an entire civilisation. Think of the Giza Pyramids or the Acropolis. But most buildings relate to cities.

Unique spaces also identify particular cities. From the busy souks of Marrakesh to the Champs Elysees in Paris, to the National Mall in Washington DC, space used and abused by people defines the city and its stereotyped character as much as its iconic buildings.

Sometimes we have the joy of watching a city entire, either through the marvel of technology and aerial photography or by the gift of nature that allows us a promontory from which to view the urban complex. Think of the geometry of Paris from the air, or the view of an Italian hill town.

But the city is more than that. It is evoked in our mind just by the mention of its name, a jumble of images seen in a multifaceted composition of broken mirrors. A collage of images that contrasts residential quarters with busy commerce. The quiet spaces and the busy, nervous and vibrant realities of a living organism. The sounds, the smells, the noise, the din, the life… memories of lived experiences or experiences vicariously lived through a myriad of films.

Who can distinguish between the partial images we have of New York or Paris or London, what is from lived experience and what is from the ambiance created by dozens –

if not hundreds – of movies, television and magazine pictures, or induced from reading powerful writing in literary works or news reporting. How do we distinguish between what we created from the selective recall of our own experiences and what we created through our interactions with what authors and creative artists have produced? All of that is imbedded in our memory. That complex, partially integrated collective view is more akin to a text than a single image or a group of images.  A text that describes a hall of mirrors, a complex interaction of images, memories and emotions, with the ambiguity of language and that becomes a whole that is more than the sum of its component images. But it is still a text that is created by these individual images, just as a sentence is created of individual letters and words. We carry that text, with its inconsistencies and its contradictions, its ambiguities and its changing composition in our minds.

That text, different for each of us, different for each city, also provides context for the way we experience the city through our next contact with it. Daily existence or widely spaced visits, the text becomes context for the new. Then the text is amended by the incorporation of the new. Enriched, for the loom of the text is not just the three dimensions of space, it is also the fourth dimension of time: time lived, time experienced, time remembered, punctuated by memorable events or blurring into a background of colours and sounds.

But the text also involves the human interactions we have had in a city, and which we associate with that city. I do not mean the specific events that have marked our life and that we remember vividly with the location a mere backdrop for that event. I mean the diffuse mental links that lodge deep in our subconscious memory, to resurface when one or another of our senses is tickled in a particular way, evoking that city, remembered from times long past. The senses we associate with the experiences, the smells of the beach and of the suntan lotion on lithe young bodies; the sound of waves or the popular tunes that accompanied a dance, mixed with the whiff of perfume and the soft touch of a partner. The text becomes more and more complex. It is not a linear narrative; it is a jumble of images and images within images, wrapped in a cat’s cradle of complex interactions between emotions and senses.

That text, becoming context, shapes our attitude towards the new. Our willingness to accept a pleasant surprise, our regret at a beloved spot gone, our wistfulness for a context that is shaped by our memories and the images of the photographers.


The imagined city

Yet, some cities have an added dimension brought on by history and literature. Here it is the mental images we have created by reading the written works of authors or studying the history of the place. That imaginary city is real. Real because it once existed, even if only in the minds of those who wrote about it. That imaginary city is real for us, an integral part of the mystique of the place. Real in the sense that the symphony of space and time conjured up by the mention of a name is real, and is somehow woven by the mind’s loom into the tapestry of physical space and concrete time that provides us with our text and context.

Alexandria is that kind of city par excellence. The imaginary Alexandria conjured up by its fabulous ancient history, its rich cosmopolitan past and the memories of our childhood and our youth, growing up in Alexandria, or visiting it in summer or winter visits from Cairo. It is the eternal Alexandria that never dies, that contrasts with the reality of what is now a drab and ugly city after generations of depraved destruction of the glorious heritage of a city once known as the “Pearl of the Mediterranean”.

Alexandria had a symbiotic relation with her writers, for they immortalised her, while she fed their imagination and brought them fame. E. M. Forster’s guide remains the best until today, though much of the city he describes has vanished. D. J. Enright and John Heath-Stubbs are among the less known writers in English, but their sojourn in Alexandria transformed their writing and being. Lawrence Durrell, who was not an Alexandrian, but was made famous by his Quartet, and in turn put Alexandria on the tourist map, causing umpteen tourists to come in search of Justine. Writing in Italian were Giuseppe Ungaretti and Fausta Cialente , in French was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti  (a founder of Futurism in Europe), and in Greek, of course, are Stratis Tsirkas and Constantine Cavafy – one of the great figures of the Modernist movement. Egyptians writing in Arabic count among them Edward al Kharrat and Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, as well as Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel laureate, whose novel on Alexandria, Miramar, marks the change in his style from realism to modernism . Whether in poetry or fiction, Alexandria shaped the vision and artistic imagination of those who lived in it.

That is no less true of the painters and artists who grew up in Alexandria, and whose first works were shaped by the Mediterranean shore, the sun and vibrant colours that inspired the images they created of their city.

But powerful as these images were, the text of Alexandria is driven more by history and cosmopolitanism than by any individual work. It is driven as much by the glory of the ancient past as by the vibrancy of the recent past.  Recent by Egyptian standards, for I refer mostly to that period from the 1820s to the 1940s, when Alexandria was a great city by any standard.


Ancient legacies

Ancient Alexandria was a project that succeeded beyond any imagination. It was intended to be the capital of the empire that Alexander the Great was forging. He was to bequeath his name to the city, and his successors in Egypt, the Ptolemies, were to build the city and turn it into the intellectual capital of the world.

Founded on the very spot where the new Library of Alexandria now stands, the ancient city of Alexandria was to straddle the ancient world like a colossus. Its golden age spanned the centuries between the glories of Athens and of Rome, and its legacy is just as enduring, if not more. Indeed, the two icons of Ancient Alexandria, the Legendary pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the Ancient Library of Alexandria, the first institution which truly aspired to encompass universal knowledge, remain alive in the hearts and minds of all cultured individuals, not just cultured Alexandrians.

I do not want to go into the history of ancient Alexandria, but it has become the stuff of legend. It was founded by Alexander, and was the stage for the eternal stories of Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, names of mythical grandeur that evoke various memories created by the talents of the greatest writers and artists of all time from Shakespeare to Hollywood.  It was to be the theatre for the dramatic acts of the burning of the ancient Library of Alexandria and the murder of Hypatia, recently revived in several books and a film called Agora and in a powerful Arabic novel by Youssef Ziedan … altogether the centuries of grandeur and agony that marked the history of the rise and fall of ancient Alexandria make for more than a powerful chapter in the evolving text that provides the context for those who would discover Alexandria today. And it is with shock that we discover how little resonance that text has with the contemporary city. Little remains. But that is the power of the myth of the imagined city.

To measure the importance of the Library of Alexandria, we could look at the decoration of the main hall at the USA’s National Academy of Sciences, arguably the largest and most important scientific society in the world. Built in 1923, the hall celebrates the four precursor institutions of knowledge with medallions in the archways on its four sides. The first of these is the Library of Alexandria from the third century BCE. The other three sides are taken up by medallions of Italy’s Accademia dei Lincei, the Royal Society of Britain and the French Academy of Sciences, all three dating from the 17th century. Twenty centuries separate the Alexandrian and European institutions. To the whole world, not just to Egypt and the Mediterranean, the very name of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina conjures up the image of a glorious past, of a shared heritage for all of humanity.

The Library of Alexandria, initially part of the Temple of the Muses, gathered an incredible community of scholars, which mapped the heavens, organised the calendar, established the foundations of science and pushed the boundaries of our knowledge. They opened up the cultures of the world and established a true dialogue of civilisations. Together these scholars promoted rationality, tolerance and understanding, and organised universal knowledge.

For more than six centuries, the ancient Library of Alexandria epitomised the zenith of learning. The last three centuries were a period of relative decline, punctuated by disasters that resulted in its total disappearance by the beginning of the fifth century CE. But the memory of the ancient Library of Alexandria lived on. It continued to inspire scholars and humanists everywhere. And in Alexandria, that dim memory of the ancient past was brought to vivid life by the rebirth of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the iconic building of contemporary Alexandria, almost on the same spot where the ancient library had once stood.


The text of Alexandria’s historical narrative would then add another glorious chapter: the birth of Christianity in Africa, for it is from Alexandria that the ministry of St. Marc would spread. The early Christians would suffer the terrible persecution of the Romans, and despite that the early church fathers would go on to found the oldest church and the oldest monasteries in the world. And after Constantine ended the persecutions, Christianity would flourish in Egypt and from there spread to all of Africa.

But the ancient Library of Alexandria, which had dazzled the world for centuries, and made Alexandria the radiant city of knowledge, the beacon of science, was no more. The immensity of the loss humanity suffered by the destruction of the ancient library is beyond measure. It was the end of an era. The so-called “Dark Ages” had begun.  The sun was setting on the erstwhile intellectual capital of the world.

Alexandria would live again in the Middle Ages, as a part of the great and golden age of Muslim civilisation, whose legacy is still with us by the many mosques of Sufis and scholars that punctuate the landscape of the modern city. Sidi Bishr and Sidi El Morsi Aboul Abbas are names that mark the contemporary city and hark back to earlier days. But the Muslim heritage and the entire Middle Ages do not live in the evolving text of the city, even if they live in the minds of many of its current inhabitants, and the great fort built on the orders of Sultan Qait Bey in 1477 stands guard where the great Pharos once stood, as countless mosques dot the urban landscape of the “Turkish city” built in the last several centuries. The Muslim heritage of Alexandria is not sufficiently glorified by literature or art. And the march of history – which I maintain has shaped the city’s myths, its text and context – records that Alexandria ceded its primacy to other great cities, whose names were to remain synonymous with the grandeur of Muslim civilisation: Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba, Isfahan, Samarkand, and Istanbul among many others.


Next week we discuss a different Alexandria that was to regain a place in popular consciousness and on the world stage again in the recent past.

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