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Alexandria by Michael Haag author of ?Alexandria City of Memory?

  Alexandria: talk given in Imaret at Kavala, 24 May 2007
by Michael Haag author of ?Alexandria City of Memory?
( published in Greek by Oceanida Publications)

The first time I saw Alexandria it was from the air, and it was night. I was flying from Athens to Cairo when the captain announced that if we looked out the left side of the plane we would see Alexandria. I looked out but could see nothing. Everything was black. The sky was black. The sea was black. The land was black. In fact I had no idea what was sky, sea or land, as everything was as black as everything else. Then suddenly I saw the city ? a bright and glittering necklace of a city ? and it had exactly the same shape as the ancient city in the maps, that long narrow city with its double harbour which was created when Alexander the Great saw the perfect nature of the site and ordered the construction of a causeway, the Heptastadion, to connect the mainland with the island of Pharos. Looking down from the airplane I realised that Alexander, or Cleopatra, could recognise their city even today. Its form is unique, and it is enduring. And that I think is one reason why Alexandria has made such an impression on modern writers ? Alexandria reminds us of the flux and the constancies of history.

But before I talk about writers, I want to talk a little about that history.

In 331 BC Alexander the Great ? from Macedonia ? founded Alexandria. Two thousand years later Mohammed Ali ? also from Macedonia ? refounded Alexandria. This already tells us something about the nature of Alexandria. It is a city on the sea, on the Mediterranean, and throughout all the twists and turns of history its true role is as part of the wider Mediterranean world.

Mohammed Ali was compared in his lifetime, and has been compared since, with the first of the Ptolemies, with whom he shared an almost identical length of reign, forty-four years, and who regarded himself, as did Mohammed Ali, as the regenerator of Egypt.

* First wave, Tossitsas etc:
Mohammed Ali was an Ottoman ? his origins are unclear ? and he was born and raised here in Kavala where many of his closest friends were Greeks. When Mohammed Ali eventually made himself master of Egypt in 1805, and when he decided to modernise the country, he turned to his friends from Kavala for help. Among the very first to go were the Tossitsa brothers from Kavala; Michael Tossitsa became the first Greek consul in Alexandria and also the first president of the Greek community there. He built his magnificent house at the centre of the new Alexandria, on Mohammed Ali Square ? where it eventually became the Bourse, the largest stock exchange in the East and the second largest cotton exchange in the world. It stood there for well over a hundred years until it was burnt down during bread riots in 1977.

The Tossizas paved the way for those who followed ? not only businessmen but also doctors, teachers, lawyers, qualified men who had studied at European universities, as well as small merchants, shopkeepers, builders and farmers. This is very much what happened in ancient Alexandria ? first Macedonians arriving, then followed by men of every kind from all over Greece. Both in ancient and in modern times they brought their families, and they tended to fit in well with the Egyptian population.

In those days before the World Bank, the IMF, and international aid programmes, Mohammed Ali was keen to attract foreigners and their money to Egypt, for it was their expertise and their investments that helped develop the country. Had Mohammed Ali not encouraged foreigners to settle in Egypt, above all in his new city of Alexandria, Egypt would not have enjoyed the development and prosperity that it did.

When Napoleon landed near Alexandria in 1798 it was hardly more than a large village of perhaps 6000 people. But with the completion of the Mahmoudiya Canal in 1820 Alexandria became the major point of population and economic growth in Egypt. Greeks, Italians, Jews, Syro-Lebanese and others from round the Mediterranean settled in the city which developed into a major cosmopolitan port. It also became the favourite summer residence of Mohammed Ali himself ? who built his palace at Ras el Tin, the headland of the ancient island of Pharos, the closest point to Europe. Here overlooking the Mediterranean he developed his ambitions. He built dockyards in Alexandria and a fleet, also government warehouses which he filled with those agricultural products such as sugar, grain and cotton over which he had established monopolies, shipping them downriver to Alexandria just as the Ptolemies had done for export abroad. In particular the new long staple variety of cotton, developed with Mohammed Ali's encouragement by a Frenchman called Louis Jumel, became recognised as the finest cotton in the world and attracted a premium price; in Alexandria, which was largely built on the cotton trade, they called it 'white gold'.

By the end of Mohammed Ali?s reign in 1848 Alexandria?s population stood at 150,000. Immigration continued: between 1860 and 1880 new families arrived, among them the Benakis, the Choremis, the Salvagos, the Sinadinos ? leading benefactors and presidents of the Greek community, their riches based on cotton. By the early twentieth century Alexandria?s population had reached half a million, what it had been at its peak in Cleopatra?s time.

* Comparison with the Past:
Alexandria?s modern communities saw themselves in their cosmopolitanism as the heirs of the ancient cosmopolitan city. Evvaristo Breccia, Italian archaeologist and director of the Graeco-Roman Museum said:
'Alexandria is a proof that much prejudice and racial hatred, much chauvinism, much religious fanaticism may grow milder, and may even disappear, when a race or a nationality has occasion to live in daily contact with other races and other nationalities. ... Each retains his political, social and moral ideal, but they all respect that of others, and no one insists that his is the best or the finest and that it ought to govern the world.'

* But no evidence of the Past:
Yet for all the importance and grandeur of ancient Alexandria, there was nothing to see! Almost everything was buried or had been used for new purposes. The ancient lighthouse, the Pharos, once one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was now a shattered fortress in the harbour; Cleopatra?s Needles had been taken to London and New York; and almost the only sizeable reminder of the past was Pompey?s Pillar on the ruinous site of the Serapeum.

For anyone who knew anything of history, this gave Alexandria a haunting quality, that cosmopolitan Alexandria refounded on the fragile memory-traces of its past. For unlike Rome or Athens with their monuments extant, Alexandria is all intimation: here (some spot) is where Alexander lay entombed; here Cleopatra and Antony loved; here the Library, the Serapeum, etc ... and there is almost nothing physically there. If more of the city survived it would be less haunting. Instead the imagination is left to dream, and the dream for some becomes palpable, sensual and 'real' ? in the words of Lawrence Durrell: 'The city, half-imagined (yet wholly real), begins and ends in us, roots lodged in our memory'.

The roots are those of Western civilisation itself, for Alexandria was once the centre of the Hellenistic world, the resort of artists, poets and scholars from all over the Mediterranean, attracted by the royal patronage of the Ptolemies and a lively cosmopolitan milieu of Greeks and Hellenised Jews and Egyptians.

The Library preserved the literary heritage of Greece and gave employment to the greatest poets of the Hellenistic age: Theocritus, honoured by his successors as the Homer of the Alexandrian drawing room, whose Fifteenth Idyll with vivid incident and a modern ring describes daily life in the city; Apollonius of Rhodes, who served as model for the Roman Virgil; and Callimachus, famous for the polish and wit of his epigrams, and also for some of the most moving poems written in Greek.

The Mouseion, of which the Library was a part, was the great intellectual accomplishment of the Ptolemies, a vast complex of lecture halls, laboratories, observatories, a dining hall, a park and zoo. It was like a university, except that the scholars, scientists and literary men it supported were under no obligation to teach. Among its mathematicians and scientists were Euclid, who in his theories of numbers and plane and solid geometry demonstrated how knowledge can be derived from rational methods alone; Eratosthenes, who determined the earth's diameter; and Aristarchus of Samos, who, anticipating Copernicus by one thousand eight hundred years, was author of the heliocentric theory.

Later in Roman times philosophy flourished too, and at the same time, much of the theological basis of early Christianity, the attempt to link the human and divine intellectually through Platonism, spiritually through love, was developed in Alexandria.

* Cavafy was one who dreamed
One of those who dreamt of the past was Contantine Cavafy.
Though Cavafy worked as a government clerk at the Third Circle of Irrigation, he never forgot that he had been born a rich man's son. Cavafy was born in Alexandria?s elegant Rue Cherif Pasha in 1863 during the height of the cotton boom, but his father, a wealthy cotton broker, died young and Cavafy?s brothers, who inherited the business, quickly lost it.
But Cavafy?s circumstances and the rise and fall of his family's fortune were also part of a greater story, the long and precarious history of the diaspora Greeks in which he took a cultural pride. He professed that he was not a Greek (, a Hellene), rather he called himself Greek (, Hellenic) in the adjectival sense, expressing his attachment to a heritage less pure but possessed of grandeur all the same. From Marseilles to India and from the Caspian Sea to the Cataracts of the upper Nile stretched the oecumene as the ancients called it, the universe, where Greek language and culture were the common possession of all civilised men. This had been the Hellenistic world bequeathed by Alexander, its inhabitants Greek in mind and manner if not in blood, a world not of nations but international and cosmopolitan. Through his feeling for history and through place and language Cavafy laid claim to this inheritance for himself and for his city. He illustrated this in a poem called Returning From Greece.

Well, we're nearly there, Hermippos.
Day after tomorrow, it seems -- that's what the captain said.
At least we're sailing our seas,
the waters of our own countries -- Cyprus, Syria, Egypt --
waters we know and love.
Why so silent? Ask your heart:
didn't you too feel happier
the further we got from Greece?
What's the point of fooling ourselves?
That wouldn't be properly Greek, would it?

(Returning from Greece<32>, written in 1914)<33>

The Benachis had offered Cavafy a job with their cotton export firm Choremi Benachi and Company, but he refused, perhaps because he did not want to be beholden to fellow Greeks. He could better preserve his independence, and indeed his anonymity, as a minor civil servant, a British citizen (only sometime later, the date is unknown, did he take Greek nationality) working under British directors at the Third Circle of Irrigation where he supervised the English-language correspondence. His superiors at the Irrigation treated him with respect and were charmed by his erudition, often asking him into their offices and getting him to talk at length about historical matters. 'I have two capacities', he once said: 'to write poetry or to write history', and though he never wrote history his passion for historical detail brought the past alive, and he would delight his English managers with his talk of the personages of the ancient city as though he was gossiping about some currently scandalous intrigue in the Alexandrian world outside.

* Cavafy makes Alexandria the capital of his world:
Alexandria was the capital of Cavafy's imagination, 'Queen of the Greek world, / genius of all knowledge, of every art' (The Glory of the Ptolemies), and though the settings of his historical poems range throughout the Greek diaspora, from Italy through Greece to Asia Minor, to Syria and into Persia, ancient Alexandria claims the greatest number. It is 'Alexandria, a godly city' (If Actually Dead), where 'you'll see palaces and monuments that will amaze you' (Exiles), and where 'all are brilliant, / glorious, mighty, benevolent; everything they undertake is full of wisdom' (Caesarion) -- yet in each of these poems<141> the theme is failure. Three thousand years of Greek experience had taught Cavafy that kingdoms, empires and dreams have fallen again and again to the ironies of history.

* Cavafy?s command of time and space:
For all that Alexandria was the capital of his universe, Cavafy did feel some frustration with its morals and manners. But in 1907 he wrote: 'By now I've got used to Alexandria'. ... ?What trouble, what a burden, small cities are -- what a lack of freedom. I'd stay here (then again I'm not entirely certain that I'd stay) because it is like a native country for me, because it is related to my life's memories. But how much a man like me -- so different -- needs a large city. London, let's say'. But as in these last few lines of The City, drafted in 1894 and published in 1910, he had come to understand that escape was useless.

You'll always end up in this city. Don't hope for
things elsewhere:
There's no ship for you, there's no road.
Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you've destroyed it everywhere in the world.

In an early draft of The City he had written, 'I hate the people here and they hate me, / here where I've lived half my life', but in the published version of the poem he replaced these lines with 'Wherever I turn, wherever I look, / I see the black ruins of my life': what he meant was that there is no escape in blaming Alexandria for your misfortunes; the city is what you make it, as you would make any city. And so taking command of time and space, Cavafy made Alexandria the capital of his art.

This development in his thinking became clear in 1917 when he gathered his published poems into a bound booklet to circulate among his friends: the collection began with The City. And though subsequent collections were enlarged and their contents rearranged, so that past and present, reflection and sensation, were rewoven into an evolving pattern, The City always came first, as though by entering its walls you entered Cavafy's world. Indeed Cavafy's progression through life was marked by his feelings for his city: in 1929, three years before his death, he published In the Same Space, in which the 'black ruins' were transformed into a personal landscape of his own triumphant creation.

The setting of houses, cafés, the neighbourhood
that I've seen and walked through years on end:
I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.
And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.

* Durrell and Greece:
It was the Second World War that brought Lawrence Durrell to Egypt, where he would begin writing notes for The Alexandria Quartet, the novels that would make him famous, though the gestation period was long and the first volume, Justine, would not be published until 1957.

But before we can talk of Durrell?s experience of Alexandria, we have to know something of his experience of Greece. Durrell said: 'I have been heavily stamped by Greece, ancient and modern. It comes across in my poems. ... Before you can understand me, you must first appreciate Greece'.

Both Durrell and his wife Nancy had small private incomes, and after marrying in 1935 they left England for Corfu. Drawn by the island's benign climate and its low cost of living, the idea was that Nancy would paint and Durrell would write. Durrell believed that everyone has two birthplaces, one where you were really born and the other your place of predilection, 'the place?, he said, ?where you really wake up to reality ... and which nourishes you'. For Durrell that place was at the hamlet of Kalami on the remote northeast coast of Corfu: this was 'the place where I was reborn'. There he and Nancy plunged naked each morning into the clear blue Ionian sea, and it was also there that he felt he had really become a writer. 'I shall really never, never ever forget a youth spent there, discovered by accident. ... Youth does mean happiness, it does mean love, and that's something you can't get over'.

But in September 1939 at the outbreak of war Durrell and Nancy stood on the balcony of their house at Kalami looking out across the straits to Italian-occupied Albania. Having decided they ought to move for safety to Athens, they were clearing out books and papers, emptying cupboards and packing clothes. The war had come, said Durrell, 'like a great severance', and he said he felt 'cut to the heart and dumb. ... Standing on our balcony over the sea it seemed like the end of the world'.

After briefly working in Athens, Durrell was employed by the British Council to teach English in Kalamata in the southern Peloponnese. ?We are sitting on the edge of the crater?, he said, as the threat of a German invasion drew closer, but Durrell was not in a hurry to leave Greece. Already when he was on Corfu he had wanted to join the Greek forces fighting against the Italians in Albania. Now he wanted to join the RAF or the Royal Navy, but the British thought he was more valuable in maintaining Greek morale by keeping to his teaching post at Kalamata. Finally towards the end of April 1941 with the Germans breaking through the Greek and British lines, he was forced to escape with his wife and infant daughter in a caique to Crete, from where they were taken in an Australian warship to Egypt.

By the end of 1942 in Egypt Durrell?s marriage had fallen apart ? just the war, I guess, was how he put it. Meanwhile he had been put in charge of the British Information Office in Alexandria. His knowledge of Greek in a city of so many Greeks had recommended him for the job.

Cavafy had died almost ten years before, in 1933, but according to Durrell nothing had changed, with the unbroken circle of Cavafy?s friends still meeting at the poet?s favourite cafe. Durrell came to know many of them, including Timos Malanos and Gaston Zananiri, and like them he came to see, through Cavafy?s eyes, the ?dream-city Alexandria, as Durrell called it, ?which underpins and underlays the modern city?. It was a city swept by history: ?It opens upon a dreaming sea?, said Durrell, ?and its Homeric waves are rolled and unrolled by the fresh breezes from Rhodes and the Aegean?; ?The city does nothing. You hear nothing but the noise of the sea and the echoes of an extraordinary history?.

Durrell would lecture on Cavafy at the Atelier, the cultural centre in the city founded by Zananiri and the Egyptian painter Mohammed Nagui. Durrell was already familiar with Cavafy?s poetry from his time in Greece ? in the summer of 1939, just before the war, he and his friend Theodore Stephanides translated The Barbarians for a British literary magazine. When he came to Alexandria, Durrell went round to the Rue Lepsius and standing outside Cavafy?s flat he recited those lines about waiting for the Barbarians ? throughout his time in Alexandria, Waiting for the Barbarians would be his favourite of Cavafy?s poems.

Durrell felt passionately about the fate of Greece which was suffering under the brutal German occupation. He hated feeling so helpless, or so it seemed to him, merely pushing a pen in Alexandria in the service of British propaganda, and so ?To console myself?, he wrote to his friend and publisher T S Eliot, ?I am writing a little book on Corfu?.

Prospero's Cell would be the first and most charming of Durrell's island books, splashed with sunshine and wine, and for its mood and its folkways and its discursions in history it continues to be read as a bucolic travel book. In fact it is interesting to note that Durrell began writing Prospero?s Cell in October 1943 just after he began writing his first drafts of Justine, the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, a fact that he explained to the man he called his ?best friend in Egypt?, the poet George Seferis, who was then attached to the Greek government in exile in Cairo. 'I have started working at night now and have begun a novel about Alexandria. It's a strange sensation. I've almost forgotten my grammar, a curious shortcoming when writing prose. I'm advancing slowly, like a blind man, feeling my way ahead, on ground which still feels ominously hollow'. Durrell soon put his Alexandrian novel aside and turned to writing Prospero's Cell; it was as though before he could feel his way forward he first had to return to his past, to the magic he had shared with Nancy on Corfu.

Prospero's Cell is presented in diary form, as though from April 1937 to September 1938, but a magical stillness hangs over it all. There is a timelessness about Durrell's youthful happiness on Corfu, a timelessness in which 'Causality is this dividing floor which falls away each morning when I am back on the warm rocks, lying with my face less than a foot above the dark Ionian'. Just as timelessness dissolves all sense of cause and effect, so it also dissolves, as Durrell said, 'any strict dividing line between the waking world and the world of dreams. N[ancy] and I, for example, are confused by the sense of several contemporaneous lives being lived inside us'.

In Greece Durrell had experienced that sense of being inhabited as he listened to fishermen sitting about in a smoky taverna waiting for the wind to change. In their boasting, their cunning, their loquacity, he heared the voice of Odysseus and his crew, though chronologically they were separated from The Odyssey by thousands of years. The Greeks were still very close to the earth and sea by which they lived, their character formed by a landscape of timeless mythology; they were part of the stream of life. Durrell felt a sense of wholeness when he was in the company of what he called ?the immortal Greek?.

In Prospero's Cell Durrell's view of history is Olympian. He wrote that 'Under the formal pageant of events which we have dignified by our interest, the land changes very little, and the structure of the basic self of man hardly at all'. Nevertheless he gives a sense of events impending beyond his island cell: as vintage time approaches, Durrell interrupts the reverie of his diary with the entry 'Soon there is to be a war'.

Prospero's Cell ends with an Epilogue in Alexandria where Durrell cries out that 'the loss of Greece has been an amputation. All Epictetus could not console one against it'. Against the laws and prescriptions governing the universe, whose purpose can never be subject to human influence, the stoic philosopher Epictetus had spoken of the necessity to submit and endure. Does man, then, possess no freedom of action, no free will, no ability to reconnect what has been torn apart? Durrell answers, saying 'History with her painful and unexpected changes cannot be made to pity or remember; that is our function'.

Durrell?s Olympian sense of history, his sense of timelessness, of past and multiple lives being lived within us, and his passionate belief in the importance of memory ? these are all themes Durrell shared with Cavafy and which he further developed in Alexandria where Cavafy?s presence was still keenly felt. The same themes would appear in Durrell?s Alexandria Quartet, in which Cavafy, as ?the old poet of the city?, is frequently mentioned. Indeed at one point in the Alexandria Quartet, Durrell describes Cavafy as being among ?the city?s exemplars ? Cavafy, Alexander, Cleopatra?, giving pride of place to the poet.

Like Cavafy, Durrell made Alexandria the capital of his imagination, but he used it in a different way. Alexandria was not his home ? instead it was for Durrell a place where he had been marooned by war, and he always called himself ?an exile? in Alexandria, a city from which he wanted to escape ? to get back to Greece. That for Durrell was the burning matter, and it was the question he put to his friend Seferis in 1941: ?Do you think we will get back? Not to the past of Greece, I mean, but to our own past in Greece? ... The past and future join hands here; whatever happens we will get back.?

Durrell put this theme of exile, this sense of being trapped, to use when writing The Alexandria Quartet. It was an idea he had been meditating upon for several years ? earlier he had made some notes about feeling a sense of being trapped in London by a comfortable culture which he called ?the English Death?. His escape from England and his rebirth in Corfu was his personal expression of that.

Now in Alexandria Durrell experienced a world that was slowly dying. By June 1943 the Germans and Italians had been cleared from North Africa and the liberation of Europe was on hand. Alexandria's Western Harbour became 'stiff with ships', part of a massive Allied armada assembling at British and Middle Eastern ports for the invasion of Sicily that was set to commence on 10 July 1943, its scale larger than the Normandy landings eleven months later.

But as the invasion fleet set sail from the Western Harbour, a sense of anticlimax settled on Alexandria, which according to Gwyn Williams, a close friend of Durrell?s, 'floated away from the world at war'. Though the military authorities decided that the blackout should continue as long as Crete and Greece were in enemy hands, for a while the old idyll seemed to return, Williams recalling that 'For us, as for Theocritus, it was a city of consolable exile. ... Love, good food, music, swimming, we had it all'.

But there was no mistaking, Williams added, that 'Alexandria during the years 1942-45 was a city of causes that were being lost, even though militarily it was successfully defended'. It was a world symbolised by the people he and Durrell knew there, a doomed cosmopolitan society composed of Greeks, Egyptians, Jews, Italians and many others ? a world that instead of being linked to the Mediterranean was being 'rolled towards the sea'. 'It was out of this varied and dying ferment that Larry invented his Alexandria Quartet'.

In a note preceding the Alexandria Quartet, Durrell wrote that his characters are all inventions and that ?Only the city is real?. In fact Durrell based several of his characters on identifiable Alexandrians, while his statement that ?only the city is real? carries a certain note of irony, and refers to our capacity for mistaking the world around us for reality. Durrell?s Alexandria is at once sensual and spiritual, and comprehensively seductive, but he also portrays it as a false city inhabited by false selves, a world from which at least some of his characters are determined to escape. In writing the Quartet Durrell uncovers one reality to reveal another, which in turn he uncovers, only to reveal a further version of reality, and so on, all the time demonstrating the falseness of the so-called real.

This was the task of the artist, Durrell believed ? always to remain in flux, to be the creator, never trapped in the creation ? though he understood that in some ultimate sense there was never an escape. In summer 1946, when the war was over, Durrell sailed away from Alexandria. He felt it was like 'a cloud lifting': he was going back to Greece. Yet meanwhile the poetry of Cavafy was on his mind, but no longer Waiting for the Barbarians. Instead in his notebook Durrell translated The City, which he called Cavafy's 'real monument to modern Alexandria'.

There's no new land, my friend, no
New sea; for the city will follow you,
In the same streets you'll wander endlessly,
The same mental suburbs slip from youth to age,
In the same house go white at last --
The city is a cage.
No other places, always this
Your earthly landfall, and no ship exists
To take you from yourself.

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