Sitakant Mahapatra finds the Greek poet very much alive in the Alexandria home where he spent the last 25 years of his life.
I was in Egypt in November 2007 to attend the celebration of the 75th death anniversary of the great Egyptian poets, Ahmed Shawky and Hafiz Ibrahim. I had to also deliver lectures in the South Valley University, Luxor and the University of Alexandria. I had a long-standing desire to see Alexandria, the ancient place of Pharos whose lighthouse was one of the seven wonders of the world. Once an Island, Alexandria is now a peninsula connected to the mainland. Founded in 332 BC by Alexander the Great, the city was a symbol of Hellenistic culture. Its library, destroyed in early centuries AD, was the greatest in ancient times. A new library was opened in 2001. The city was captured by the Arabs in AD 640, and by the Ottoman Empire in 1517. After a long period of decline caused by the rise of Cairo, Alexandria was revived commercially when Muhammad Ali joined it by a canal to the Nile River in early 19th century. Modern Alexandria is a thriving commercial community.
While at Alexandria, two things were uppermost in my mind — to visit the Library, and more importantly, the house of the great Greek poet Cavafy.
I had sent the transcript of my lecture in English and they got it translated into Arabic. Alexandria Library was part of the Alexandria Museum — a research institute. The museum and library were founded and maintained by a succession of Ptolemies from the early 3rd century BC. These were destroyed in civil war in the late 3rd Century AD; a subsidiary library was destroyed by Christians in AD 391. Fortunately, it has been re-built with international assistance on the seashore, and is now housed in one of the most beautiful structures of Alexandria. The library is world-class and attracts numerous visitors, students and researchers every day.
My passionate desire was to visit the Cavafy Museum inaugurated in Cavafy’s House on November 16, 1992. We enquired of the whereabouts of the house. The guide also wanted to help, but we found that most people were not aware of the location of the house. Many were not even aware of Constantine Cavafy. After many a hit and miss, we finally arrived at the street (now named Sharm El Sheikh) at the entrance to the Bay of Aqaba. Originally the street was called Rue Lepsius, named after a French engineer. The path to the house is through a series of small roads and by-lanes. Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) spent the last 25 years of his life in this house. When he lived as a famous poet in this metropolitan city, Alexandria was a famous commercial and cosmopolitan centre. It was located at the cross-roads of civilisations for centuries. In addition to Cavafy, here also lived E.M. Forster, Lawrence Durrel and Stratis Tsirkas. Not surprisingly, Alexandria was known as a Capital of Memories.
Here Cavafy lived with his books, paintings and sparse furniture in an intimate and secluded atmosphere. His home stood between the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Saba, the Greek Hospital and the bordellos of the city, which he described as “the Temple of the Soul”, “the Temple of the Body”, and “the Temple of the Flesh”. In a light-hearted manner, the poet thought these three institutions were there to take care of the soul, the body and the flesh. After his death, the apartment was converted into a cheap hostel. It was still being used as a pension when the Cavafy International Committee took it on lease in 1991. Material from a small collection dedicated to the poet, previously housed at the Greek Consulate General in the Shatby district of Alexandria, was moved to the apartment and Cavafy’s library. Those saved by the eminent scholar Professor George Savidis, were also brought back here.
Although most of Cavafy’s furniture was sold after his death, the atmosphere of his home was recreated with the assistance of some of his living friends. The many photographs that are displayed here evoke the milieu of his time. Extensive bibliographical material — translations of Cavafy’s work in many languages, books and articles — provide a unique insight into the life and times of the poet. The enduring literary importance of Cavafy is also demonstrated in the room devoted to Stratis Tsirkis, the author of Drifting Cities, a trilogy set in wartime Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria.
Clippings of newspaper and journals like Le Monde, Le Soir, Times Literary Supplement, La Vanguardia and Journal de Geneve add a touch of history to the place.
The Tsirkis room was opened in 1985 in collaboration with the French Institution of Athens and the Greek Institute of Egypt. One particular exhibit which is important is Ithaca with a special feature of books from Greece. This room also contains the book on modern Greek poetry by Stratis Tsirkis and an interview with him by Apostolos Doxiadis.
The room in which Cavafy lived has a number of articles and objects associated with him or used by him. For example, it has a wooden trunk of that period, an old mirror which the poet used, the old carpet on the floor and a number of lithographs of the poet done by author-painter P. Tetsis. Three drawings of the poet by Takis, the Arabesque armchair including an office armchair (which was an offer from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch), and a console from the Poet’s House having on it his mask bring alive the man in one’s imagination. There is the book The Canon by Cavafy which contains the original 154 poems translated by Stratis Haviaras. This is a treasured possession in the museum.
Family and friends!
In his bedroom, there are six other drawings of the poet; the poet at the age of 40; his mother Charicleia; his younger brother Paul and his oldest brother Aristeides. There is also a stand with old icons. Alongside the bed, there are three urns of the Hellenistic period. On the walls are two photos of the poet’s beloved friends, George Psillakis and Kika Rollis. In addition, there is a beautiful homemade silk carpet. In short, the small museum contains a number of the items which Cavafy used and loved. “After all, the Greek poet was born right here in Alexandria in 1863,” I thought.
Cavafy was of Constantinopolitan descent, spent the greater part of his childhood in England, and spoke English fluently. For most of his life, he was employed as a civil servant in the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works. He died in Alexandria in 1933.
I spent considerable time with the museum guide looking at these objects and trying to imagine how Cavafy, a poet very dear to me, lived so many years of his life and wrote his poetry.