SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Tryst with glory

Majestic sweep: The Corniche from the sea.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Sadhana Rao



A city with a rich history and deeply connected to the present.

ALEXANDRIA was one of the most celebrated cities on the Mediterranean coast. Decorously wrapped in Greco Roman, Pharaohnic, Islamic and Egyptian features, Alexandria as a city had alluring vistas which the world thronged to see. For decades, this Mediterranean port had an almost interminable tryst with glory and grandeur. Her legends and myths found deep echoes all over the world. The strange magic of Alexandria was attributed to the craft of a divine Thaumaturgist.Fire, earthquakes, wars wiped away layers of the city. Despite piles of rubble and remnant scars, Alexandria stands like an old aristocrat adorned in frayed, faded yet fine quality tweeds. She doesn't seem defeated by the past and has the energy typical of Egyptian cities. The finest thoroughfares may have given way; the sidewalks still have stories aching to be told. Alexandria today beseeches the viewer for vision and not just sight.

Corniche

A 10-mile boulevard (called the Corniche) sinuously curves around the Eastern harbour. This sweeping promenade deservedly bestows on Alexandria the epithet of being a "grand water front" city. The traditional, leisurely way to transverse the miles of the Corniche is aboard a "caleche", a quaint, horse-drawn carriage. The rhythm and pace of the carriage allows you to take in the sweep of the view that each looping curve offers. It is undoubtedly the Corniche that has kept quite literally at bay, the creeping homogeneity, the daunting monoculture that affects most cities in the world (under the label of progress).For Alexandrians, living amid the miasma of smog and overcrowding, a congregation on the Corniche is a mandatory retreat. The Corniche is like the city's lungs that keeps the irritant wheeze away. Undoubtedly, when Alexandria was conceived (the original blueprint was etched with auspicious grains), the Corniche was the sine qua non for the city.The most famous and probably the most photographed view of the Corniche (and the sea beyond the ramparts) is from Cecil Hotel a legendary Alexandrian institution that housed guests like Somerset Maugham and Winston Churchill. From Cecil Hotel, along the Corniche the path to Fort Qaitbey (the site of the ancient Light House), one gets to see lines and outlines of rare snapshots. Tearooms of the yore, popular grill and snack joints, minarets of mosques, churches (Alexandria has diverse kinds catering to every sect) and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The imagery drives home the point that the city had a diaspora that was truly varied and pretty much its own.Alexandria has lost much of its ancient stronghold. In a sense, Alexandria lacks of the aura of Rome and the vibrant spread of monuments. While viewing Alexandria, it's a good thought to borrow E.M. Forster's idea. "Sights of Alex", he wrote, "in themselves are not interesting but they fascinate when we approach them through their past". There are large tracts of Alexandria which appear imperceptible to the outsider. With serious archaeological excavations going on, most local Alexandrians (and guides of course) are very willing to give winsome explanations about their area. A cluster of columns was explained to us by a gentleman as if he were interpreting a classic. A good old Alexandrian raconteur with Shakespearean tendencies to dramatise claimed our attention at Midan Ramala (a spot we would have passed by, without attaching undue significance). Building an atmosphere of solemnity, he explained how we were standing on the spot which stands on the site of the Caesareum (a large sanctuary and temple) built by Cleopatra for Julius Caesar. Currently, only the Trianon stands in isolation as a reminder of the past. The obelisks that marked the entrance of the temple actually survived the earthquake but have been spirited away (one stands by the river in London, the other at Central Park in New York). Alexandria's treasures are scattered all over the city and co-exist with their ordinary surroundings. As one moves away from the grid pattern of the main road, a zillion alleys sprout up, with bewildering patterns of their own. It is in these streets, replete with historical symbolism, that a major proportion of Alexandrians live. They appear very connected to their Egyptian identity. The roots of their society run deep in the urban yet traditional society.The tangible indicators of the past one gets to see are in the paths where tourists are dutifully shepherded. Towards the Catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa (with its three tiers of tombs and chambers cut out of rock), to Pompey's Pillar (which was mistakenly named after the Roman general and the error remained unchecked), to the museum, to the Roman Theatre remains. At the site of the ancient Light House (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) the Fort Qaitbey has been built partially with remains and debris from the old lighthouse. In the outer walls, one can see a difference in the building material used. The aged material, different in colour and texture, gives a distinct look.

Literary walk

For the incurable wanderlust, Alexandria is heavily signposted with literary milestones. Writers like E.M. Forster, Lawrence Durell, Constantine Cavafy lived here and sought coherence to their works. They were greatly influenced with the temperament and circumstances of their time in Alexandria. In fact, in Lawrence Durell's first book of the Alexandria Quartet, Justine, Alexandria is depicted as a character in the book rather than a place or a setting.In the literary walk, organised by university students, we adopted E.M. Forster's approach. Lawrence Durell's house in Moharrem Bey (waiting to be razed to the ground by a developer), E.M. Forster's "Room with a View"' at Montazah (while he worked for the Red Cross) give insights into the source of the intense imagistic language that these writers deployed. Alexandria's finest writer-poet Constantine Cavafy's house was near a synagogue. Wedged between a hospital, a brothel and a Greek Church, he often joked that powerful raw material for his imagination was at his very doorstep. The walk tapers off at Café Pastroudi, a cultural metaphor immortalised in literature as a place where time has no significance. The coffee was good, the café thickly populated with a voluble crowd discussing philosophy and politics. The café could do with some tender loving care given its significance to the literary landscape.PostscriptAfter spending a whole day at Bibliotheca Alexandria, the new library at the site of the ancient one, I realised, to absorb its recrudescence, I would need more than a week to meditate amidst the floors of books, the exhibition forum and the Internet archives.SADHANA RAO