Alexander’s City

518 words 2 minute read.

Alexandria, the chief port of Egypt; and in fame and years, at any rate, one of the outstanding cities of the world. It is more than 2,000 years since Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great. But it is no tourist centre. For so illustrious a past it has little to show. Temples, palaces, the great Library, the great Museum – everything which it a chief centre of Greek learning in the ancient world has gone, or has dwindled to mere confused foundations or dim ramparts under the Mediterranean. The sight-seer finds himself gloomily inspecting decadent Greco-Roman art in a catacomb, or, what is worse, inspecting it in the modern, overcrowded museum. Or he wanders among the stone angels, cherubs and artificial flowers of the many walled burial-grounds, and he smells dead seaweed among the tombs, which is worse still. Somewhere near here, he thinks, Cleopatra had a palace. Over there Alexander lies in a coffin of crystal. But where, exactly? And how many metres down? And which mosque or which modern department store sits firmly on top of the bones of Euclid, who was one of Alexandria’s greatest citizens? In summer, it is true, the wind does what the wind of antiquity always did: it turns around in the afternoon and blows more coolly off the sea. The Eastern Harbour of the Ptolemies is still there, but it is used by fishing-boats. Pharos is still there, but it is no longer an island; and if there are remains of the incredible lighthouse of antiquity, or if stones from it are built into the modern fort, sentries stand to keep the visitor out – and to keep him guessing.

Alexandria had dwindled steadily through the Middle Ages and later centuries. It owes its resurrection to the great Mohammed Ali (1769-1849), who became pasha of Egypt at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and founded the modern state. He made the canal which links Alexandra to the Nile; and the population has climbed again and climbed until it is not so far short of a million. Most striking of all is the continued Greekness of this old Greek city. The Cairo government talks of Alexandra as the second capital of Egypt, but the spirit of the place is not Arab-Egyptian at all: It is Greek – and even Jewish. Arabic was a late-comer: Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew were spoken for centuries in the straight Alexandrian streets between the Mediterranean and the Mareotic Lake; and the Greeks and Jews remain, merchant and entrepreneurs of every kind. On the many beaches Jews and Jewesses emerge from their bathing-cabins and swim vigorously about in the tideless sea. Greek girls, on the whole, are more conventional: they tend to stay at home reading Victor Hugo under the eyes of their parents.

It is a curious city to stroll in after dark. Families sit out on the balconies and talk. The passer-by looks up, but he can see nothing. The different languages – Levantine French, Greek, Italian, Arabic – float down. The warm night brings out the scent of jasmine; and constellations wheel and shine above the cornice.

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P.H. Newby: later years

P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.

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