LIUNGERING GHOSTS THAT HAUNT CLEOPATRA'S CITY; TRAVEL MAIL,A CITY AS ELUSIVE AS THE SMOKE WAFTING OUT OF ITS HUBBLE-BUBBLE CAFES,In a Cinema Medusa Lies Glowering

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), April 14, 1996 | Go to article overview

LIUNGERING GHOSTS THAT HAUNT CLEOPATRA'S CITY; TRAVEL MAIL,A CITY AS ELUSIVE AS THE SMOKE WAFTING OUT OF ITS HUBBLE-BUBBLE CAFES,In a Cinema Medusa Lies Glowering


THE glories of Alexandria are past and gone, but that has been the case for nearly two millennia.

I doubt I'm the first visitor to feel a touch of disappointment on arriving, but it is now a major metropolis: Egypt's second city.

Coming in on the bus from Cairo - three hours up the Desert Highway, brain numbed by Egyptian soaps on the video - you see it sprawled like a long grubby mirage along a strip of land between the Mediterranean and the polluted marshes of Lake Mariout.

The population is officially four million, but is almost certainly nearer five. It is not as crowded and traffic-ridden as Cairo, and the sea is always just a few blocks away. But if you are looking for tranquil reveries of ancient history you will look in vain in downtown Alexandria.

Though the glories are gone, much of the city's charm still remains. It is a curious, slightly seedy charm, not easy to discern at first, and not easy to define even after you know the city has charmed you. You have to linger a little in Alexandria. The British novelist Lawrence Durrell, who lingered here for years, speaks of `glimpsing the phantom city' which lies somewhere behind the ramshackle modern facade.

I had a reservation at the Metropole Hotel. I was looking for `character', and the Metropole, I was assured, had bags of it. A dowdy neo-Classical building with thin balconies and tall shutters, it once housed the semi-legendary Office of the Third Circle of Irrigation, where the eccentric Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy earned his living for more than 30 years.

Among his acquaintances was another literary visitor, E.M. Forster, who wrote: `You turn and see a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe: it is Mr Cavafy.'

He is on his way to the office, however, and `vanishes with a slight gesture of despair'.

In 1934 the building was converted into a hotel, Greek-owned, with lavish Art Deco salons on the first floor. It sounded the classic Alexandrian spot: lashings of faded grandeur and a literary ghost or two.

No more, however: disappointed again. As I checked in I could hear ominous sounds of drilling. The Metropole has changed hands, refurbishment is under way, and soon, the elderly lift man tells me, it will be tout nouveau. Much the same has already happened to the city's most famous hotel, the Cecil, now owned by the Sofitel chain.

We ascended slowly in the lift, a wood-panelled kiosk about the size of a wardrobe. I had a seaview room on the fourth floor. Refurbishment had not reached there, yet. The room was huge and sombre, and resonated to the noise of the tram terminus and coach station of Saad-Zaghlul Square below, but as I threw back the shutters and took in the view - the westward curve of the bay along the Corniche, the ageing Italian-built apartment- houses, the clouds massing behind the minarets of the Abdulkadir el Shorbagy mosque - my heart lifted.

The city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. His body lies somewhere beneath the city, probably around the busy junction of Al Horreya and Nabi Daniel Streets. No one is sure.

In classical times it was famed for its lighthouse, the Pharos (one of the Seven Wonders of the World); for its immense library containing some 500,000 manuscripts; and for its seductive Queen Cleopatra the Fifth.

In the square below the Metropole stood the Caesareum, an enormous temple begun by Cleopatra in about 40 BC. This crumbled away long ago, but one of the granite obelisks which adorned it remained here until 1887, when it was taken to London. It is now Cleopatra's Needle on the Thames Embankment.

But this is only the bottom layer of Alexandrian history. The city's position on the Mediterranean has made it a crossroads of Greek, Turkish, Arab and European influences, and has brought it the chequered history and louche, cosmopolitan air which Lawrence Durrell captures so richly in the Alexandria Quartet. …

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