|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
It is amazing what the revival of the Library of Alexandria is doing to the city. Alexandria is becoming the Bride of the Mediterranean again. Apart from the work of an active governor, which has completely changed the physical features of the city, Alexandria seems to be throbbing with activities, reassuming its mantle as the second capital of Egypt.
There have been countless books on Alexandria. In his handbook of Egypt Jasper More remarks that "the astonishing characteristic of Alexandria is that until modern times it had led a life apart."
E M Forster's Alexandria: a History and a Guide presents the city as a centre of learning and of a civilisation towards which Forster felt great warmth. He had a kind and sympathetic attitude towards the city and warm memories inform not only his book but also his letters from Alexandria to friends in England. "Few cities", he writes, "made so magnificent an entry into history as Alexandria."
On the other hand Lawrence Durrell looked upon the city as an extension of Greece. In his usual poetic style, he wrote in an introduction to the 1982 edition of Forster's book: "It [Alexandria] opens upon a dreaming sea and its Homeric waves are rolled and unrolled by the fresh breezes from Rhodes and the Aegean. Going ashore in Alexandria is like walking the plank for instantly you feel, not only the plangently Greek city rising before you, but its backcloth of deserts stretching away into the heart of Africa."
D J Enright, another writer who lived in Alexandria from 1947 to 1950, taught English literature at Farouk I (now Alexandria) University. Although the main characters in his novel Academic Year are British, he still reflects a tender feeling towards the city. When one of the characters comes back from England after spending his annual holiday there he is the first to run down the gangway of the ship when it berths at the Alexandria docks. Enright writes: "Should he go straight to his flat? No, first of all let him say hello, with a new and unexpected appreciation, to Alexandria ... And then, in this state of mild intoxication, he strolled towards the sea. Home? he asked himself. Well, it would do nicely for the time being."
In a series of articles, titled "Literary Alexandria," John Rodenbeck again traces the history of the city, with emphasis on its literary life. He writes about Cavafy the Alexandria Greek poet and his lovely poem "The City":
The city follows you. You will roam the same street. And you will age in the same neighbourhoods, and you will grow grey in the same houses. Always you will arrive in the city. Do not hope for any other.
There is no ship for you, there is no road."
What has invoked these Alexandrian memories is a book that has just come out with the title Alexandria Splendour and Generosity by Abdel-Fattah Ghoneima and Hussein El-Sheikh, both professors at Alexandria University, and Brigadier Hazem Abu Shleib, the head of the Department for the Promotion of Tourism in Alexandria. It is, to my knowledge, the first comprehensive book on Alexandria by Egyptians in Arabic.
The book starts with an overview of Alexandria before Alexander then deals with the conquests of that great leader, followed by the Ptolemaic era, the Roman phase, and the Muslim era from the arrival of the Arab armies in the seventh century until the Ottoman conquest. Then follows the modern and contemporary times from the French Expedition until the present.
The book has two useful sections, one on landmarks and institutions in the city and another on leading Alexandrian personalities who excelled in different fields of knowledge. It is a badly needed reference work and one that is perfect to usher in the official opening of the Alexandria Library.
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