Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The soul of a city

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian walks through the streets of Alexandria, tracing past and present human stories and the tales of the buildings of a once more cosmopolitan city

Alexandria Opera House publicly known as Sayed Darwish Theatre (Theatre Mohamed Ali)

Arriving in Alexandria on a rainy winter morning reminds one that the city of Alexander the Great can be flooded anytime, but things get back to normal once the sun rises and the streets dry after the rain. Then you can enjoy the Mediterranean breeze mixed with the smell of the sea on the city’s famous Corniche. 

Although I was not born in the city, and never spent long weeks in summer there, I feel a kind of nostalgia for Alexandria when looking at the buildings and their architecture, and the old shops, bars, restaurants and cinemas. Meeting Alexandrians, you will hear hundreds of stories about the city called the “Bride of the Mediterranean”. 

“Alexandria was the greatest mental crucible the world has ever known,” claim authors Justin Pollard and Howard Reid in their The Rise and Fall of Alexandria. “In these city halls the true foundations of the modern world were laid — not in stone, but in ideas.”

Dinocrates, the ancient architect who was born and lived in Rhodes, was Alexander the Great’s technical adviser on the city. He planned Alexandria like a chessboard, with two main streets, Fouad and Al-Nabi Daniel, interlacing vertically and horizontally and extending from east to west and north to south. 

Newspaper vendor Haj Hamido

FOUAD STREET: Taking a walk on Fouad Street from the famous flower clock, the first Alexandrian face I met was that of Haj Hamido, a newspaper vendor who has worked on the street for many years. 

“We have never changed the location where we started on Fouad Street. My late father started here 80 years ago, and I am following in his footsteps,” Haj Hamido said, adding that the number of people buying newspapers had declined since the Internet was introduced in Egypt. 

“In the past, I used to get 30 to 40 copies of a Greek newspaper called Tachydromos. They all sold out at the end of the day as the Greek community was strongly present in the city,” he said. Tachydromos was founded in Alexandria in 1882. Its last copy appeared in May 1984.

Haj Hamido gets annoyed noticing a man standing and staring at the newspapers, trying to catch a read. “I never had such clients in the past. Everything has changed now,” he says. 

Hamido worked in the merchant navy when his father first started selling newspapers in Alexandria. “I worked for two Saudi ships, the Saudi Moon that used to travel between Jeddah and Suez, and the Scheherazade that used to sail between Jeddah and Alexandria.”

“I have clients who left the country years ago, but still come to see me when they’re visiting,” he added. Hamido is a fount of interesting stories about almost every single building or villa in the area and the people who once lived in them.

Most of the buildings on Fouad Street are in the Greek style mixed with Italian Florentine architecture. Some of them are well-kept, while others are suffering from the effects of age and the weather.

Fouad Street is considered the literary centre of Alexandria, and it near to where the Greek poet Cavafy once lived. It was Cavafy who used to say that “Mohamed Ali Square is my aunt, Rue Cherif Pasha is my first cousin, and the Rue Ramleh is my second. How can I leave them?” And it was also Cavafy who celebrated the diversity of Alexandria when he wrote that “we are a mixture here — Syrians, immigrant Greeks and Armenians.”

Fouad Street also figures in the acclaimed novels by British novelist Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet, and Durrell himself once worked nearby. 

Au Pavillon de Florelle is the oldest flower shop on Fouad Street. Founded 102 years ago, it was owned by Abdou Morsi of Greek origin and Hamido as the Egyptian partner. Also on the street is the Museum of Alexandria. Designed by architect Victor Erlanger, the villa, built in 1931, was owned by a wood merchant, Assaad Bassili Pacha. In 1954 the building was sold to the American Embassy, and then the Supreme Council of Antiquities purchased it in 1996.

One of the most interesting, yet not so noticeable, buildings in the street, characterised by its beautiful Islamic architecture, is the mausoleum of the Sufi Sheikh Sidi Yacoub bin Abdel-Rahman bin Mohamed, narrator of Abi Hurayra’s hadith (sayings) of the Prophet Mohamed. 

Sidi Yacoub died in 181 Hijri (797 CE), and the mausoleum was renovated in 2004. He was born in Isfahan, Iran, where he received his knowledge of hadith. He moved to Alexandria when he was 36 years old, where he also married. Sidi Yacoub worked as a teacher in the school the then governor established especially for him. He died at the age of 100 and was first buried in the mausoleum on Fouad Street, before being moved to the Al-Kadi Sanad bin Anan Mosque in the Labban district. 

On the same street there stands the Opera House, built in 1918 and called the Sayed Darwish Theatre since 1962. Since its renovation in 2004, a statue of Nubar Pasha Nubarian, the first prime minister of Egypt of Armenian origin, has stood outside. 

The first performance at the Opera House was a rendition of Scheherazade. It was first known as the Teatro Mohamed Ali, and the ownership of the house was transferred to different people and companies until it was taken over by the state.  

Khan Al-Khalili shop owners Tsamados and Zahos

KHAN AL-KHALILI: This old and spacious shop selling Egyptian souvenirs is owned by Stamatis Tsamados and his wife Marina Zahos, of Greek origin. It was originally owned by Zahos’s grandfather, Edward Anawati of Syrian origin, who founded the shop in 1935. 

“We are the third generation of owners. I was born in Alexandria, and my husband was born in Suez.” Tears fill Zahos’ eyes talking about the city. “We love Alexandria, the old city, and we can’t leave it. But everything has changed: the people and their attitudes and the younger generations as well as the types of customer,” she said.

“The neighbourhood has changed drastically,” said her husband Tsamados. “People have become very rude, and it’s getting worse.” Zahos said that despite the changes, they still have customers from the past who keep up a good relationship with the couple. “We have a good reputation, and even those who left the country in the 1950s and 1960s still come back to shop here when they visit Alexandria,” she said. 

The once cosmopolitan Alexandria still exists, “thanks to the foreign communities who left their imprint here because they loved Egypt. Alexandria has a rich culture and heritage and beautiful architecture — things that we are failing to preserve,” Tsamados said, recalling that there is a building on Fouad Street which won the Best Architecture in the Mediterranean Prize in 1922. Earlier, I had taken a photograph of the building while out walking, and I showed it to Tsamados to make sure we were talking about the same one. 

Before reaching Khan Al-Khalili, and in front of Haj Hamido’s sales point, there’s the Science and Technology Exploration Centre that Hamido said was once owned by “the khawaga Banaki.” Tsamados remembers the story of this unique villa. “It was owned and inhabited by a wealthy Greek cotton merchant, Emmanouil Benakis, who had six children, among them the children’s book writer Penelope Delta, born in Alexandria in 1874,” he said. 

The Benakis family settled in Alexandria in 1865, but in 1882 temporarily moved to Athens, after which Penelope Benakis married businessman Stephanos Delta. Penelope Delta and her family returned to Alexandria in 1905 and stayed in the villa they owned. “Penelope fell in love with the vice-consul of Greece in Alexandria, Ion Dragoumi, who was assassinated in Athens in 1920, as he started to write his personal views about the Macedonian struggle,” Tsamados said. 

She committed suicide in 1941 “by taking poison, the day the German troops entered Athens in World War II.”

The Greek owners of the shop were married in 1984. They met each other at the shop when Tsamados was visiting Marina’s father. They have two sons, 32 and 28 years old, born, both raised and educated in Alexandria but later moving to Greece. 

Violette flower shop owner Khamis

VIOLETTE: Another flower shop on Fouad Street is Violette. Today’s owner, Khamis Saleh Khamis, is the third generation of a business that started in 1885 when his grandfather Khamis Ali began planting flowers, fruits and vegetables on land occupied by the Alexandria Stadium today. 

His son, Saleh Khamis took over in the 1940s and opened the present shop in 1957 where Khamis, his son, is managing today. 

“Alexandria belongs to the Takla brothers, Behna Film, the Greeks, the Italians, the Jews and the Armenians. Former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser came in and ruined everything that was beautiful,” Khamis claimed. “The foreign communities who lived between the 1950s and 1970s in Alexandria were the main reason that made me embark on the flower business, following in my grandfather’s and father’s path. But today the very idea of buying flowers is declining.”

Customers during the first years of the shop’s opening were members of the foreign communities Khamis mentioned, along with many Egyptian Copts. “Most Arabs and Egyptians used to present their loved ones with fruit or money on special occasions,” Khamis said. “But surprisingly, and after Nasser’s nationalisations in 1962 when the public-sector companies were founded, employees and even Nasser himself became interested in buying flowers, probably because they had learned to do so from the foreign communities,” Khamis said sarcastically. 

“The Alexandrians wanted the monarchy to continue, though they also liked Mohamed Naguib, the first president of Egypt.” 

In 1986, the shop was among the top 10 that won an international Interflora window-decorating competition in Zurich. In 1998, it won honorary mention in the Interflora Valentine’s Day window competition. 

“Although the street has had several names — Canopian, Abu Kir, Rashid, Fouad, Horreya, Gamal Abdel-Nasser — over the past 20 years people have gone back to calling it their favourite name, Fouad, which they prefer to use to honour it, I guess,” Khamis said. He expressed sadness over the demolition of some of the beautiful buildings and villas in the area. “Today we are seeing the construction of ugly matchbox-like buildings, marking the end of architecture,” he said.

The street’s Al-Horreya Arts and Creativity Centre, established in 1962 and renovated in 2001, is administered by the Ministry of Culture today. It was previously known as the Club Mohamed Ali, founded in 1888. “Pashas in the past used to go the club to drink on the terrace. Each of them had his own chair, his name written on it, and each of them would pass by on their way back from the Bourse [the stock market], 200m from the club,” Khamis said.

“If they had done well on the Bourse that day they would go to the Patisserie Baudrot to get something sweet to take home.”

The site of the old Baudrot, now occupied by the Misr Insurance Company, is on the corner of Fouad and Sherif streets. Gone is the tearoom and restaurant frequented in the past by famous clients such as Cavafy and Durrell. The new Baudrot is located on Saad Zaghloul Street in the premises of the former Trianon. 

Baudrot was originally Maison Groppi, a pastry, dairy and chocolatier shop owned by the Swiss businessman Giacomo Groppi, who sold it to the Frenchman Auguste Baudrot in 1906 and moved to Cairo. It is said that Groppi was the first person to introduce crème Chantilly to Alexandria, and the first chocolatier in Egypt to employ female staff.

On Fouad Street and the surrounding area there are four cinemas, the Rio, Amir, Royal and Plaza, the latter two founded and owned by the Lebanese Al-Qirdahi family. “All the cinemas used to take reservations in advance, especially the Royal which was always crowded at weekends as it used to screen foreign films,” Khamis said. In the past, the Fouad Street pedestrians were of certain class and wore certain clothes. “There were no poor people in this street,” he said.

The Alexandrians of the period used to open their shops and offices at 8am sharp, and by 1:30pm they closed them for a siesta and lunch and then came back at 4pm. Shops in winter used to close at 6pm, while in summer it was at 7pm, according to Khamis.

Many people may not know that Al-Ahram also took its first steps in Alexandria, coming out as a weekly publication in 1876 in Borsa Street. It was founded by the Lebanese Bishara and Selim Takla brothers a year before the appearance of its first issue. In 1882, the building was bombarded during the British occupation. The present Al-Ahram library and offices on the Fouad and Al-Nabi Daniel intersection in Alexandria were once owned by the French Aghion family and designed by the Italian architect Antonio Lasciac.

Noubar Ghazarian the Armenian manager of Chaussures Edouar, a shoe shop

CHAUSSURES EDOUAR: Located on 17 Fouad Street, Noubar Ghazarian is the Armenian manager of Chaussures Edouar, a shoe shop. 

“My father Edouar bought the shop from another Armenian, Artinian, in 1936. When my father passed away in 1976, I was working at the Moharram Printing Press, but then I had to leave and look after the shop. I was 37 years old,” Ghazarian said.

He had a brother, a graduate of the Faculty of Engineering, who immigrated to Canada in 1962 and passed away 15 years ago. “My brother was a capable person and a very clever one,” Ghazarian remembers, adding that his sister is now in Canada too.

In the past, Chaussures Edouar’s handbags and shoes were all made of genuine leather. “Today, I also have products made of synthetic leather. Customers prefer genuine leather of course, but they then choose the synthetic as it is cheaper,” he said. Product designs were all done by his father Edouar in the past. “Today, I don’t have the patience to do so,” Ghazarian said.

“I pay LE500 a month in rent. In the past my father used to pay LE37,” said Ghazarian, stating that the shop was originally owned by a Jew who sold it to a Greek, and then it was finally sold to an Egyptian. “Where there are no Jews, there is no life,” said Ghazarian with confidence. 

“I went to the Boghossian Armenian School and left at grade seven, after which I continued my education at the Scottish St Andrews Boys School in Ramleh where I had seven colleagues of Jewish origin. They all used to support each other,” something that neither the Armenians, the Italians, nor the Greeks do, he added. “I learned French during my work in the shop, as my father told me he would prefer that I educate myself,” said Ghazarian, whose parents were also born in Alexandria. 

Now 74, he played a secondary role in the recent film Hawi made by director Ibrahim Al-Battout with a cast and crew that were all Alexandrians. “I got LE5,700 for my acting,” he remembers. Ghazarian is now among the few who close their shops in the afternoon for a siesta. “I close the shop from 2:30 to 6pm and reopen it till 9pm. Today, Fouad Street is much more crowded with cars, something which annoys me more than the crowds of human beings and their attitudes,” he said.

Sidi Yacoub’s Mausoleum

AL-NABI DANIEL STREET: One of the most important streets in Alexandria that is equally worth exploration is Al-Nabi Daniel Street. Well known as one of the cultural centres of Alexandria, the street is bustling with book vendors in kiosks selling secondhand books in different languages.

The Institut Français and the Franciscan Sisters’ School are also located in the Street. It could remind visitors of Cairo’s Azbakeya Book Market, and the Street is a commercial one, as well as one of the spiritual centres of the city. You can pay a visit to the Al-Nabi Daniel Mosque, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue and the Coptic St Mark’s Church. Al-Nabi Daniel Street connects Al-Raml Square to Alexandria’s main Railway Station, the Mahattet Masr.

Hussein Mohamed Hussein is the oldest book vendor in the Street. “I have been here since 1956. In the past, I used to sell only foreign-language books, as the city was inhabited by many nationalities, but now I also have Arabic books. I have history, medical, law, geography and all types of books. Egyptians are getting more interested in reading than they were before. The population is on the rise, and we are selling more and more,” he said.

Hussein said that now even children come to buy books. When I told him that most children now were more interested in electronics, he said “that might be true, but I still receive a good number of parents who come to buy books that interest their children. Having a book between your hands means a lot. I have spent my life with books.”

Hussein was illiterate until he was 20 years old. “Al-Nahhas Pasha [a former politician] organised kuttab [elementary school] lessons for illiterates. I joined the lessons for five years and now I can read and write,” he said.

Hussein’s son and grandson share the business with him. His grandson is a graduate from the Faculty of Arts. “I enjoy my work with books. I have read Naguib Mahfouz’s novels, and I am interested in English and French too,” said Hussein, the grandson, adding that he feels obliged to read all kinds of books to understand his clients’ needs. 

“We take part in the Cairo and Alexandria Book Fairs,” said Ahmed Hussein, the son, a graduate from the Faculty of Commerce. A used MacMillan’s Dictionary is sold for LE75 at Hussein’s. US author Dan Brown’s books in different languages cost LE150. “We don’t promote ourselves on social media, as we have our own customers,” said Ahmed, who added that they owned a storage area in the Werdian district.

The palace of the Institut Français, constructed by the Italian architect Antonio Lasciac, was established between the years 1872 and 1875 and was originally owned by David and Jacques Aghion. After the French consulate was bombarded in 1882, the Aghion Palace was used as the consulate and named “Maison France”.  

Falsely claimed as the burial place of Alexander the Great, the Al-Nabi Daniel Mosque, founded at the end of the 18th century, was restored in 1823 by Mohamed Ali. The site was previously occupied by a mosque called Zoul Karnein, or “the sire with the two horns”. It is said that the site contains the remains of the famous teacher Sheikh Mohamed Ibn Daniel Al-Moussali, who is thought to have come to Egypt from Mosul in Iraq, and Sidi Lukman Al-Hakim, a man of religion. The khedive Mohamed Said Pasha and his son Tosson are buried there.

The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, built in 1354, is one of the oldest and largest in the Middle East. The synagogue was shelled in 1798 during the French invasion of Egypt and was rebuilt by the Mohamed Ali Dynasty in 1850.

In 2017, the Ministry of Antiquities allocated LE100 million for the restoration of the synagogue as part of its efforts to preserve Jewish heritage in the country. Magda Haroun, former head of the Jewish community in Egypt, has also fought many battles to preserve her community’s heritage. 

The Israeli ambassador to Egypt, David Govrin, visited the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue last year and offered to renovate it in cooperation with the Egyptian authorities. The Ministry of Antiquities rejected Govrin’s offer and announced a comprehensive plan to renovate the synagogue as part of Egypt’s cultural heritage without discrimination based on religion instead. Currently there are ten listed synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria.

Just in front of the synagogue is one of the largest churches in Africa and the Middle East, the Coptic Patriarchal Church of St Mark. St Mark the Apostle, author of the Gospel of Mark and founder of the church, introduced Christianity to the city. His first convert was a shoe-maker, Ananias, whose house was on the site where the Church stands today and who agreed to convert it into a church between the years 60 and 68 CE.

Demolished and rebuilt several times, the church was rebuilt in a Byzantine style in 1870. Parts of the church were demolished and rebuilt in 1950. Coptic Pope Usab II led the first mass in 1952 after its re-inauguration. In 1985, Pope Shenouda III approved expansion plans and inaugurated the new building in 1990.

The church contains the mortal remains of previous patriarchs and also the head of St Mark. Pope Kyrollos V was one of the longest serving Coptic popes to use the papal chair in the church, serving as head of the Coptic Church for 53 years. The church’s main entrance is on Kenisset Al-Akbat Street in the Al-Masalla district. 

In April 2017, on Palm Sunday, a deadly explosion at the church took the lives of 17 worshippers while 40 others were injured. 

The Alexandria of the past is no more, as the late Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine, born in Alexandria in 1926, once said of the city he celebrated in his films. For Chahine, it was the Alexandria of the present and future that should be celebrated, however, even though the Alexandria of the present will always carry a strong flavour of the city of the past. Its Greek cafés, restaurants and Greek community will always stand as testimony of that.

The Alexandria of today is a unique mixture of its past and present. The only way to enjoy this fusion is by wandering its streets on foot.

Eliyahu Havana Synagogue


St Mark Coptic Church back entrance


Patisserie Baudrot in the past


Baudrot building, currently Misr Insurance Company


Benaki palace, currently Science and Technology Exploration Centre


Prize winner building


Zizinia Theatre, currently the Opera House


Al-Ahram library and offices


Club Mohamed Ali, currently Al-Horreya Arts and Creativity Centre


Cinema Rio

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