Chasing Memory in Alexandria

Alexandria was a nostalgia trip. My parents lived here for three years in the early 1980's and although I was at school in England, I went "home" to Egypt for four months of every year. I hadn't intended to go to Alex on our trip but my brother couldn't believe I would go to Egypt without revisiting our old haunts.
The city has changed considerably, though you can still see its charms.  In the early 1980's Alexandria was a decaying grande dame but we loved her. She moved slowly and  may have seen her best days but she was still elegant and cosmopolitan. The sense of a port city looking outward remains and you can still see the European influences in both the architecture and the Greek coffee houses. The people are friendly and charming and the men still sit out on the streets playing dominos.  But there's a glitzy facelift to the corniche where a monstrous Four Seasons seems entirely out of place, as if our Grande Dame applied her make up with a heavy hand in the dark. The noise and traffic on the corniche is horrendous and so too was the smog. Now a city of more than four million, Alexandria (like Cairo) has grown enormously in the last three decades.
The growth has brought new buildings and revived older stalwarts including the Cecil Hotel  (above) where we stayed. Thankfully it has be refurbished since 1980's when when it was famous for its decrepitude in both the structure and the staff. We used to go to the Cecil for tea for tea and my grandfather told stories about retreating to the Cecil for a bath during the war! The interior remains elegant and I was thrilled to see the old wrought iron lift remains.
I highly recommend staying at this wonderful historic hotel, it's recently come under new management and we were impressed by the staff, the general manager and the breakfast! Make sure you ask for a quiet room on a higher floor, you'll miss the view but it's worth it to avoid the traffic noise.
I have very poor memory and sometimes my childhood years in Alex seems so long ago, and so very far away, that I wonder if it really happened. Hartley was right to say, "the past is another country". I wasn't just chasing memory I was reconfirming reality and it felt so good to revisit the city and reconfirm a sense of self. I was a woman on a mission and I wanted to see our old house. Neither my mother or brother could remember the address but we knew it was behind the prestigious Victoria College and my brother located what he though was the house on Google Map's satellite view. The  delightful Tariq (our guide from Djed Egypt Travel) was skeptical, "Angela, the city has change a lot in more than thirty years," he admonished, " I don't think your house will still be there." D. looked equally dubious, afraid perhaps of my disappointment, but I was undeterred.
As I turned the corner I caught sight of the street sign, "Rue Chiitty Bey" and I remembered it all. I laughed out loud to think we all had all forgotten such a memorable name! The street looked the same. The  villa was still there though the surrounding apartment buildings were much higher than I remembered. The house remains an oasis of calm in the middle of a regular neighborhood of apartment dwellers. The surrounding wall had been built up and some additions made, but it was instantly recognizable. Unfortunately there were now  four armed guards and despite Tariq's pleas nobody wanted to bother the owners to ask if we could look at the property from the garden. Apparently the people who live there now are very much more important than me! 
Here's the view of the house from the road outside. On seeing the villa Tariq asked with open astonishment, "You used to live here?!!" Apparently I used to be more important too, but as Hartley says the past is another country.
I was delighted, exhilarated and exonerated. We walked down to the small shop on the corner which had been a government subsidized bakery in the 1980's and Tariq bought us fresh bread to celebrate.
Having seen the house we were ready to sightsee. We made a visit to the recently reopened Royal Jewelry Museum located nearby, see below. I can't recommend this place highly enough. I adore house museums and this is an exquisite example. D. isn't particularly interested in jewelry but he loved the architecture and interior decoration. The museum holds what remains of the unparalleled royal jewelry collection, though many of the jewels followed the royal family into exile, while others were lost, auctioned or looted in subsequent years.
The house has a fascinating history and a wonderful collection. The tile work, woodwork and stained glass was extraordinary. They don't allow any photograph inside which is a great pity but the lavish  upstairs bathroom is worth the price of admission. Built between 1919 and 1923 in a neoclassical style, the palace was built for Princess Zainab Hahem Fahmi but was finished and lived in by her daughter  Al-Nabila Fatima. It's well worth dropping by if you find yourself in Alexandria and it provides a glimpse into the lavish private life of the Muhammed Ali family. Like so many palace visits, it makes you understand why there was a revolution!
From here we drove back along the corniche to visit the stunning, modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina or Library of Alexandria. Finished in 2002, the library houses a range of public facilities including museums and conference space. It's  a gorgeous building engraved with a variety of scripts on the exterior and is large open and light inside. Encouragingly it's a building well used by local students. 
We enjoyed the downstairs antiquities museum which has a very nice Ptolemaic collection and is well worth visiting. It's a great place to see the intersection between the Pharaonic tradition and Greco-Roman design. I also like the shop, which like many museum shop had good quality goods at a fair price. I love the  alabaster pieces I bought here. Alexandria is a fascinating city  and well worth including on your Egypt itinerary - even if you don't have an old home to visit!


Diwakar said…
Hello Well travelled Brit. So good to know you thorugh your profile on the blogger. I am also glad stop by your blog post and see those beautiful pictures of Alexandria. I am so impressed by seeing the list of countries you have lso far visited. You really have covered so many cuntries in your young life and the one of the country you have visited so far is my country which is India. I am in the Pastoral ministry for last 35yrs in the great city of Mumbai a city with great contrast where richest of rich and the pooreset of poor live. We also encourage young people as well as adults from the West to come to Mumbai on a short/ long term missions tirp to work with us in the slums of Mumbai during their vacation time. We would love to have you come to Mumbai with your friends to work with us in the slums of Mumbai during your vacation time. I am sure this will be a life chanaging experience. My email id is: dhwankhede(at)gmail(dot)com and my name is Diwakar Wankhede. Looking forward to hear from you very soon. God's richest blessings on you.