Egypt’s recent political upheavals have wreaked havoc on the celebrated architecture of Alexandria, writes Iason Athanasiadis
Those looking for stories of belle époque Alexandria from before its long demise set in could do worse than visit Mahmoud Sabit and Mona Anis. Anis is a culture editor, translator and friend to Egypt’s literary elite; Sabit is a Victoria College-educated aristocrat who resides in a shabby 19th-century villa in Cairo’s Garden City.
Together they can tell stories of a once-multicultural city that was considered a jewel of the Mediterranean until it gradually degraded into the overpopulated, anarchic cement sprawl of budget holiday flats, slums, cement high-rises, exposed sewers, regular power cuts and – since the 2011 Revolution – 27,000 new buildings, the majority of them illegal.
Sitting in the half gloom of a stately reception room surrounded by high-rises in Cairo’s Garden City, Sabit slips with ease back to a long-departed Egypt. His conversation is dusted with anecdotes and genealogies from haunting earlier ages: Fatimid, Mamluke, Ottoman and the era of Farouq, Egypt’s last King.
The aristocratic pedigree of 58-year-old Sabit’s family qualified them for the seasonal society cycle from Cairo to Helwan Les Bains and Alexandria. Until the 1952 Revolution, summers were spent close to the royal family in Alexandria. Sabit recalls staying on his father’s yacht moored in the city’s glamorous Eastern Harbour.
Indolent days were spent on beaches populated by beautiful women in two-piece swimsuits or riding the tram from San Stefano to Ramla on a double-decker carriage where “you’d hear spoken every language in the world: English, French, Armenian, Greek ...”
In the dying days of Alexandria’s heyday, the tram would pass dainty patisseries frequented by the poet of Alexandria, C P Cavafy, and raucous bouzoukia joints where Greek captains danced with plates in their mouths. His archival photographs contain candid, personal pictures of princesses of the Egyptian royal family at play. The only remaining trace of his family’s villa by the sea is a grainy black-and-white photograph of a substantial neoclassical building with a columned portico.
But after the 1952 Free Officers’ Revolution resulted in the king’s deportation and sweeping nationalisations, the multicultural Levantine communities that built up 19th-century Alexandria into the Mediterranean’s chicest, most modern city were replaced by waves of migration from the Nile Delta villages. Alexandria receded to a shadow of its former self. Author Michael Haag described it as “spiritless, its harbour a mere cemetery”.
Sabit’s visits to the city went from pleasurable to chores; now he was fighting to keep hold of his family’s still-significant properties, including seven warehouses in that once-bustling harbour, once the busiest in Europe after Liverpool. Fighting unscrupulous government-owned insurance companies that the new socialist regime used as a vehicle for doling out confiscated properties to its allies proved draining.
“[The companies] hope that the legitimate owners will fade into the background and then they can sell the properties by bill of rights, wait 20 years and then register them to new names,” Sabit said. “Socialism gifted us a chaos of red tape.”
Sabit’s own past was worlds apart; the forlorn seafront villa his family owned might as well have been among the “palatial villas” Haag documented as “overgrown with bougainvillaea … abandoned or confiscated or left to rot by their impoverished owner, their rusting gates opening into wild and unkempt gardens”.
Sabit last visited Alexandria in 1995, three weeks spent in the frayed Cecile Hotel “the year before it changed ownership and was changed forever”. He had already seen the playgrounds of his youth demolished or transformed into luxury hotels and high-rise flats. It was enough for him.
Mona Anis, a former culture editor of Al-Ahram Weekly, is another Alexandria old-timer who abandoned that city for Cairo. She remembers lingering, three-month summer seasons spent in her mother’s flat in Alexandria’s waterfront neighbourhood of Sidi Bishr. It was the 1960s, and the old aristocracy represented by the likes of Sabit had already faded away.
“There were beach parties, dressing in two-piece bathing suits and drinking beer on the water,” Anis reminisces from her perch in the Café Riche, a historic hangout for activists and intellectuals in Cairo’s downtown transformed, on a chilly December night, from its usual bustle and light into a mausoleum-like stillness by clashes between protesters and police in the darkened streets outside.
Dismissing the residual tear gas infiltrating the cafe with a drag on her electronic cigarette, Anis remembers sun-bleached afternoons spent at a “peculiar-looking, art-nouveaux villa with 40s cubist paintings on the walls.” That villa was their playground and the site of numerous parties in the late 1960s. It summed up a city whose wealthy districts whirled with parties and status symbols: Cadillacs, buckets of ice and other “props evocative of La Dolce Vita”.
“I used to see all these people partying at that villa and, as a child, it intrigued me,” Anis concluded. “It was a life I wanted to have someday.”
But then, in the 1970s, a serious crime – possibly a murder – happened there, “and from then on it was abandoned”.
It wasn’t just the crime that affected a changing Alexandria. Even as Anis revelled in the city’s pace, the city was shifting. In the 1980s, the city’s skyline thickened with the first high-rises. Multistorey flats replaced seafront villas, the famous beach cabins were demolished, and a wide Corniche built that a former intelligence general named Muhammad Abdessalam Mahboub tiled with mermaid and Disney motifs “so that it now looks like a bathroom”. Increasingly, it didn’t feel like her city.
Alexandria’s Fuad Street is the best-preserved of 19th-century Alexandria’s boulevards. But even here, brick high-rises are starting to proliferate among the neoclassical mansions and apartment blocks. Locals guard the building sites, ready to show prospective buyers the unfinished apartments or discourage intrusive enquiries. “The building that was here before just collapsed one night,” one developer on a site visit said. “Now I’m putting up a 14-storey apartment block. It’s all legal and cleared with the governor,” he hastens to add.
These shoddily-built insta-towers replace graceful 19th- and early 20th-century apartment buildings whose owners, plagued by the derisory rents yielded by the system of rent-control, forgo maintenance in the hope that their properties collapse, to be replaced by something taller and more profitable. Often the local construction mafia offer a helping hand, turning on the taps to flood buildings so the municipality can declare them too hazardous for habitation.
“Get the tenants evacuated – willingly or not – knock it down, build a completely illegal tower, immediately put someone in the top flat and you’re done,” said Mai El-Tabbakh, a conservationist with a focus on sustainable heritage.
The new buildings – almost always illegal – balance on shallow foundations and go up in a matter of a few months to avoid municipal inspectors who demand large bribes for their inaction. Once ready, the contractors anxiously seek to sell the penthouse first. That sale guarantees their investment won’t be knocked down by the municipality. But so shoddy is their construction that they frequently collapse, sweeping many lives and neighbouring buildings along in the process.
“The average fine is 100,000 Egyptian pounds [Dh53,000], five years in jail and a ban from building on that land for 15 years,” said Mohamad Aboelkhier, who co-founded in 2012 a heritage activism platform named Save Alex. “It’s a very good law … but who’s applying it?”
The random construction can be interpreted as one way by which Alexandria, a city bursting at the seams with an estimated six million population, is dealing with decades of uncontrolled immigration from the Nile Delta. In the absence of space for the city to expand, or urban planning on the part of the governor’s office, the narrow streets of its less privileged neighbourhoods often flood with sewage amid regular electricity and water cuts.
“We have something called Alex 2017, which is funny, and something called Alex 2025, and that is even funnier,” said Aboelkhier, referring to plans to restructure the city, as he walked through streets littered with freshly-demolished buildings. “Cities are up for sale now because they are extremely profitable.
“Without the luxury of land, the only place to expand is to the south-west, which is filled with posh communities,” said El-Tabbakh. “But even the rich can’t risk moving there because the roads are abandoned, there are carjackings and no public services.”
One example of an effort to transform the historical downtown is New Alexandria, a project that resurfaced repeatedly in the past few years.
The project costing 70bn Egyptian pounds intends to erect 21 commercial, multi-function towers, a yacht marina and a commercial arcade in the heretofore historically intact Eastern Harbour area and approach to the Ottoman Qaitbey Fort. The ambitious project may include a new ring road constructed across the bay on reclaimed land from Montaza to Selselah.
“They’ll make a new Alexandria in the sea,” said Zeyad El-Seyad, an assistant professor at the faculty of architecture at Alexandria University and director of the Housing Consulting Office, an architecture firm founded by his grandfather. “But there is an old Alex to which they must pay attention. Artificial islands with seven-star villas is not Alexandria, it’s not ethical.”
Mohamad Awad, the founder of the Alexandria Preservation Trust and a member of the remnants of Alexandria’s cosmopolitan set, said: “Alex is continuously being menaced as it gradually metamorphoses into a high-rise slum. The largest problem is cultural, with the authorities themselves unaware that these buildings must be preserved.”
Decades passed and Anis kept on walking by the empty villa that held within its tarnished walls the recollection of brighter, carefree days on visits to her ageing mother in Alexandria. “Then, one day last year I found bulldozers,” she said. “Now it’s something ugly coming up which hasn’t been finished yet.”
Few of the villas that were once so characteristic of the city now remain. Those who hold out from selling to developers see their quality of life plunge as high-rises crowd out their views, their light and their privacy. Some forlorn-looking derelict villas still appear sandwiched between new concrete structures.
“It was the relic of a childhood,” Anis said, in recollection of that defunct villa.
In Café Riche, loud, live coverage of the vote for the new Egyptian constitution blares out from the television. But Anis refuses to let it distract her from her thoughts about the villa where she spent so much of her youth.
“The villa had always been there, unappreciated,” she sums up. “But I was incredibly sad when I saw it being torn down.”
Iason Athanasiadis is a writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker covering the region from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan.