Book Review: Forster in Alexandria

David Tresilian , Friday 26 Jul 2019

Incomplete as history and questionable as a guide, English novelist E M Forster’s handbook on Alexandria is an evocation of its time, writes David Tresilian in an occasional series on books by visitors to Egypt

Forster in Alexandria

Perhaps because of the subject-matter of the books he wrote before World War I, the myth of the eternal tea-table seems to have followed the English novelist E M Forster wherever he went in the world, even to destinations almost as far from his native English home counties as can be imagined.

Despite his reputation for writing comedies of manners set in English or at least European settings, there was another, more adventurous side to Forster that saw him setting out to India before World War I on the first of what were to be multiple visits and including the possibility of living there permanently in the 1920s.

Not knowing what to do with himself during World War I but driven almost to despair by its senseless and apparently unstoppable slaughter, in 1917 Forster took up a position with the Red Cross in Alexandria in an Egypt that was then under British colonial rule. The city itself was serving as an important logistics and supply post for the British military campaign against the former Ottoman Empire.

At first planning to spend just three months in the city, Alexandria grew on Forster even if he never seems to have become as fond of it as he was of parts of India. He does not seem to have used his posting in Alexandria to travel in the rest of Egypt, and his circle of friends while in the city seems to have been confined to Europeans, some of them like him brought to Alexandria by the unpredictable circumstances of the war.

However, there was at least one more permanent outcome of Forster’s time in Alexandria, which was eventually drawn out to several years. This was his book on the city entitled Alexandria, A History and a Guide that was published in London in 1922 after some perhaps predictable delays. There were already other histories of Alexandria available, often fuller and more satisfactory, and publishing companies such as Murray in Britain and Baedeker in Germany had already cornered the market for guides.

Forster in Alexandria

Forster’s “History and Guide” to Alexandria is sketchy as a history since it leaves out almost everything that took place in the city after the Arab conquests in the seventh century CE and only picks up the threads again in the early 19th century. As a guide it is perhaps even more eccentric, since while the second part of the book includes some walking tours of Alexandria and a long account of the contents of the city’s Graeco-Roman Museum it is innocent of the type of information usually felt to appeal to visitors and that had explained much of Baedeker’s success.

Part history and travelogue and part guidebook, Forster’s book perhaps excels in its refusal to be either one thing or the other. Earlier publications had familiarised the British and European public with the idea of travel writing or the travel book, often recounting daring exploits in out-of-the-way places such as the 19th-century British explorer Richard Burton’s account of travelling in the Arabian Peninsula or his compatriot John Hanning Speke’s account of finding the sources of the Nile.

Forster’s travel book was not like that, and in any case early 20th-century Alexandria was a largely settled, commercial town, mostly given over, as Forster ruefully admitted, to selling cotton and onions. There were few opportunities for Burton-type adventuring, and any excitement that the city had to offer would therefore likely be in another Alexandria, perhaps in a recreation of ancient Alexandria or an Alexandria of the mind.

Murray had produced the first modern tourist guidebook to Egypt as far back as the 1840s, and the Egypt volume in Baedeker’s well-known series was already on its seventh edition by the time Forster visited the city. The latter volume, published in 1914 just before the outbreak of World War I, was designed to give foreign visitors what they needed to know, including maps and shopping tips, where to stay, what to eat, and how to deal with the “natives”.

Reading Baedeker’s 1914 guide today, one may be struck by the distance it assumes between visitors and locals. “While much caution and firmness are desirable in dealing with the people,” the guidebook says, “the traveller should avoid being too suspicious… On the other hand, intimate acquaintance with Orientals is to be avoided.” In the absence of a common language, “a good deal can usually be done by signs”.

Unlike Cairo, where the “leading hotels are excellent and at most of them evening dress is de rigeur”, in Alexandria only a handful of hotels led by the Savoy Palace in the Rue de la Porte de la Rosette, later Fouad Street, are mentioned without comments on quality. Society can be found at the Cercle Khédivial on the first floor of the stock exchange, the guidebook says, where “introduction by a member [is] necessary.”

Some 2,000 ships a day are cleared in the Alexandria harbour, “about half of which are under the British flag.” “In 1912, imports amounted to £22,157,029 and exports (chiefly cotton, grain, cotton-seed, beans, rice, sugar, onions) to £33,790, 256.”


Forster had already parodied that kind of information, and perhaps also the kind of traveler to which it appealed, in his pre-war novels, many of which feature young people eager for the kind of experience they imagine abroad can offer but feel shortchanged by the dreariness of the standard guides.

His own book, on the other hand, tells the reader nothing about such matters, focusing instead on the city’s Graeco-Egyptian and Christian periods, in other words roughly from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the Arab conquest in 640 CE. It contains many wry and suggestive comments on these centuries, adding to the suspicion that Forster found more of interest in them than in the modern city in which he lived.

“There may have been a little dullness” about Graeco-Egyptian (Ptolemaic) Alexandria, he comments, since the city had been laid out on a grid-like plan following its foundation by Alexandria the Great. But it could have been “more Greek than Greece — [since it was] built at a time when the Hellenic spirit had freed itself from many illusions and was winning a command over material forces that it had never possessed before.”

Alexandria may have gathered up much of that “Hellenic spirit” even though built after the age of classical Greece and outside Greece itself. “In the Mouseion [Museum] at Alexandria Greece first became aware of her literary heritage,” Forster says, adding that in the famous Alexandria Library “the works of the past were not only collected… but also codified, amended, and explained.”

Philosophy at Alexandria, one of the glories of classical Greece, was “unimportant”, he says, since Egypt’s Ptolemaic rulers merely “imported some second-rate disciples of Aristotle to give tone to the Mouseion,” but science and mathematics were strengths. The Ptolemies did not like philosophy or philosophers because they did not care for criticism. The scientific activities of the library and museum, on the other hand, were “the greatest achievement of the dynasty and make Alexandria famous until the end of time.”

Writing of the Roman conquest after the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE, Forster says that “Octavian (Augustus Caesar), the founder of the Roman Empire, so disliked Alexandria that after his triumph over Cleopatra” he founded a rival city and “forbade any Roman of the governing classes to enter Egypt without his permission.” He adds that three centuries later and with the persecution of the early Christians by the Roman authorities at its height, “Alexandria, more than any other city in the Empire, may claim to have won the battle for the new religion.”

Of the Arab conqueror of Egypt Amr Ibn Al-Aas, Forster says that he was “not only a great general [but was] also an administrator, a delightful companion, and a poet”. Nevertheless, his judgement on the whole is severe, since according to him the Arab conquest snuffed out what he thought was the real Alexandria, being the sometimes extravagant but never material city of the mind.

In 642 CE, “Amr entered [Alexandria] in triumph through the Gate of the Sun that closed the eastern end of the Canopic Way. Little had been ruined so far. Colonnades of marble stretched before him, the Tomb of Alexander rose to his left, the Pharos to his right. His sensitive and generous soul may have been moved, but the message he sent to the Caliph in Arabia is sufficiently prosaic. ‘I have taken,’ he writes, ‘a city of which I can only say that it contains 4,000 palaces, 4,000 baths, 400 theatres, 1,200 greengrocers and 40,000 Jews.’”

“And the Caliph received the news with equal calm, merely rewarding the messenger with a meal of bread and oil and a few dates.”

E M Forster, Alexandria: A History and a Guide, London: 1922.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Forster in Alexandria

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