Alexandria, Egypt’s main Mediterranean port, is rapidly losing its architectural heritage.
According to the Save Alex initiative, some 40 villas listed on the Alexandria Heritage Preservation List have already been lost. Now Villa Ambron — formerly the home of renowned novelist Lawrence Durell — may soon be demolished.
Villa Ambron, located at 19 Al-Maamoun Street in Moharem Bek district, was built in 1920 by the Italian architect Aldo Ambron, who also built the Eastern Harbour’s Corniche that famous novelist E M Forster celebrated as being in the finest spirit of the Ptolemies.
Beyond its wide rusty iron gate, almost ruined, one can glimpse what was once a site of grandeur, and a hub of famous writers and artists.
As described by Samir Rafaat in an article, “They were there before Durell,“ the garden was “divided into three parts and constantly in flower. Ginger lilies, capucines, frangipani trees and violet blossomed in turn. And at the far end, beyond the unused tennis court and the Italian wrought iron well, stood the gardener's shed. Somewhere in the middle was the miniature Noah's Arc display."
“Now, this whole garden has been replaced by two towered buildings established by the owner who bought the place in 1996. The villa, neglect of which had nearly brought it completely down, is barely standing on its feet, facing grave threats by its owner and governmental negligence,” explained Ayman Gamal, a Save Alex member.
“I live just a few blocks away from the villa and now all neighbouring buildings use the villa as a junk yard. The villa is also used as a warehouse to store vegetables and fruits sold by street vendors. The owner, instead of trying to repair the villa or to live in it, is following a strategy of negligence,” Gamal added.
Michael Hagg, author of several books on Alexandria, the most famous of which is Alexandria: City of Memory, concurs. ”There are laws protecting old villas in Alexandria, but in Egypt the law is there to be abused and old villas are there to be knocked down. And so it would have been with the Villa Ambron. Unfortunately for the developers, a famous writer once lived there. Nevertheless, damage has been systematically inflicted on the villa in an attempt to bring them down,” Hagg states.
Visiting Villa Ambron with Eve Durell in 1999, Eve reminisced on days she described as the best of her life. In his article, “Lawrence Durrell's house in Alexandria,” Hagg writes: “At that time, Eve and I commandeered the tower at the Villa Ambron. The tower was Durell's writing place and it was here that he wrote Prospero's Cell, his book about his happy days in Corfu before the war. And here, too, he began writing what would become The Alexandria Quartet.”
Although Villa Ambron was owned by the Ambron family until 1996, it is best known as Durell’s villa. In the 1940s, Durrell — a British Information Officer in Alexandria — leased the upper floor while the Ambron's occupied the ground floor. The tower in which he wrote is widely known as "Durell’s Tower."
Why is the villa sinking into disrepair? Abdel Aziz Ahmed Abdel Aziz, a 63-year-old realtor and owner of the villa, shared his side of the story with Ahram Online.
"I bought the villa from the Ambron family in 1996 and the villa was no condition to be lived in since. Actually, I have four judicial verdicts and in my favour to demolish the villa. Judicial verdict No 2439 for 1995 states that the villa has no historical or cultural value of any kind. It can’t be included under Greek, Christian, Islamic or Ancient Egyptian heritage. Judicial verdict No 6640 stipulates that the court should appoint a civil engineer to inspect if the villa, to see if it should be demolished or not." The engineer concluded that the villa could be demolished if the owner wished. The last two judicial verdicts stipulate that the villa should be removed from Alexandria Heritage Preservation List and demolition order be established.
Now Abdel Aziz claims that since he bought the villa it was in a state beyond repair. That it needed to be taken down and then rebuilt all over again. Hence he kept it all these years, aiming for governmental intervention or that Durell's fans would weigh in and buy it.
After more than 15 years owning the villa, Abdel Aziz states: ”I won’t try to bulldoze it, because I am well aware of how much it is worth to many Durell lovers. However, what am I supposed to do if I am not benefiting from it? The governments doesn’t want to buy it and I am putting it up for sale to anyone who is interested enough.”
With its belle époque architecture and Roman columns built into the wall of its purpose-built artists' atelier, the house has distinctive qualities in its own right. With campaigners trying to save it, and with Abdel Aziz offering to sell it, Villa Ambron's fate is still to be decided.