“It goes on being Alexandria still. Walk a bit along the straight road that ends at the hippodrome and you’ll see palaces and monuments that will amaze you," C.P. Cavafy
This is the opening line to issue No.4. of 'Description of Alexandria', titled The Swedish Institute, Alexandria
July 2016. This document is what’s left of the institute that permanently closed in 2019.
At the premises of his house and work space, Architect and Artist Mohamed Gohar shared his passionate love for the City he was born and raised in through a rare melange of art, documentation and raising awareness. Founder of 'Description of Alexandria
' in 2013, the digital platform created by the young Alexandrian artist beholds documentation of the cultural and architectural heritage of Alexandria
, as well as joined efforts with other researchers, historians and artists who volunteer in documenting the city using the same methodology.
“I divided the old city into five chapters: the first was the water fronts and the gate to the city, it's how you read the city from the buildings on the Cornish
, and then the hinterland follows," Mohamed Gohar told Ahram Online.
Marvelling at the details of his art sketches and his attention to detail that defines the city of Alexandria, Gohar’s connection with the intangible heritage of the city is very vivid. From the famous blue tramway to the entrances of buildings, this talented architect found his true passion a few years after his graduation in 2005.
“I started to appreciate heritage after I graduated and worked in Dubai in 2006, [that's] where I discovered that this is not the place where I would want to be. It was very neat, very clean and very boring,” he laughed explaining that after one year and a half he made the decision to return to Alexandria.
“I came back here and despite the economic drop and shift, I was very happy to be here among all this history. It was then [that] I realized how much I need heritage in my life," said Gohar. "In 2009, while finishing my masters, there was a subject titled Egyptian Regions where I implemented a research on Al-Max area, the canal of the fishermen here in Alexandria , now demolished. After conducting a survey with the fishermen, I drew an art piece of the place, and after I submitted it to my university, I handed the fishermen print outs of the sketches which they were very happy to receive."
Since then, Gohar realised that behind such drawings there is architectural science and documentation of tangible and intangible heritage.
“The idea was always there to raise awareness of such heritage. You see if art does not reflect life, and the challenges of life, it is fake art. If I am addressing any problem, it does not have to be ugly. On the contrary, when I draw it in a picture that is appealing to people the message will reach more people faster. So, therefore I focus on art in delivering a quick message with a lasting impact," he explains to Ahram Online.
“It’s a long-term education, for when you draw a painting or a documentation of a place, the audience might not know much about the place, but if they like the painting, they would know that such a place needs to be safeguarded. [Moreover] when the number of people who appreciate such paintings increase, we would be able to preserve the tangible and intangible heritage that the painting is reflecting,” Gohar added.
The Description of Alexandria
After finishing his masters, Gohar started an initiative called Alexandria Urban Sketchers and used to walk with architectural students and share with them his experience in documenting the city through drawings.
“After exchanging knowledge for two years, I realised I had a lot of sketches of the city and so I attempted to make an art book, but I could not reach a deal to publish [it], which was the best thing that happened really because when I did not publish it, one of the [pieces of advice] was to elaborate it in something else. So, I put it in an academic and research structure which is what I called 'Description of Alexandria', it’s a physical written description of the building," he added remembering listening to the oral history of the places from the tenants themselves, which remains a valuable and unique addition to the documentation.
“Then the art work makes the scientific material appealing and reaches all people as well as adds to the academic library and the general knowledge of the city," said Gohar.
The Swedish Institute
The website beholds a lot of gems such as a detailed account of the building of the Swedish Institute that was founded in 1921, by Karl Wilhelm Von Gerber, to serve as the Swedish Royal Consulate as well as a residence for himself. Despite the obvious influence of European architecture, especially Italian, the building was created by an Arminian Alexandrian Architect called Onning Meras.
This is also building number one in the heritage map, created in 2017, a sub product of 'Description of Alexandria'. The map reveals tens of architectural marvels in the form of sketches, as well as information of their intangible heritage that grants an enchanting heritage walk within the perfect context.
“The phase that I started out with and still have not ended is the water front of the city, one building after the other, till you find almost 140 buildings from the Citadel. Some would be demolished, some would be redesigned or altered. It maps the urban life story with each building. One building might not have a lot to say but when you put all those buildings [together] you have a voice of the water front of the city,” added Gohar.
“I decided to study why there is a change in the urban architecture of the city and started my project 'forgotten Entrances' two years ago by talking to the owners of shops about the décor of such shops and what they symbolise,” he said, explaining how he would know about the calligrapher who wrote the sign, the fonts and their cultural references.
Produce your own city
Gohar also is toying with the idea of making a miniature model of Alexandria, with a small message that says,: "Check this out, there are valuable things in the city of Alexandria".
“This style of art would reach another receiver. The more you have diverse products the more you can deliver your message in several intensities, so the aim is still to raise awareness of the general culture of the city." Moreover, he adds that the city of Alexandria does not have appropriate marketing. “We do not market ourselves like we do in Cairo. If you want to buy a postcard from Alexandria, you will find ones printed in the 1950s and so this is a modern, fun [and] artistic touch from a young artist for the general culture of the city."
The product would be a postcard or miniature art relics of the city of Alexandria that allows children to produce their own versions of Alexandria.
MOhamed Gohar working on his miniature project. Photo Amira Noshokaty