The early months of the year can be an ideal time for landmark outings in Alexandria, whether for romantic getaways or the gathering of friends. While Egypt’s North Coast city has lost some of its destinations over the years, many are still there and are as charming as ever.
Perhaps no one has ever described how Alexandria used to look for much of the past century better than Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz in his landmark 1967 novel Miramar.
“Alexandria, the dew-drop, the fountain of white clouds, the spot of bright colourful rainbows, was the heart of memories soaked in joyful tears,” Mahfouz wrote in this novel. “The high buildings come into view, as if a familiar face you know well.”
“It settles into your memory. But it has never known anybody, as it always looks on indifferently. The humidity on the walls has dulled their colour and peeled their surfaces. The structure overlooks a piece of land pressing out into the Mediterranean: the place is covered with date and palm trees at the sides. Farther on, gunshots bang and crackle on special occasions, and the fresh air is so strong that it almost bowls me over, no longer able to resist as earnestly as I used to in bygone days.”
The question of how much from those “bygone days” now remains is a major issue for those interested in Alexandria’s architectural heritage.
Alexandria was established as a cosmopolitan city in antiquity by Alexander the Great, and it has always welcomed strangers coming to Egypt by sea, being a safe haven and the gateway for them of dreams come true. By the early 20th century, the coastal city had become home to many foreign communities, with the Greeks, the Levantines, and the Jews all leaving their signatures.
The Italians, in particular, shaped the city’s modern architecture, which, though not necessarily Italianate in style, was mostly designed by Italian architects. Many of these buildings are now weather-beaten by time.
In a study on heritage conservation in Alexandria, writer Dalia Al-Soradi explains why many older buildings are not well preserved, with many being lost over the years. “Throughout the 19th century, little attention was given to the conservation of cultural heritage in Egypt,” she writes. Egypt’s early 19th-century ruler “Mohamed Ali (1805-1848) chose European architects for his new building programmes to fulfil his desire to modernise the built environment. The European method of documentation and analysis of various architectural styles was first introduced into Egypt in the era of Mohamed Ali.”
But it was in the second half of the 20th century that “the population explosion really led to the deterioration of the historic buildings” in Alexandria. “The rent acts since the 1950s, now mostly ineffective, but resulting in only minimal annual rent increases, have made many buildings economically unfeasible. As a result, demolition and redevelopment have begun to appear as the only solution for the owners of such buildings,” she wrote.
Mohamed Gohar, an architect and founder of the Description of Alexandria, a cultural and artistic documentation platform seeking to document the heritage of the city and its architectural and cultural memories, said a lack of awareness is largely to blame for Alexandria’s fading architectural heritage.
Gohar’s recent workshop “Alexandria: Forgotten Entrances” was launched in November and focused on the relationship between architecture and people in the city. He believes that objects can be considered as living beings, a concept which he says first appeared in the works of the Roman author and architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. For Gohar, the failure to preserve heritage buildings is linked to years of a lack of awareness.
Downtown Cecil Hotel
(photos courtesy of Mohamed El-Sayed)
“The government should have addressed the issue long ago during the 1960s and 1970s,” he comments. “But it had bigger issues to tackle at the time, and the deterioration continued over the years. The idea of social awareness or preserving culture heritage is not an individual responsibility. It is the state’s responsibility in the first place.”
Yet, legal loopholes and the absence of a strategy have led to the erosion of the city’s architectural heritage. “No matter how valuable a building is, there is always a way through or around the law to demolish it,” Gohar said. “In the meantime, urban planning does not allow for substitutes to deal with population growth. If proper studies were done, this would definitely reduce the surge in the demolition of older buildings.”
For Gohar, architecture is “a two-sided issue”. He says that “buildings are symbols of people’s culture and traditions. People design and build them according to their culture and to what serves them, so a building is a reflection of a people. And people are also affected by the buildings they live in or are surrounded by.”
ALEXANDRIAN LANDMARKS: Marcel, an Alexandrian lady, shared her memories of Alexandria with Al-Ahram Weekly.
On a sunny winter afternoon, I approach the San Giovanni Hotel in Alexandria after a walk around Stanley Bridge. The hotel, which dates back to 1939, was built by the Egyptian-Greek businessman San Giovanni, and it has a great view of the sea across Stanley Bay. It consists of only 33 rooms and 10 suites, but many of the rooms house unique antiques, the most magnificent being a grandfather clock bought by Giovanni at an auction in the 1930s, a tall gold-leaf mirror, and the traditional bar dating back to the 1920s, brought from the Salamlek Hotel in Montazah.
I go downstairs to the beautifully designed restaurant, with its waterfront seats overlooking Stanley Bridge and its portraits of popular Egyptian and Hollywood film stars on the walls, including Naguib Al-Rihani, Roshdi Abaza, Laila Mourad, Marilyn Monroe, and Sophia Loren. Whether you are there for a coffee or for breakfast or dinner, the place remains one of the calmest spots in the city today. The music transports you to another time through the songs of Fairouz or Farid Al-Atrash.
I am welcomed by Marcel to join her table. She is a high-spirited lady and a character you do not come across every day. Now 78 years old, she is a charming lady who leaves you wanting to hear more and more of what she has to say about the history of the city.
Recalling her favourite childhood and adolescent memories of her beloved Alexandria, she says that a visit to a cafe, a tea garden, or a dance floor was an essential part of every Alexandrian weekend. Dancing was popular, and even cinemas such as the Metro and Rialto had dance floors located next to the screens, so people would go dancing in the intervals in the films. Parties were regularly held, and young couples used to dance the tango, the foxtrot, and the famous hula-hoop.
As a teenager, Marcel’s school, Saint Jeanne Antide, was located next to St Mark’s College in the Shatby district, at that time in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“I used to take the tram from home to school. Sometimes we used to wait for boys to come out of St Mark’s, and many childhood love stories took place. However, boys and girls were of course well brought up and never crossed the line. The boys were brought up to be gentlemen, and the girls were brought up to be ladies in every sense of the word,” she recalls.
Among her best memories as a teenager, she remembers attending the annual ball held at St Mark’s. “Each boy and girl would receive a heart-shaped paper with the name of one of the other attendees. I would spend the whole evening looking for the boy whose name I had,” she said, laughing. The school still stands today, presenting a fine example of architecture from the early 20th century. It was built between 1925 and 1928 by French architects Léon Azéma, Max Ederi, and Jacques Hardy in art déco style.
Paraskevas building (awarded as the best architectural building in a Mediterranean country in 1924)
“At the weekends, my father used to take us to the zoo in the Smouha district, the second-largest in Egypt after the Giza Zoo in Cairo. This was a weekend custom, and my brother and I would ride ponies together,” Marcel remembers.
As a young woman, she continued going to the zoo to attend parties at the Al-Nozha Casino, which sadly does not exist anymore. “Boys and girls used to go dancing at the casino. It was a fun spot for many teenagers and young adults,” she said. It is also one of the gems that Alexandria has lost over the years, along with other famous spots such as the Al-Selsela Bay where the Franco-Egyptian singer Dalida used to sing her greatest hits. “Al-Selsela was the second-most famous spot for young couples at that time,” Marcel said.
Nearby, two large complexes face one another on the top of the Shatby Hill, the former Hellenic Hospital and the majestic Faculty of Engineering. The hospital was designed by French architect Jean Walter, who specialised in hospital architecture. It was considered a vital expression of the importance of Alexandria in the Greek world.
Au Pavilon de Florelle founded in 1946
LEISURE PLACES: Maison Baudrot, a famous café, used to be located in Fouad Street close to Cinema Metro, and it was owned by the Baudrot family and established in 1884. Originally belonging to Giacomo Groppi, the original owner of Groppi’s in Cairo, it was sold in 1909 to Auguste Baudrot and his wife Arianne. It closed in 1962.
Maison Baudrot was one of the best pastry shops in Alexandria, with its famous tearooms and dance floor. Concerts were regularly held there attended by foreign visitors or residents of Alexandria, among them English writers E M Forster and Lawrence Durrell and the Egyptian-Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who resided at the Metropole Hotel for the last 25 years of his life but had a home in the same district, now a museum in Cavafy Street, a 15-minute walk from Ramleh Station.
Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863 after his parents settled in the city in the 1850s. He moved to Europe as a young man and then returned to Alexandria in 1900, living there until he passed away in 1933.
La Maisonnette was another famous spot for outings located across from the Automobile Club in the Sidi Bishr district. The premises included a restaurant, teagarden, dance floor, and a swimming pool. It also closed in the 1960s.
Pastroudis was also one of the city’s best-known pastry shops, along with the Trianon and Athineos. Established as a bakery by Georgios Pastroudis in 1923, it was located in an attractive spot on Fouad Street facing the Amir cinema. Sadly, the shop was demolished, but it remains one of Alexandria’s lost landmarks.
“Athanasios, together with his wife Gabrielle, who was originally Swiss and had a sweet tooth herself, set up a pastry part and a tea room. This allowed Alexandrians to spend their mornings and afternoons on the terrace, sipping their tea and coffee and enjoying some of the city’s best chocolate cakes, pastries, and fruit sorbets,” one recent book reads.
“Pastroudis also owned Monseigneur on the seafront, a restaurant and wedding hall reserved for some of the city’s most prestigious weddings. It offered much dining and dancing during the war years and throughout the 1950s. It must have been in the 1940s when king Farouk regularly dined at Pastroudis on summer nights.”
Former president Anwar Al-Sadat “occasionally ordered delicacies for his guests staying at the Montazah or Ras Al-Tin Palace. Pastroudis was also frequented visited by Durrell, Cavafy, and Forster,” it says.
One of the oldest Greek restaurants in the city was the Elite founded by Elite in the early 20th century. Famous for its blue-and-white decoration, it was designed to be a restaurant without walls and with chairs lined up in the street. Decorated with paintings of prominent Greek artists and thinkers, among them Cavafy, the Elite catered for all — families, children, businessmen, the elderly, or couples who liked this cosy place that served delicious food.
In 1922, the restaurant was taken over by the Greek Church and managed by Christina Costantino and her husband Michael. It was taken over by their son Massius after they passed away, and then later rented by a group of Egyptian businessmen. It was famous for its delicious breakfasts and Greek dishes.
Mohamed Ali Theatre built by French architect George Parcq in 1921
Alexandria resident Nadim Kanawti recalls having breakfast with his father there every weekend until 2010. “The place was really nice. I remember one of the waiters was a Nubian called Todary. It was famous for its mouth-watering croque Monsieur toast with a pinch of zaatar [thyme] and an Italian dish named ossobuco [veal shanks with vegetables],” he said.
The Santa Lucia is one of the oldest restaurants in Alexandria that still exists today. Founded in 1932 and originally owned by an Italian family, it was sold to a Greek businessman, Benayuti, who was also president of the Greek community in the city at the time. It was a spot for celebrations and special occasions and was regularly visited by king Farouk and famous actors such as Roshdi Abaza, Farid Shawki, and Mariam Fakhreddin.
Chez Gaby is a family business owned by Roxanne Assad, an Egyptian-Lebanese lady. The French name conjures up Alexandria’s lingering cosmopolitan atmosphere. It was named after her late husband Gaby, who was a well-known person in Alexandria. Originally a nightclub before being bought by the family, it is located in an alley off Fouad Street, a place that is redolent of the past. It is famous for its authentic Italian food and warm and cosy atmosphere that seems to take visitors on a journey back in time.
Marcel also recalls having breakfast at the famous Mohamed Ahmed falafel restaurant near Ramleh Station, “I used to go with my father there in the late 1940s when it was called Binyamin after the original Jewish owner who sold it to Mohamed Ahmed after the 1952 Revolution,” she said.
“Everything was simple and beautiful — no complications. Happiness was easy and came from the heart. Today, I see young people going through so much trouble to be happy, and then it sometimes doesn’t last. But in our days happiness used to last because it was natural and true,” Marcel remembers.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly