Opening earlier this year for a short run at the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MUCEM) in Marseilles, the Alexandrie: futurs antérieurs exhibition that has been intriguing visitors since February closes in May.
There are thus a few weeks left for all lovers of Alexandria to visit an exhibition that aims to bring together the ancient past and modern reality of the Egyptian port city at an institution illustrating different aspects of the Mediterranean in Europe.
Marseilles and Alexandria share some history in common in addition to their present economic and cultural roles as major port cities at the western and eastern ends of the Mediterranean. There are important links between the two cities that add to the suitability of Marseilles hosting an exhibition on Alexandria, even if this is also a show that was first seen at the Brussels Fine Art Museum and is a partnership between the MUCEM and the Belgian Musée royal de Mariemont.
Founded around 600 BCE as the ancient Greek colony of Massalia and one of many such outposts in areas very far from their motherland hundreds of miles away, Marseilles owes its longevity to its importance as a trading centre and at least for part of its history as a base for the French navy. Much of its character today can be traced to the role it played in the 19th century, when Marseilles linked the Arab Maghreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on the opposite side of the Mediterranean with southern France.
While Alexandria’s ancient Greek history may not be quite so venerable, it also began life as a Greek city, though one built on a site that had been used for commercial and other purposes at least from the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom onwards. Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE following his conquest of Egypt, the city was both a memorial to Alexander and the centre of the Greek administration in the country, functioning as the capital city under the Ptolemaic Dynasty that ruled Egypt until the death of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic monarch, and the Roman conquest of Egypt in 31 BCE.
Modern Alexandria, much like modern Marseilles, is in large part a 19th-century city, since most of the familiar downtown area was laid out or built in the mid to late 19th century when the city and port grew rich from Egypt’s cotton industry. Much the same thing is true of Marseilles, with the grand avenues leading up from the port area to the Palais Longchamp and the museum quarter all being laid out and built during the Second Empire and Third Republic that ruled France from the middle decades of the 19th century.
Visitors to the MUCEM exhibition may have such commonalities in mind, but even if they do not the exhibition draws attention to them. Part of a season of events designed to link the two sides of the Mediterranean and by implication to signal common elements in the history of Europe and the Arab world, the exhibition has been financed by a European Union programme entitled Alexandrie, réactivation des imaginaires urbains communs – “the reactivation of common urban spaces” – that brings together institutions in seven European countries and port cities in France, Greece, and Cyprus, the latter including Marseilles.
Reflecting on the financing and content of the exhibition, it seems a pity that more Egyptian institutions or institutions from Alexandria itself were not involved in its curation. While the exhibition brings together several hundred objects drawn from European museums designed to say something about particularly ancient Greek and Roman Alexandria, the absence of objects from the splendid collections in Alexandria itself may be sorely felt, along with that of further reflection on the Arab and modern city.
However, Alexandria is a difficult city to capture in a museum exhibition and not only because of its two millennia-plus history and formidable size. Even more than the other comparable Mediterranean port cities mentioned in the exhibition, Alexandria has seen the rise and fall of successive civilisations, expanding and contracting as their fortunes rose and fell and subsequently hosting memories of them in a continuous process of stratification.
In antiquity, Alexandria was the second city of the Roman Empire and the most important outside Rome, its ancient Greek inheritance giving it an outsize cultural role as the location of the famous Library of Alexandria and the Lighthouse or Pharos built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BCE and one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.
Originally built on a grid system of straight and intersecting streets with areas set aside for political and commercial affairs, religion, athletic events, and the palaces and monuments of the rich and powerful, ancient Alexandria was at least at first a little like the administrative centres and garrison cities that the Greek inheritors of the empire conquered by Alexander built across the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
But even if Alexandria was designed to be outward looking and linked into Mediterranean and particularly Hellenistic civilisation, emphasised by its location on a strip of land between Lake Mariout and the Mediterranean, perhaps unlike some other Greek cities of the time it was also notably cosmopolitan.
If it was neither a wholly Egyptian city despite the efforts of its Greek rulers to frame their rule in terms of the ancient Egyptian religion and state system, it was not an entirely Greek one either. The Ptolemies presented themselves in pharaonic guise and invested in local religious cults, effecting a synthesis of ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian religion.
They ruled over an Alexandria that was culturally mixed and that spoke many languages. While the ancient city was home to the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid, the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus, and literary figures such as poets Callimachus and Theocritus, its importance as a cultural centre for a time easily outshining Athens, it also saw major moves towards intercultural and interreligious dialogue.
Ptolemy II commissioned a translation into Greek of the Hebrew scriptures that later made up the Old Testament of the Bible, the famous Septuagint – the name derives from his employment of 70 Jewish translators resident in Alexandria – and ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian apparently happily co-existed in politics and administration. The Rosetta Stone, a Ptolemaic stele bearing inscriptions in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and the demotic language as well as Greek, centuries later aided in the decipherment of ancient Egyptian writing.
Ancient and modern: The MUCEM exhibition focuses on the seven or eight centuries between Alexandria’s foundation in the late 4th century BCE and Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in the late 4th century CE.
Curators Arnaud Quertinmont, Nicolas Amoroso, Edwin Nasr, and Sarah Rifky are frank about one of the major problems confronting anyone hoping to present the political, economic, and cultural importance of ancient Alexandria to modern audiences, also one of which visitors to the modern city may be very much aware.
Very little remains of ancient Alexandria outside the writings of ancient visitors to the city who praised its magnificent buildings and monuments. Unlike in comparable Mediterranean cities such as Rome and Athens, there is little in modern Alexandria that speaks of the underlying ancient city.
Whereas the remains of the Colosseum and the Pantheon in Rome can still give some picture of ancient Roman buildings, and the remains of the temples on the Acropolis in Athens still bear witness to the scale and topography of the ancient city, there is nothing like these in modern Alexandria.
The only way visitors can hope to gain a glimpse of the magnificence of the palaces of the Ptolemies, the monument to Alexander, and the Canopic Way that once ran across Alexandria from east to west beneath today’s Sharia Horreya, formerly Rue Rosette, all lined by splendid buildings, is to let their imaginations play over ancient descriptions of the city. The ancient Greek writer Strabo, for example, who visited Alexandria in the 1st century CE, comments on the magnificence of the public buildings, harbours, Lighthouse, Library, Museum, and the palaces and memorials of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
Not being able to conjure up more than a tiny part of this for modern viewers, the curators of the exhibition have apparently decided to thematise its absence, presenting visitors with models of what some of the larger public buildings might once have looked like for which there are still reasonably full descriptions, while filling in for what has been lost with marooned, but suggestive, fragments.
Each section of the exhibition thus contains mostly small-scale pieces, in this way perhaps drawing attention to the contrast between the city’s past magnificence and the modesty of its present remains, the difference in scale asking visitors to pay unusually close attention to the objects on show.
A cabinet of Roman coins engraved with images of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis and the Nile stands in for the pomp and circumstance of the visits of the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian to Egypt in 117 and 130 CE, the latter including a trip down the Nile to what today is Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Fragments of sculpture, heads, hands, and even feet, suggest the commemorative culture of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, with these statues perhaps once intended to decorate public spaces and bring the population closer to their rulers.
Coins similarly show the heads of the ancient Ptolemaic kings, and inscriptions set up in public places record their acts of munificence, rather in the way in which the famous Rosetta Stone records the coronation and generous deeds of Ptolemy V Epiphanes who reigned from 210 to 180 BCE.
The exhibition mentions the Christian communities in Alexandria in the early centuries CE, both during the period of persecution by the Roman authorities and at the time of the adoption of Christianity as the Roman state religion at the end of the 4th century CE. Many religions would have jostled up against one another in this period of late antiquity, with Greek and Roman paganism, the ancient Egyptian religion, Judaism, and early Christianity all co-existing.
St Mark founded the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria in 49 CE. According to French writer Christian Cannuyer writing in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, while Alexandria was one of the most important early Christian centres, Egypt’s Christian communities are absent from the letters of St Paul, who wrote to the Romans, Corinthians, Thessalonians, Ephesians, and Colossians, but not to the Alexandrians. Cannuyer says this is because Paul was happy to give this task to Mark.
Scattered through the exhibition are works by contemporary artists, in some cases specially commissioned, thinking through connections between ancient and modern Alexandria. Among the most enjoyable may be works by Asli Cavusoglu, Maha Maamoun, Marianne Fahmy, Mona Marzouk, Ahmed Ghoneimy, and Celine Condorelli, who show works in different media including sculpture, photography, textiles, and video.
Alexandrie: futurs antérieurs, Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean, Marseilles, until 8 May.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly