The Cosmopolitanism of Alexandria

Paul Balta

Centre d’Études de l’Orient Contemporain, Paris

Memories and hopes!

Alexandria, the city of my childhood, is no more than a memory. Alexandria, the city of the Macedonian, is no more than a myth. Was she ever, indeed, anything but a myth and an immense nostalgia? Place of all meetings, of all minglings, of all syntheses, she has been, since her birth and in all her rebirths, the cosmopolitan city par excellence. And her cosmopolitanism was a humanism. That Alexandria is dead, murdered by the nationalisms of today. Will she be reborn from her spiritual ashes? The hope remains, for this city of eclipses has always known an alternation of greatness and of decline, of deaths and of resurrections. Scattered to the four corners of the earth, the Alexandria of my childhood survives in the memory of the cosmopolitan Alexandrians settled in their new homelands.

Wherever they are—in France, in England, in Israel, in Greece, in the United States, in Canada, in Australia—I know none who has not succeeded in integrating himself so as to become the salt of the earth that has received him. When they meet in their adoptive cities they rarely speak of the cataclysm which has dispersed them. There are wounds that never heal; one keeps silent about them for fear of reopening them, and from decency too. Each man tends them after his own fashion. Sipping a Turkish coffee in the morning, alone with his thoughts. Savouring, with his family or among friends, a dish of fouls (broad beans) or a molokheya (typical soup). Humming a song from the distant past. Trying to save imperilled cultural patrimonies. Writing. From the sixties, the Alexandria of my childhood was struggling on from day to day.

Squeezed between the Mediterranean and Lake Mariout, it spread itself out from east to west under the steam-roller of the birth-rate. From the modernised ancient ports to Aboukir, the ancient Canopus, it forms a gigantic chess-board with its streets parallel to the sea crossed by vertical streets. There alternate palaces and hovels, villas and workshops, cultivated fields and polluting factories, residential suburbs and populous districts, animated beaches and arid dunes, desert plots recently fertilised and swampy waters of the lake where ducks are still hunted like before. Surprising and disappointing, animated and drab, noisy and calm, active and dreaming, common and posh, coquettish and sickening! Alexandria, uncertain before a past that is slipping away, did not know how to detach itself from the present, full of the cares of every day, careless of its future. And yet…

The genius of the place or an unconscious mimicry? The women of Alexandria, yesterday still solid peasants from the Nile Valley, have transformed themselves into coquettish city ladies, like the fair cosmopolitans of antiquity who have gone for ever and those of modern times who are living in exile! Thanks to these metamorphosed women, veiled or not, hope is reborn! The lighthouse city, Alexandria lives again “by” memory and “in” our memories. She exists thanks to the books she has bequeathed us, and is reborn in all those which she never ceases to generate.Though she founders, memories bring her back to life and save her from oblivion. At the dawn of the third millennium, as racial, religious, national intolerances rankle, I ask myself about the destiny of this city born from the dream of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). In contrast to Istanbul where the strata of history are superimposed, Alexandria has rubbed out its traces as it went. Of the ancient city of white marble, nothing remained but tombs and catacombs!

That did not prevent her from rising again a thousand years later and shining anew. After 1956 and the great exodus of the cosmopolitans, she became numb and fell to doubting herself. My Alexandria is no more… But after all, who knows? Is she perhaps, in her own fashion, being born again on a double economic and cultural basis? Her port still has no match in Egypt; neither Port Said nor Suez can rival it. As the Cairo area has become completely saturated, the zone between the two towns has been brought into use: the desert fertilised, new towns created, communication links improved. Alexandria now accounts for 50% of the country’s industrial production. It has become the economic capital again. And then, in 2002 the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was inaugurated. I therefore offer you a voyage in time, from the origins to our own days, to show the multiple facets of its cosmopolitanism and evoke contributions still present today, more often than not unknown to us, in our everyday life.

Ancient Alexandria

Athens is always given as an example of having created the city that forms the citizen. In many respects, European nationalism finds its origin in the Athenian concept of citizenship. Born in Alexandria, I lived for nearly twenty years in the bosom of the cosmopolitan society and the Egyptian people who were for me a school of humanism. I say it in all frankness, it is to them that I owe my career as a journalist, a university student, a writer and a citizen. That is why I have always regretted that cosmopolitan Alexandria is not also given as an example of an alternative model, when it shone for nearly ten centuries all over the Mediterranean, from its foundation in 331 BC until the 5th century AD, and even, to a lesser degree, after the arrival of the Arabs in 641. Finally it again played an important role from 1830 to 1956 and might inspire the nascent cosmopolitanism of the cities of the northern shore such as Marseilles.


Cosmopolitan. This term was devalued by the Nazis who applied it to the Jews, and by the Stalinists, who thus labelled the capitalists; today, it seems suspect to chauvinistic nationalists. Such is the pressure that even antiracists avoid using the word and speak of a “pluralist society”. Let us get back to the origins to sing its praises! Let us begin with the Petit Larousse. Cosmopolitan: (Greek kosmopolites, citizen of the world) Traversed, inhabited by citizens of the whole world; open to all civilisations, to all customs. And Victor Hugo, that visionary the bicentenary of whose birth we have just celebrated, writes: “By its cosmopolitanism, Paris is the dazzling and mysterious engine of universal progress.” That was the case of Alexandria in antiquity, as is recalled by the title of a collective work of the best specialists: Alexandria IIIè siècle av. J.-C. Tous les savoirs du monde ou le rêve d’universitalité des Ptolémées. It underlines that there could be seen crowded together Macedonians and Greeks, Egyptians and Jews, Gaulish mercenaries and Nubian slaves, merchants and travellers from the Orient and from the Mediterranean.

Alexander the Great

From the beginning, Alexander the Macedonian conceived the conquest of Persia, the hereditary enemy of Greece. In 331, at the age of 25, he conquered Syria, delivered Egypt from Persian occupation, bowed before the Egyptian temples, adopted the ritual of the Pharaohs, then went to the temple of Memphis where he was enthroned sovereign of that country, with its five-thousand-year history and its rank as the first Nation-State in the world. He gave orders to Deinocrates of Rhodes, his architect, to build a city. He was never to see it but it bore his stamp and his name. It was to become the new capital of the country, the centre of the known world and the most prestigious of the thirty or so towns called Alexandria. He then went to the oasis of Siwa, where the god Ammon acknowledged him as his son. From then, metamorphosed into an Oriental and a cosmopolitan, he aspired to harmonise the world by the mingling of races, the symbiosis of religions, the cross-breeding of cultures. In brief, even if the Greek ancestry remained, he wished to marry the East and the West.

The capital: a Port!

The foundation of Alexandria near the site of Rhakotis was an innovation without precedent: for the first time in history a port was promoted to the rank of capital. Until then the doctrine of Plato prevailed in its disfavour, holding that a port was too vulnerable; moreover, Athens dominated the Piraeus from its heights! Alexander matured his choice; the new capital must be in easy contact with Macedonia, serve as a link between deepest Egypt and the Mediterranean, and be a stepping-stone between Europe, Africa and Asia. They called it Alexandria ad Aegyptum,“on the edge of Egypt”.

I do not agree, for I believe that everything was in touch with it. Excavations and research performed recently in the Delta prove that Alexandria played a political and economic role with regard to Upper Egypt. Thanks to its port, Alexandria was the city of every kind of commerce, that of culture and that of business, and the Nile Valley benefited from it. Capital of Egypt, it was that of the Mediterranean too! Whenever Alexandria has turned inward on itself, it has collapsed. Alexander was not a conqueror like the rest. In Persia, he confirmed his policy of racial fusion: he married Roxana, daughter of King Darius III, and encouraged his 37,000 soldiers to take Persians for their wives. A great founder of towns that dotted his march towards the East, he had taken along with his troops artists and men of science including the architect Deinocrates. It was unheard-of for the time. Let us make a leap in time: at the time of the Egyptian expedition (1798-1801), Bonaparte took his inspiration from Alexander. He took with him 167 savants, presented himself as a friend of Egypt, which he came to deliver not from the Persians this time but from the Mamelukes, and in his first declaration he invoked God, Mohammed, the Koran and the Moslem religion. How many analogies!

The Saint-Simonians

Some disciples of Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint Simon (1760-1825), the author of the Catéchisme des industriels, installed themselves in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt, where they played an important role in the modernisation of the country under Mehemet Ali and his successors.6 They too wished to be citizens of the world, cosmopolitans concerned for universal progress, and one of them, Ferdinand de Lesseps, conceived the Suez Canal. For the Saint-Simonians too, Alexander the Great was a source of inspiration.That may be judged from this passage in Système de la Méditerranée (1832) by Michel Chevallier: “The most colossal struggle, the most general and the most deep-rooted that ever made the earth echo to the shock of arms, is that between the East and the West (…) It is the most striking manifestation of the war waged for six thousand years between spirit and matter, spiritualism and sensualism, a war to which we have come to put an end (…) Henceforth, the Mediterranean must be like a vast forum on every point of which the peoples until now divided will hold communion. The Mediterranean will become the nuptial bed of the East and the West.” And finally: “The definitive peace must be founded by the Association de l’Orient et de l’Occident (…) It is the first step to be made towards the universal Association.”

Serapis, Syncretism and the God-Children

As a student in 1952, I had the privilege of having as my professor, in Archaeology and History of Ancient Art, Charles Picard, a specialist in classical Greece. As a curious coincidence, he had just added to the programme the Hellenistic period, which runs from the conquest of Alexander to that of the Romans, to which he had just devoted several years of research. He led us to discover the god Serapis, a mixture of Zeus and Osiris, who constituted with his wife Isis and their son Horus a triad which had been enthroned in the Serapeum of Alexandria under the Ptolemies, who reigned from 305 to 30 BC. He explained how cosmopolitanism had generated the syncretism of Alexandria, which was not confined to religion but embraced the totality of culture.

He railed against the “damnation” (I quote him) “invoked against Alexandrian art, which is judged as decadent and flabby”, while only Pharaonic art was considered exemplary. He deplored that it had not been better studied and, with the aid of slides, showed how on the contrary it had “renewed Greek and Egyptian art with its already baroque expressionism and a realism of subtle sensibility”. One example among others is the influence of Alexandrian painting and mosaic on those of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Likewise, it was in Alexandria that statues of god-children, sometimes winged, appeared.Very fashionable, they spread all over the East, Charles Picard explained, and he wondered whether they had not thus prepared minds to receive Jesus, “the God-Child”. He was the first to formulate this hypothesis, which deserves reflexion. According to him, it was they that likewise served as models for the chubby putti of the Renaissance artists.

The Lighthouse

In architecture, the Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, completed about 280 BC under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309-246 BC), was the most prestigious illustration of the marriage of cultures. Built By Sostratus of Cnidus on the island of Pharos, it has given its name to all the lighthouses that guide seamen. Of white marble, 135 metres in height, it was of composite style: a square tower at the base surmounted by another octagonal one crowned by a tholos, a round tower carrying the lantern. A synthesis of the scientific knowledge of its time, it influenced the architecture of numerous monuments, from Roman mausoleums to the minarets of the Mameluke mosques in Cairo, from the Tour Magne at Nîmes to the bell-towers of many Romanesque churches, with a cone replacing the tholos. It was destroyed by earthquakes in 1302.

The Library

Alexandria was also the first capital of books, thanks to its encyclopaedic library built in 290 BC by order of Ptolemy I Soter (367-283 BC). For the first time in history, the dream of universalism became reality. The first three monarchs had initiated the movement by sending emissaries to buy manuscripts assembling not only Greek knowledge but even what was called the “barbarian wisdom” of the Chaldaean Magi, and of the priests and philosophers of other peoples of the East, such as Moses and Zoroaster. In a remarkable study, Luciano Canfora stresses “its double role as a centre of attraction and centre of diffusion of men of science and letters. ” In fact there were two buildings: the “mother library”, installed in the mouseion by the royal palace, and the “daughter library”, which was more important, near the temple of Serapis, on the present site of Pompey’s Column.

They contained between 500,000 and 700,000 volumes (papyrus scrolls). Who destroyed them? Julius Caesar has been accused, but Canfora demonstrates that the Roman attacked the port, where 40,000 scrolls of copies intended for export went up in flames. The Arabs have also been accused. In 641 Amr, the conqueror of Egypt, had been impressed by the splendour of Alexandria. He supposedly described it to the Caliph Omar, who replied regarding the library: “If these books contradict the Koran, they are dangerous. If they confirm it, they are useless. Take action and destroy them.” Nevertheless, as Canfora stresses, this evidence of Ibn al Kifti (1172-1248) comes six centuries later and cites no source. What is the truth then? Unpleasant to admit, the truth is often hidden: the Christians, persecuted yesterday, became the persecutors.They were no longer content to combat paganism in the philosophical field: in 389 the Patriarch Theophilus, at the head of thousands of the faithful, destroyed the Serapeum of Canopus, and in 391 attacked that of Alexandria and the Library. “This was the first auto-da-fe. The bonfire of the books forms part of the process of christianisation. After Alexandria followed Pergamum, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople”, writes Canfora. A Jesuit, Henry Ayrout, had already admitted it in a book partly devoted to the Copts.

The Schools

Alexandria was celebrated for its Schools: the Poetic Schools with Callimachus (310-240 BC), Theocritus (320- 250 BC) and many others; the Scientific School dominated by Euclid (4th century BC); the Jewish School (3rd century BC-2nd century AD), characterised by its nonconformity; the Neo-Platonist philosophical School of which Plotinus (205-270) is one of the great figures; the Christian School of the 1st to the 4th century. Our school text books put the accent on our Greek and Roman heritage but speak little of the contributions of Alexandria. Here are some examples.

The Poetic School

When our young people draw a heart pierced with an arrow to say John loves Mary, do they know that they are reproducing an image of the bucolic Elegy, a genre created by the Poetic School of Alexandria? The poets, in sprightly style, sang of what seems banal today but was not then, the “pert bosoms”, the “enticing glances”, the “beating breasts”, the “burning flame”, as is recalled by Edward Morgan Forster in his book.

The Scientific School

This naturally includes several sections. Let us note the main ones:

MATHEMATICS. We all studied Euclidian geometry at school, but how many of us know that Euclid, who was not a native of Alexandria, conceived his work in that city and composed his Elements there, the universal basic manual of geometry, still in use despite the theory of relativity of Einstein (1879-1955). He founded, about 300 BC, a celebrated mathematical School which endured for seven centuries. Eratosthenes (284-192 BC), a geographer and mathematician, author of a description of the known world from India to the British Isles, was the first man to measure the Earth. He also maintained with the astronomer Aristarchus (215-143 BC) that it was the Earth that revolved around the sun. Nevertheless Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus, 100-170), the author of the Almagesta, a treatise on mathematics and astronomy which remained authoritative until the Renaissance, maintained the opposite and his theory prevailed until Galileo (1564-1642), who, when condemned by the Inquisition and obliged to retract, uttered the historic phrase: “And yet it does move!” Alexandria also saw the composition of the calendar which we still use. In 239 BC, Ptolemy III, anxious to conciliate the tradition of Egypt and the science of the Greeks, asked the priests of Serapis, at Canopus, to recalculate the calendar of the Ancients, whose year counted only 365 days and twelve equal months instead of 365.25 days. As time passed, discrepancies arose. Thus harvest time no longer corresponded to the feast of the Harvests. The corrections instituted the leap year, but the reform, though decreed, was not applied. It was Julius Caesar who, in 46 BC, made the “Alexandrian year” the official year imposed in Europe under the name of the “Julian Year”, which became the “Gregorian Year” in 1582 with the adjustments made by Pope Gregory XIII.

MEDICINE. Erasistratus invented vivisection of animals and he had an intuition of the circulation of the blood, as is proved by his writings, but he died before demonstrating it; this discovery is therefore attributed to William Harvey in 1628! It was also the alchemists of the Ptolemies who, starting from the lore of the ancient Egyptians, invented distillation with scented plants. To a Moslem Arab, Aboulcassis al-Zahrawi, who lived in Cordova in the 10th century, we owe the distillation of alcohol, from the Arabic al-kahal, “subtle thing”. He is considered the inventor of the alembic(al-anbiq), but he himself states that the etymology is from the Alexandrian Greek ambix.

ASTRONOMY. We still speak of Berenice, the Jewish princess from the beginning of our era, the heroine of Racine’s tragedy, but this Greek name Berenike, “who bears victory”, originates as that of princesses and queens of the Lagid dynasty. The wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes made a vow, in 244 BC, to offer her hair to the gods if the king returned from the war alive. He did. But during the night the offering disappeared. Scandal! The court astronomer Conon then explained that the tresses had been metamorphosed into stars, and gave the name Coma Berenices to the constellation he had just discovered. Callimachus and Catullus sang of this Hair of Berenice which has inspired the modern novelist Claude Simon.

The Jewish School

Coming from Jerusalem to Alexandria from the time of its foundation, the Jews hellenised themselves. Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309-246 BC) had the Hebrew sacred texts translated for their benefit. According to the legend, the king locked up on the island of Pharos seventy rabbis in seventy cabins from which they simultaneously emerged with seventy identical versions of the Bible! In reality the famous Septuagint was translated between 250 and 130 BC. Used by the Jews, it was also used by the early Christian Church and still serves as a reference.

Likewise, Alexandrian Judaism, impregnated with cosmopolitanism, was innovative in relation to the conservatism of Jerusalem. The historian Flavius Josephus, author of The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews, treats of the “Jewish nation” in such a nonconformist way that he is today sharply criticised by militant Zionists. Another remarkable work is The Wisdom of Solomon, which imagines between the inaccessible Jehovah and man an intermediary called Sophia, Wisdom. As to Philo the Jew (20 BC-50 AD), who brought the Jewish School to its apogee, he established a complementarity between the Bible and Platonist thought, rendered Jehovah intelligible to the polytheists and influenced the first Fathers of the Church.

The Christian School

According to tradition, Egypt was evangelised in the first century by St Mark, who founded the church of Alexandria. One of its most illustrious theologians, Clement (150-216), in his turn presented Christian truth as the crowning of philosophy, an idea which he summed up in the phrase: “Plato illuminated by the Scriptures.” We may also cite Cyril, the man of syncretism and of progress, for whom Christianity was not a rupture with the past but the culminating point and blossoming of all religions Two institutions of the Christian School have a direct bond with cosmopolitanism and continue to our own days.

The church of Alexandria wished to prove the capacity of Christianity to form theologians and to conceive vast syntheses in the face of philosophers of the different paganisms and of the Jewish thinkers. It therefore founded, in the second century, the Didascalia, the first Christian university. Likewise, it was in reaction to the debauchery of cosmopolitan Alexandria that there appeared the monastic asceticism illustrated by Paul of Thebes (234-347), St Anthony the Great (251-356) and St Pachomius (287-347), the founder of the first monastery at Tabennis on the Nile. Again, St Mary the Egyptian (345- 422), a celebrated courtesan, repented in consequence of a vision she had of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and created the first convent for women. Thus monasticism, born in the desert beyond Alexandria, spread over the East and later the West.

Modern Alexandria

After the Arab conquest there were, under the Mamelukes and thanks to the Venetians (who stole the relics of St Mark), to the Pisans, to the Genoese, some glimmerings and even a few lights, but they were ephemeral and fleeting. When Bonaparte arrived (1798), the town counted no more than 4,000 to 8,000 inhabitants, against the 500,000 to a million under the Ptolemies. Mehemet Ali (1769-1849), the founder of modern Egypt, brought it back to life. He linked it with Cairo by the Mahmoudieh canal and the railway, made it the base of the fleet with which he equipped the country, built the Palace of Ras el Tin there and created the Square of the Consuls, an imposing city centre endowed with a modern temple: the Bourse.

Here were installed the stock exchange (1866) and the cotton exchange (1871), reviving an ancient tradition, for Alexandria regulated the wheat traffic for the whole Mediterranean, whose financial hub it was until the Roman conquest. Mehemet Ali appealed to the Saint-Simonians and to other foreigners. Among these there were clever entrepreneurs and patrons who favoured artistic creation to make their city the Queen of the Mediterranean, as would be proclaimed in 1928 by the cover of the magazine Alexandrie. The most numerous foreigners were at that time the Greeks (400,000), the Italians (300,000), the Armenians who had escaped genocide (100,000), the Jews (90,000), Sephardim driven from Spain by the Inquisition and Ashkenazim originating from central Europe. The English, French and Spanish were only a few thousand. Despite the British colonisation, French was the language of part of the Egyptian elite, especially in Alexandria, until the mid-twentieth century. Cosmopolitan society and the Egyptian bourgeoisie were admittedly condescending about the bedrock Egyptian, but on the whole there reigned in the country a spirit of mutual comprehension.

The Second World War marks a caesura. Since 1945 Moscow had despatched two ships to take to Soviet Armenia those Armenians who wished to go; half of them left. Then, after the creation of Israel in 1948, the Jews migrated to the Hebrew State or to Europe. But it was the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, announced deliberately in Alexandria in 1956 by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the Franco-British expedition which followed, accompanied by an Israeli attack, which dealt a fatal blow to cosmopolitanism: the Jews, whether Egyptian or not, the French and the British were expelled, while most of the members of other communities progressively took the path of exile. As for the Bourse, its building was destroyed by a fire! The contributions made by modern cosmopolitan Alexandria were important ones; I will cite some examples to give an idea of them.

Poets and Writers

I will begin with the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy (1893- 1933), the bard of ancient Alexandria and of the secret aspects of his own, such as homosexuality.A solid study by Marguerite Yourcenar, of the Académie Française, has consecrated him in France. The Italian Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (Alexandria, 1876-Bellagio, 1944) is the father of Futurism. He launched that movement by publishing the Futurist Manifesto in Le Figaro of 20 February 1909. He made a call to “a paroxystic insurrection against academicism” and proclaimed: “A racing-car is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace!” The utterance caused a scandal but was to find an echo in the Surrealists and many other partisans of modern art. Another Italian from Alexandria, Giuseppe Ungaretti (Alexandria, 1896-Milan, 1970), was the standard-bearer of Hermetism with Eugenio Montale (Genoa, 1896-Milan, 1981), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975. From 1920 to 1945, they were both at the heart of that movement, also hostile to academicism and to the conventions of rhetoric.

The Irishman Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) was not from Alexandria but he lived there in the thirties and fell in love with its cosmopolitan population. Would he be so well known if he had not written the Alexandria Quartet? And it is now known that the Alexandrian Marthe El Kayem was the novelist’s Muse and inspired the character of Justine. I would now like to mention three Egyptian writers from Alexandria. The first, a Moslem, Ahmed Rassim (1895-1958), is not as well known as he deserves; an Arabic-speaker, he chose to write in French. I had frequent and long acquaintance with that born story-teller who signed for me copies of all his books published in Egypt. Speaking of him, I was instrumental in the publication in France of Chez le marchand de musc, a truculent collection of Arabic proverbs.

The second, a Jew, Jacques Hassoun, who died in 1999, liked to recall his origins by specifying: “I was born in October 1936, chaabane 1355, hechvan 1697.” He was a psychoanalyst who devoted a number of works to his community, notably Juifs du Nil and Histoire des Juifs du Nil, whose innovative and fundamental contribution provoked the creation of very active associations for the preservation of the Jewish heritage of Egypt. I would note also his novel Alexandries, whose unusual plural is intended to reflect the diversity of communities. Finally a third, a Christian, Édouard Al-Kharrat (born in 1926), author of Alexandrie, terre de safran, recipient of the Prize for Franco-Arab Friendship (like the two authors who follow), awarded by the Association d’amitié franco-arabe in Paris, and Belles d’Alexandrie. Leader of a generation of Arabic novelists and short-story writers, he describes the Alexandria of the asli, or ancestral, Egyptian, and explains why he takes issue with cosmopolitanism in the name of national identity.

My confrère and friend Robert Solé (born in 1946), mediator of the daily Le Monde, is of Lebanese origin. He belonged to the cosmopolitan society of Cairo which, despite its particular features, had so many affinities and resemblances with that of Alexandria. He leads us into its arcana with Le Tarbouche20 before taking us to the second capital with another novel, Le Sémaphore d’Alexandrie. His is a fundamental contribution on the particular relation between Egypt and France, notably with L’Égypte, passion française and Les savants de Bonaparte. Born in Cairo in 1920, also of Lebanese parents, and living in Paris since 1946, Andrée Chédid was fascinated by Alexandria. She transports us there with a play devoted to the sister of Cleopatra, Bérénice d’Égypte. Her novel, Le Sixième jour, has been brought to the screen by Youssef Chahine, who chose for the leading role the singer Dalida, who is none the less cosmopolitan for not being an Alexandrian.


This leads me to put the question: would there have been a flourishing Egyptian cinema and a Youssef Chahine without the cosmopolitan Alexandria where he was born in 1923, and to which he has devoted several of his films, including Alexandrie, encore et toujours? The exhibition “A Hundred Years of Egyptian Cinema”, in the Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris), was an answer to this. Three milestones. In 1896 the films of the Lumière brothers were shown in Alexandria. Mohamad Abdô (1849-1905), the leader of Egyptian fundamentalism, immediately published a text to justify the cinema, explaining “It is necessary to keep up with the aesthetic sense of the Europeans.” In 1905 there were 53 cinema halls in Alexandria, 5 in Cairo, the capital, and one each in Assiout, Port-Said and Mansourah. In 1912 De Lagarne, an Alexandrian, shot the first two documentaries in the country: The travellers of Sidi Gaber and The entry of the Khedive into Alexandria. Egyptian cinema was born. Soon afterwards Cairo became the capital of Arab cinema.

The Singers

After Dalida, already mentioned, I will cite Claude François, a native of the Suez Canal region, because it is Alexandrie, Alexandra, secure in every memory, which made him famous. How could I not also mention Georges Moustaki, whose songs you all know? A Judaeo-Greek of French culture, his father kept the finest bookshop, and received there the writers René Étiemble (who taught at the University of Alexandria), Georges Duhamel, André Gide… That explains the vast culture of the singer who remained faithful to his native city, which often appears in his songs and in his books.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina

After a quarter of a century of turning in on itself, Alexandria has entered a phase of renewal.26 Excavations have been made, notably by Jean-Yves Empereur, to save remains that have been too long neglected. The architect Mohammad Awad is waging an exemplary battle to save from destruction buildings illustrating the styles of the 19th and 20th centuries. There is also, faithful to the cosmopolitan spirit, the Senghor University, decided on at the French-speaking Dakar Summit (1969), which teaches in French and receives students from black Africa. Finally, the much-loved Governor Mohamed Abdel Salam Mahgoub, nicknamed “Mahboub”, has undertaken a gigantic renovation movement. Let us conclude with the most important thing, the symbol turned into reality, a bond with its illustrious past and a projection to the future: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. 2002.

Risen again on the spot of the mouseion of the Ptolemies, it has for its Director Ismail Serageldine. It is a marvel! Patronised by UNESCO and the International Architects’ Union, this ambitious project, launched in 1990,28 is bold and original: a long cylinder 160 metres in diameter, with bevelled edges to evoke the rising sun; on its sides, the decoration reproduces all the forms of writing. With its aim of being the “memory of the Mediterranean”, it will house 8 million volumes, 100,000 manuscripts, 10,000 rare books, 50,000 maps and plans. Multimedia and multilingual, in Arabic, English and French, it is at the cutting edge of technology. In the third millennium of our era, the eighth for Egypt, it realises again the dream of universal knowledge of the Ptolemies.