Forget the hippie trail: follow Lawrence Durrell to Alexandria on a literary trail
Taking the bus through the dusty yellow landscape of Egypt from Cairo to Alex couldn’t be more, well, Egyptian. You can forget struggling through the desert to arrive for your ice cold Carlsberg like John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex, today you will take a luxury bus with air conditioning, food and Egyptian coffee. From the window the roads are a snapshot of Egyptian life with a vast, and unique, assortment of private and commercial vehicles and, quite surreally, sometimes the necks of camels sticking up from the back of pickup trucks, thoughtfully watching you, the traffic and the world.
Dusty and yellow are the words to describe the view, and it is rather a strain on English eyes used to green and pleasant lands. There’s not a stick of vegetation, not a leaf or sign of green. As you approach Alex the landscape is very industrial, the modern gods of worship in a landscape littered with monolithic machinery and crafted excavations on a larger scale than the pyramids.
Soon this spectacle drops away and the unassuming low lying suburbs of Alex come into view. Your luxury bus stops in a very un-luxurious bus station which stretches a great distance around. A few portacabins make up the only buildings.
Your chosen form of transport takes sometime to reach the Grand Corniche; here the wide strip of road, along the deep blue bay of Alexandria, with its permanent throng of honking six lane traffic; the modern music of Alex: car horns and the call to prayer.
Alexandria: one of the most ancient cities in the world, with the least to show for it. This is where two wonders of the world stood: the great library and the great lighthouse. Of the library, nothing remains, and of the lighthouse, well, if you are a diver you can go and find its stones under the bay. In-fact that is where most of Alexandria’s antiquities lie: under the water, relics from the pharaohs in a watery grave.
In a brave attempt the Alexandrians have built a new modern library called the “Bibliotheca”, trying to emulate the greatness of the past. It is a brave attempt, a wonderful new international draw and quiet hub in the dusty car horn filled modern city.
Most of Alexandria consists of modern buildings built on top of the ancient city. There are a few exceptions: a throng of ex-British Victorian hotels line the bay, but to the west of the city stands the big attraction, Pompey’s Pillar, a Roman ornate column thrusting its lone triumphal finger to the sky. This is it, the ancient past of Alex, and really all that is left.
Of course in Durrell’s day the bay was full of warships as the black clouds of the Second World War gathered. His masterpiece The Alexandria Quartet is a snapshot of the cosmopolitan city during that time. It is a four volume novel of prose poetry following the life and loves of expatriates in the diverse city during a time of great upheaval.
“…the city which used us as its flora – precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!” The Alexandria Quartet.
He had not long fled his life in Corfu with his family and, the other animals, collected by his brother Gerald Durrell. The naturalist Gerald, encouraged by his brother, had written of his time in Corfu. He writes of the animals he collected and his eccentric family. This is where we were introduced to his literary brother Larry in the trilogy My Family and Other Animals. With the coming of the war the family moved back to England but Larry headed off to Alex.
Here you can take a literary pilgrimage to the last cultural relic ready to go under the new Alex. Be warned: you may be too late. If you navigate your way into the busy back streets, stepping into the traffic to cross roads, the accepted method in Egypt, you will eventually arrive at a ruin waiting to happen: the crumbing Villa Ambron. This is where Durrell wrote. His study was in the top of the tower on the corner of the Villa. Here he composed notes for the Alexandria Quartet and wrote Prospero’s Cell, which features the tower on the cover. From his window he used to see Pompey’s Pillar. Now, tower blocks obscure the view. In Durrell’s time this was a cosmopolitan area of beautiful villas. The current owner of the Villa is not allowed to demolish it, but he has gutted the interior hoping the building will crumble, after which he will build a tower block.
Even the house of the famous Alexandrian poet Constantine P. Cavafy is preserved for posterity but under threat. The Villa Ambron? The Villa is a lost cause, soon, maybe, you can view it by diving in the bay.
Please see the other pictures of my visit to Egypt along with some great background info from Michael Haag.
See this article in the Telegraph by Richard Spencer (yes they used my picture)
Michael Haag: Lawrence Durrell's House in Alexandria