CAIRO: While many of Naguib Mahfouz’s most memorable characters stalked the back streets and alleys of Cairo, the Nobel laureate also had a soft spot for Egypt’s second city.
“Alexandria was a European city, where Italian, French, Greek or English was heard far more than Arabic, he wrote in Al-Ahram in 1996.
“The city was beautiful, so clean I could have eaten off the streets. In short, Alexandria was a European city, but it belonged to us, the Egyptians.
Fittingly, this quote is prominently displayed at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where an exhibit entitled “Impressions of Alexandria traces the city’s history back to medieval times through a series of sketches, paintings, maps and photographs – done mostly by Europeans.
The exhibit begins with a print from Hartman Schedel’s 1493 work “The Chronicle of Nuremburg. Drawn in storybook fashion, the print depicts Alexandria as a fantastical city filled with steeples, castles and heavy brick walls.
Schedel also tells his readers that European settlers and traders were living in Alexandria at the time, with Venetian and Genoese merchants doing particularly brisk business trading goods along the Mediterranean Sea coast.
Beyond the graphics and the text, however, the “Chronicle also shows how Europeans – through a mixture of fantasy, suspect historiography and clever fabrication – used Alexandria as a model for a European enclave in the Orient.
Likewise, the European fascination with Alexandria is apparent in a 17th century French decorative map with the title of “Ancienne Vieux D’Alexandria, which depicts the city as a fully Europeanized vision of urban utopia.
Rather than showing Alexandria as the oriental and Islamic city that it surely was at the time, European cartographers eschewed facts in favor of an idealized version of the city. Many historians now believe that mapmakers at the time in fact relied on oral traditions and third-party anecdotes rather than cartographic facts and geographic methods.
By the 18th century, Europeans were still celebrating Alexandria as the ancient Hellenic seat of Ptolemy. This period is exemplified by “The Lighthouse of Alexandria by Fisher von Erlach.
Like other European historiographers, Erlach didn’t have much time for facts: his drawing distorts the lighthouse’s actual dimensions and design, and he gives it only six stories when historical documents show that it actually rose to 14 floors.
Fueled by interest in ancient texts, Alexandria was seen as an almost mythical city. But sometimes, these imaginary views of Alexandria ran up against fact.
In 1702, Corneille Le Bruyn laments the sorry state of Alexandria, which he finds to be in disarray and disrepair. While the author celebrates the city’s ruins and the massive Pompey Pillar, he says “as to the present state of the city of Alexandria, it is almost wholly ruinated and without buildings, having but a few houses inhabited.
Nonetheless, by the end of the 18th century, the French army had conquered the coast of Egypt, but while “Prise D’Alexandria by Grenier shows Napoleon’s achievement as a remarkable and considerable military victory, in fact, only 40 Alexandrians perished in the fighting. It was a small and barely significant battle.
With the dawning of the colonial age, however, the exhibit swings from cartography to clinical depictions of military maneuvers. Here’s why. Shortly after taking Alexandria, Napoleon recruited 165 scholars to create a massive encyclopedic collection called “Description De l’Égypte, which flew off book shelves in Europe and led to an Egypt craze in Europe.
It’s no wonder the Europeans freaked out: “Description looks like a flawless collection and its depictions of Greek ruins, ancient Egyptian obelisks and other architectural details were among the most graphic and accurate of the age.
Along with a history of Alexandria, the exhibit is also a history of graphic methodology, which shows the development of industrial illustration and photography.
As such, early photographs and daguerreotypes are on display, such as Hector Horeau’s “Aiguille de Cleopatre, and drawings taken from newspapers during the English bombardments of 1882, when gunship diplomacy led to major destruction of the city.
Other highlights include sepia photographs of the city’s modernist architectural treasures, and while Alexandria may not be the ancient capital it once was, these photos show that the city is still a gem on the sea.