Monday, 31 January 2011

Alexandria Burning


The scene above was shot from the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria during the insurrectionary protests of the last few days. The camera looks across the square named for the nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul, the inspiration behind the 1919 revolution and whose statue is on the left, towards the Metropole Hotel from which smoke and flames issue from one side.
In the early twentieth century the building that is now the Metropole housed various offices including the Third Circle of Irrigation where Constantine Cavafy was employed, and the Trianon, one of Cavafy's favourite caf├ęs and still in business today.

E M Forster famously recounted how he was standing on a nearby corner when he heard someone call his name and turned to see 'a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe'. It was Cavafy who if he was on his way to his office would vanish with a slight gesture of despair. But if he was returning from the office to his flat he might be persuaded to begin an immense and complicated yet shapely sentence, 'a sentence that moves with logic to its foreseen end, yet to an end that is always more vivid and thrilling than one foresaw'. Delivered with equal ease in Greek, French or English, the sentence might sometimes carry its listener all the way back to the flat: 'It deals with the tricky behaviour of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1096, or with olives, their possibilities and price, or with the fortunes of friends, or George Eliot, or the dialects of the interior of Asia Minor'. Forster found that 'it too stands at a slight angle to the universe: it is the sentence of a poet'.

With good reason historical associations came readily, even inescapably, to the poet of the city, Forster putting it quite literally when he said that 'kings, emperors, patriarchs have trodden the ground between his office and his flat'. Cavafy would have remembered the two obelisks that in his youth had been close by the shore, one standing, the other prone and half buried in the sand. They marked the site of the Caesareum, a shrine begun by Cleopatra in honour of Julius Caesar or Mark Antony. The Caesareum was built on a magnificent scale, beautiful all over with gold and silver, and was surrounded by porticoes, libraries and consecrated groves. Later it became the patriarchal church, but in time only the obelisks remained. Then in the nineteenth century these 'Cleopatra's Needles' were given away, the fallen obelisk erected on London's Embankment, the standing obelisk in New York's Central Park. Now as Cavafy made his way between his office and his flat he could remember when the obelisk that had gone to New York had stood exactly on the site of the Third Circle of Irrigation - today's Metropole Hotel.

As for the flames issuing from the Metropole, later photographs show a blackened wall but the damage seems to have been contained. But nothing contains history which continues to be made at this place where Cleopatra built her temple.