Alexandria is a city that has inspired its visitors for over 2,000 years. Founded by Alexander the Great in 331BC, the city was the intellectual centre of the Hellenistic world. The first screening of a motion picture in Egypt was in Alexandria. In the years before World War II, it produced more than half the total of Egyptian cinema productions.
Now, after decades of neglect, the city is undergoing a cultural revival. On a near nightly basis, visitors can find anything from a gallery opening to classical orchestral performances to a Spanish Flamenco dance show.
Most of the cultural centres are located within walking distance around the downtown area. Downtown – with its wide boulevards, and colonial architecture – retains a faded charm as a bustling urban city has developed around it.
Close to the site of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. The library, one of Alexandria’s greatest cultural gems, flourished for hundreds of years and was considered the centre for cultural development in the west until it was lost in a fire at the time of Julius Ceasar.
The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, opened in 2001, hopes to recapture the spirit of the original library, but with a contemporary design and state of the art equipment. Now the eye-catching building sits on the corniche, and offers visitors a variety of events to complement its manuscript and antiquities museums, art galleries and science museum.
With a focus on contemporary arts, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Art Centre strives to create a window between the world and Egypt’s artistic field. ‘Our mission is to preserve culture and sophisitication,’ says Mona Mazhar, a coordinator for the arts centre. ‘We want to let people know about the real art.’
To do that, the centre is given a wide mandate, hosting artists ranging from international orchestras to Black Theama, a reggae, hip-hop fusion band. ‘The artistic community is small, but it’s active and is especially easy to access,’ says Mazhar.
Another option for high culture is the Alexandria Opera House. Tucked behind apartment buildings on Horreya Street, it offers classical arts, ballet and Egyptian music, and has a loosely enforced dress code to match its mission.
The Arts and Multimedia Library within Bibliotheca Alexandrina offers lectures as well as music screenings. According to Ranya Kalawy, the head of the Arts and Multimedia Library, the programmes are geared for all interests, from specialised talks to a screening of Zorro.
‘We want to be able to appeal to all library users, from those who have a very specific interest, to someone who would never have thought to visit us,’ she tells us.
For decades, arts in Egypt have been pushed aside in education, underfunded and for Alexandria, overlooked in favour of Cairo. ‘The first time I saw a play outside of school, I was twenty years old,’ said Hatem Salama, the project manager of Centre Rézodanse Egypte (15 Sézostris Street) a performing arts and dance centre. ‘Growing up, I loved performing, but there was simply nowhere to go and see it.’
According to Salama, Alexandria’s once thriving cultural scene stagnated in the 1960s under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab movement.‘Theatre was increasingly used to promote a specific political point of view, and when artists became a danger to the regime, they demolished the role of art in society,’ he says. ‘So people who used to see movies or go to the theatre stopped, a whole generation stopped, and we’ve lost the support of the audience.’
Though Alexandria has a tradition of street festivals, since last year’s uprising, artists have begun to perform in new spaces: contemporary dance festivals held in old cafes, closed cinemas, and rooftops, concerts in poorer districts. While these efforts have helped the arts scene flourish, Emad Mabrook, the cultural program coordinator at the Garage, located in the Jesuit Centre, says the demand for cultural outstrips the available space. Established over a decade ago, The Garage (298 Port Said St), is one of the most well-known independent venues for bands, films, and performances by both local and international artists.
‘Every time we have a concert, at least a thousand people show up, and we only have room for 250 seats,’ Mabrook explains, adding that it is mostly familiar faces. To ease the demand, as well as encourage those from poorer neighborhoods to participate, the Garage live streams all of its performances, and puts them on YouTube.
Indeed, many projects in Alexandria work to bring contemporary arts into public spaces. From the Arts Center’s annual street festival to the artist collective Gudran’s cafe concerts and Dukan (Shop), an art gallery and performance space set in a remodeled alleyway shop in the midst of a busy street market.
According to Salama, the outreach works, but takes funding and considerable momentum to bring the audience back as repeat visitors. A few years ago, Salama staged a six-day run of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder in classical Arabic.
‘We went to factories and companies and encouraged workers to come see the free show. We asked everyone who entered to answer one question: ‘Have you ever seen a play before?’, out of 714 attendees, 523 checked ‘No,’’ he says.
To keep audiences coming back, Salama says that cultural groups are collaborating and promoting each other’s events within their work. ‘Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city and the Alexandrian community was open-minded, things are changing [politically] and we want to maintain that cosmopolitan feel. We want to let people know about real art,’ Mazhar says.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Alexandria was home to Greek, Italian, French and British communities. Though the 1952 revolution ended that era of pluralistic vibrancy, Alexandria still bears the vestiges of the era, with pavement cafes dotting the Corniche, and dozens of theatres and cinemas spread across the downtown district. Sadly, only a handful remain in operation.
Set on the Mediterranean coast, Alexandria’s restaurants are all about fish. While the Fish Market on the Corniche attracts many of the city’s well-heeled eaters, the Greek Club, behind fort Qaitbey, has drawn crowds for decades with its now-vintage décor and a terrace overlooking the sea. The Greek Club offers delicious mix of traditional greek dishes and grilled seafood.
The Corniche has ample options to enjoy tea and shisha while looking out onto the Mediterranean. But, coffee lovers will prefer the freshly ground beans of the Brazilian Coffee Stores (44 Saad Zaghoul Street).
Unlike Cairo, Alexandria bears fewer marks of the globalised food industry, and while KFC and McDonalds are pervasive, the best eateries in town remain those that have been popular for decades.For the traveller with perseverance, a little foray under the surface of Alexandria will certainly yield the greatness that its name suggests.
Photographer: Laurence Underhill