There is a wonderful Italo Calvino story about a city so removed from its own history that it is as if the modern metropolis sits on the site of an unrelated ancient city that just happens to bear the same name. At times Alexandria, which Alexander the Great founded in the 4th century BC, feels like that. Yet the fallen Alexandria of the ancient Greeks, of Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and
the Romans, and of pagan cults and the Great Library is underfoot, quite literally, as all of modern Alexandria has been built on the ruins of the old, a city that was capital of Egypt from the 3rd century BC until AD 642, when the Arabs first arrived.
Overlay a map of the contemporary city with one from antiquity, and you see that many of the streets have remained the same: Shar'a al-Horreya runs along the route of the ancient Canopic Way, and Shar'a Nabi Daniel follows the route of the ancient Street of the Soma. Near their intersection once stood the Mouseion, a Greek philosophic and scientific center that had at its heart the collection of the Great Library. Yet only fleeting glimpses of this ancient city peak through the modern crust.
By the early 20th century, Alexandria was a wealthy trading port. The merchants were fantastically rich—cosmopolitan without being intellectual—and they enjoyed the sort of idle existence that is born of privilege, a privilege not of high birth but rather of colonial rule, which shielded foreigners from Egyptian law. They lived in villas with extravagant gardens, frequented luxurious shops, gossiped over tea in grand cafés, and lounged on the beach in private resorts along the coast. The population was a multicultural mix of Greeks and Arabs, Turks and Armenians, French and Levantines, Jews and Christians, and this spawned a unique atmosphere. It was this city that belonged to Constantine Cavafy, now regarded as the greatest Greek poet of his era. It was this city to which the novelist E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, was posted during World War I. And it was this city that gave birth to Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, which captivated a generation of American readers when the books were published in the late 1950s.
Then quite suddenly everything changed. The intellectuals and merchants fled, driven out of Egypt by the nationalist revolution of the 1950s, the wars with Israel, and the nationalization of their businesses.
It's been five decades since most of the foreigners left—some Greeks and Armenians remained. But if you take the city as it is today and not as a faded version of what it once was, you will find that Alex (as it's affectionately known) remains an utterly charming place to visit. The Mediterranean laps at the seawall along the Corniche, and gentle sea breezes cool and refresh even in the dead of summer. Graceful old cafés continue to draw lovers and friends—Egyptians now, rather than foreigners—while the streets remain as lively and intriguing as ever. Alexandria is still a great city, even now, shorn of its many pasts.