After years of rumors, negotiations and objections, Alexandrians awoke on September 19 to the news that the villa that had inspired one of the most acclaimed works of world literature had been demolished. The destruction of this architectural gem of Egypt’s second city is just one in a long line of demolitions contributing to the systematic erasure of the city’s cultural legacy.
With its belle époque architecture, Villa Ambron, once housed famed author Lawrence Durrell whose celebrated tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet, has been considered to depict the now lost ‘cosmopolitan’ flavor of the city. The site where the villa used to stand is located on El-Ma’amoun street in the now mostly lower-middle class to the working-class area of Moharam Bek.
Durell, together with Eve Cohen, a Jewish woman from Alexandria who was to become his wife and inspiration for the character of Justine in the Quartet’s first volume bearing the same name, moved into the upper floor of the house with their friends in the early 1940s amid an escalating World War. In the years after the war, and particularly following the power grab by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his efforts to nationalize foreign-owned businesses and institutions, many belonging to Alexandria’s foreign communities left the city, including Durell.
The Ambrons, one of the city’s wealthiest families and the villa’s owners, sold it in the mid-1990s to local developer Abdelaziz Ahmed Abdelaziz. He has since erected two apartment blocks in the place of the villa’s gardens and is likely to follow suit in the location where the building stood. Although there are laws and regulations that protect the city’s architectural heritage, they are frequently ignored. Abdelaziz claims to have obtained judicial approval from the local courts four years ago to demolish the property.
Despite objections to the demolition plans by local activists, preservationists, and other Alexandrians in addition to attempts to gather funds to purchase the property, these efforts have been crushed.
Mohamed Awad, the founder of the Alexandria Preservation Trust, a group working to preserve the city’s architectural heritage, commented on the plans to demolish the villa three years ago saying “Alexandria is lost in my opinion … we are putting up a fight, but we are going to lose the war in terms of preservation”.
Pointing to the failure to adapt Villa Ambron to its contemporary environment, Waleed Mansour, who works in Alexandria’s cultural sphere, told Egyptian Streets that it was demolished mainly for that reason.
“Buildings are meant to be erected for a specific purpose. In the science of urban planning and architecture, there is a domain called adaptive reuse and rehabilitation, which is mainly about creating new uses for buildings or changing their purpose to serve the interest of the new inhabitants. If both happen, it will preserve the heritage and invest sustainably in its value,” says Mansour, also highlighting the “absence of laws and regulations that protect the built heritage of Alexandria as well as the absence of any urban governance and planning process”.
Mansour stressed that the demise of the city’s urban heritage is not only a phenomenon restricted to Alexandria but is rather a process taking place across the country.
Architectural engineer and founder of the Facebook page and cultural and architectural heritage documentation project Description of Alexandria, Mohamed Gohar, similarly believes that when historic buildings do not adapt to changing times, they lose their societal function.
“A building that is not used will die, the function of it dies,” he tells Egyptian Streets, and goes on to compare the perspective of Alexandria’s city administrators on architectural preservation to the city of Rome, which has been “turned into an anonymous open-air museum”.
“Here, we did the opposite [to Rome], we neglected the buildings as well as the citizens,” says Gohar.
Gohar says it is possible to “find a mix between the two” – a middle-ground between a focus on preserving buildings and a focus on serving the needs of a city’s inhabitants. The two perspectives can indeed coexist, he contends.
Turning to Villa Ambron, he explains that it was demolished because “it is illogical to keep on preserving a building that no one uses. Alexandria’s buildings will continue to be demolished as long as they do not serve a purpose.”
The destruction of the villa can also be viewed from a city-wide perspective. An often-repeated issue regarding Alexandria’s urban development has to do with its physical shape and geographical location.
“Alexandria’s problem is that it is a linear city, we liken it to a sandwich; it is cramped between the Mediterranean in the north and the Mariout Lake in the south so the space that is available to build on is very small. So it is natural that you have to destroy the old to be able to build something new, there is no space,” says Gohar.
A few days after the demolition, the site of the destroyed villa is cordoned off. Outside sits a group of men on plastic chairs and a security guard strolls around. In the front of the site, a large white sign has been erected with red letters that reads “License for demolition from Alexandria’s administrative court of justice”.
In a small shop in one of the neighboring buildings, I meet three men, one in his 50s, the other two seemingly in their 40s.
“The villa was empty and no one lived there so there was no use in keeping it,” one of them tells me.
“Someone bought it about 20 years ago but didn’t do anything with it, so it just sat there,” he continues. The men say they do not know who used to live in the building back in its heyday.
Answering the question of what their thoughts are about the villa being demolished, the three men first look with bewilderment at each other, then one of them turns to me saying that it is best not to go further into the matter.
“It’s a pity that they demolished such an old villa,” ‘Umm Ahmed,’ a woman wearing a darkly-colored traditional gown, says, as she adjusts her veil. “But it was in a bad condition so maybe it was for the best, only God knows,” adding that she is unaware of who used to live there.
Only a stone’s throw to the east on al-Ma’moun street where the dust of Villa Ambron’s destruction barely has settled lies another demolition site. A bawab – or porter – of a building opposite the site says he does not know anything about the demolition or the former building other than the fact that they began working on the site only recently. He points to the place where Villa Ambron used to stand and says that they just demolished an old building over there, being unaware of its historical significance.
The memory of Lawrence Durrell does not appear to echo very strongly in the consciousness of the contemporary community in and around Alexandria’s al-Ma’amoun street, and it will certainly not be easier to foster now that the building he once inhabited has been forever lost.
In the midst of the blazing war in Europe, Durrell had moved to Alexandria from Greece escaping the Nazi invasion of the country. Upon his arrival in the city by the sea he would take the position of press officer at the British consulate. He mixed with the European intellectual and business elite and came to be celebrated alongside foreign Alexandrian artists and writers such as British essayist E.M Forster and Greek poet C.P Cavafy. These characters have been praised for their ability to capture the (Western) imagination of Alexandria as a city of cosmopolitanism, nostalgia, and memories of lost grandeur.
Durrell had begun writing The Alexandria Quartet while residing in Villa Ambron, the building’s characteristic tower supposedly being his preferred writing spot. Yet it was only after leaving the Mediterranean city that he would finish his Alexandrian epic. In a much-repeated quote, he defined the Quartet as “an investigation of modern love,” but commentators have regarded it as more of an evocation of the cosmopolitan spirit allegedly permeating the city’s urban fabric.
The cosmopolitan discourse on Alexandria, as captured in works by literary figures like Durrell, Cavafy and Forster, have however been strongly criticized for seeing the city and its people through an outside, orientalist lens, while failing to acknowledge the existence of its native Egyptian population. Historian Khaled Fahmy has emphasized how these authors have excluded the city’s Egyptian inhabitants in their writings, or when they indeed are portrayed, the authors “typically turn with disgust and repugnance to the natives who are implicitly [and at times, explicitly] blamed for the city’s fall, and who are referred to in what is supposed to be a pejorative term: ‘Arabs’.”
Academic Hala Halim goes further, asserting that the alleged cosmopolitanism of Alexandria was merely a “Eurocentric colonial discourse that perched the city precariously between “quasi” and “pseudo,” multiply Europeanizing its diversity in a gesture of appropriation while ambivalently placing it under the sign of Levantine to impute a shifty derivativeness”. She lays bare this Eurocentrism by pointing to how authors of the cosmopolitan tradition have associated anything European in Alexandria with enlightened civilization while casting all that is Egyptian or Arab as indications of savage barbarism.
On his part, novelist Edwar al-Kharrat, in his declaration of love to his native city, says of Durell in his book Iskanderiaty – Arabic for My Alexandria – that the Alexandria of the British author is simply a “myth,” a product of his elitist imagination which fails to capture the true nature of the Egyptian city.
Cosmopolitan Alexandria has even been deconstructed in numerical terms. Detailed research conducted by Robert Marbro on the social composition of Alexandria’s population between 1840s and the 1960s suggests that despite at times being relatively large, the city’s foreign communities never exceeded a quarter of the population: “the Egyptian population constituted a significant majority, with a ratio of at least three Egyptians to one foreigner.”
For those familiar with the literature on the city, the critique of its cosmopolitan character is certainly valid. However, this does not mean that the colonial heritage of Egypt in general and Alexandria, in particular, should be left to decay and its buildings turned into dust.
Villa Ambron is only one in a long series of demolitions that form a part of a wider trend towards neglecting the city’s architectural history in favor of the interests of the business sector. In the second half of the twentieth century, and particularly since the 1970s, violent attacks on the city’s built environment were vigorously accelerated. The city’s business sector, which had leverage with the city authorities, was able to prevent the establishment of a strong legal framework that would toughen penalties against building demolitions without the owner having obtained official permits and prohibit the development of land where historic buildings had been illegally destroyed.
Also connecting the issue to the problem of corruption, Gohar agrees that laws are not strong enough, pointing to leap holes in the legal framework for the demolition of historic buildings whereby developers find ways to circumvent existing laws.
“If laws were sufficiently strong and fair they would protect the buildings until new functions are found for them. Our laws are neither fair nor strong,” says Gohar.
A telling example of this trend of urban heritage negligence was the destruction of no fewer than 102 historical buildings during just 90 days in 1997, what was dubbed by I.H. Rezk as “a massacre of villas and palaces”. This was followed by an intervention by the prime minister who issued a decree that would safeguard the conservation of buildings of “great value”. A list of criteria on how to determine if a building was of great value or not was also issued, which included “whether [the building] has been inhabited by important people”.
More recently, decree 144 of 2006 stipulated that “It shall be prohibited to authorize demolishing or adding to the buildings and establishments with a peculiar architectural style that are correlated to the country’s national history, or a historical figure, or represent a historical epoch, or considered a tourist sight”.
Despite these regulations, Alexandria’s built environment has continued to be exposed to fierce assaults from representatives of the business elite.
It should not come as a surprise that demolitions significantly increased starting in the 1970s. This was the era of economic opening or ‘infitah’ by which then-president Anwar Sadat adopted a neo-liberal economic model whereby the primary mechanism governing society’s various relationships were to be free-market capitalism. Large-scale privatization, deregulation, and austerity measures were instituted and the public sector’s role in the economy and society was reduced in favor of private enterprises.
Then, in the 1990s, the liberalization of the economy was extended as the country yoked itself to structural adjustment programs under the IMF and the World Bank. The result was huge slashes in public spending, deteriorating working conditions and a spike in national poverty rates. While this was going on, Egypt’s tiny crème de la crème elite made huge profits off of the new economic regime.
The demolition of historic buildings, and more generally, the erosion of Egypt’s public spaces, should be seen in this context. When the primary force regulating state and society is economic gain, urban spaces that do not serve any direct economic purpose – be they public parks, Alexandria’s seafront corniche or architectural gems from days past – will inevitably be circumscribed.
Building demolitions like that of Villa Ambron on September 19 is a continuation of a long series of vicious assaults on Alexandria’s urban spaces that have been ongoing since the last half-century, and more examples are plenty.
Last year, the Cicurel Villa, located in Alexandria’s Rushdy area and built by a prominent Turkish family in the 1930s, was knocked down, without a permit. The building stood as a symbol of the city’s spectacular historical architecture and when it was demolished, neighbors and heritage activists alike gathered to document the crime.
In August 2009, in the shadow of night, as if to escape the shame of eradicating yet another of Alexandria’s architectural treasures, the modernist Villa Agion, erected in the 1920s by the famed Parrot brothers, was leveled by bulldozers, also with total disregard for local laws.
Alongside these examples, and many more surely exists, last week’s demolition represents a piece of the slow but steady decimation of Alexandria’s architectural legacy, which sadly serves to erase some of the city’s rich cultural, social and architectural history.
On-site after the site where historical buildings once stood, one observes how new flaunting hotels or decadent apartment blocks spring up.
“Owners care about the properties’ monetary value rather than their touristic or cultural value to Alexandria,” said Mohamed Mehaina, deputy director of AlexMed and member of the Heritage Preservation Committee at the Biblioteca Alexandrina.
It could, of course, be argued that since these buildings do not serve any tangible purpose for contemporary Alexandria they should indeed be removed. However, as Egypt is desperately trying to revive its flailing tourist sector as part of a broader push to boost its economy, these historic sites are crucial for attracting foreign visitors. If places of historical significance are destroyed, the question remains to where tourists would go to experience the Alexandria of the past?
Leaving aside the purely heritage aspect of urban architectural preservation, there is simply no economic logic to the ongoing extermination of the city’s historic buildings.
The preservation of these urban treasures would not only serve to reconnect Egyptians with our past and highlight the cultural and social diversity that permeate the country’s modern history, but would also be a small, yet nonetheless tangibly practical step, for Alexandria, or even Cairo, towards reclaiming their place as cities of world status.