The vanishing city of Alexandria
In the early hours of one February 2014 morning, two bulldozers and a small group of men rumbled through the quiet Zezenia neighbourhood of Alexandria, Egypt. The small procession drove through the area, past rusty Fiats and dented luxury sedans, then through the perimeter wall of a small residential property. The men got out leaving the drivers to piloted their machines towards a spectacular 20th century villa, crashing through the outer walls and burying the vehicles deep inside.
The men began working quickly, breaking through the brick and concrete, chopping the rebar pipes and dismantling the support structure of the mansion. Across the street was an official residence of Alexandria’s governor and nearby, the Royal Jewelry Museum. The demolition was entirely illegal.
Outside the walls of the compound, a local resident watching the wild scene unfold stepped forth to confront them. “They threatened him and he barely escaped with his life”, says Mohamed Aboelkheir, a founder of the Save Alex movement, a group working to protect Alexandria’s heritage that also collects the stories of illegal demolitions. “They’ll attack you no question. With them, there’s no talking.” Aboelkheir passed by several hours later — when the destruction of the villa was complete and the building was gone.
For several weeks after, more men, aggressive and quick to violence, were posted outside the property, neighbourhood people say, some with weapons and dogs. They threatened anyone who lingered for too long outside the construction site.
These men are, according to activists, city officials, architects and historians who are part of the so-called “construction mafia”, a band of real-estate developers and hired muscle who, in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution, have profited from the city’s construction boom through exploiting government corruption, bending laws, and preying on the remains of Alexandria’s vulnerable historical architecture.
‘Living in history’
Mohamed Gohar is an architect who began traveling around Alexandria in 2012 with his notebook and pencil, sketching street scenes and the city’s wealth of uncommon architecture. Two years earlier, like many Egyptians, Gohar had left the country to work in the Gulf. He was drawn there with the promise of a lucrative job drafting projects for the Emiratis, but he was drawn back to Egypt. “I’m used to living in history, and Dubai has no history,” he tells me. Architects need regular practice to keep up their drafting skills and Gohar began drifting through the city, drawing Alexandria’s diverse architectural landscape.
He began to realise that Alexandria, like other cities across the country, was undergoing a physical transformation. Hosni Mubarak’s police state had ostensibly disappeared and a relatively peaceful anarchy had taken its place. Dissenting political opinion was now discussed in cafes, which, without regulations, began to spill into the streets. There, they competed with vendors, who began venturing further into the city’s wealthier areas, where they would once have been chased away by police.
“For the first time, people felt like the city was theirs,” Gohar says. “Suddenly we realised we have the right to think big, express ourselves, we own the land. I started to think I could actually do something for my city.”
Almost a year ago, Gohar started a project, which in all likelihood, he will never finish. Alongside 10 artists and one writer, Gohar plans on documenting the entire city of Alexandria. He will sketch every single building, on every street, in every neighbourhood. He does this, he says, for the city he loves and the city he says he will die in. He does this, because, in many ways, the Alexandria of his youth, of his imagination, and the Alexandria that inspired generations of artists, filmmakers, architects, and photographers, is being destroyed. Soon, all physical traces of the era that the city is known for, the “Belle Époque”, could cease to exist.
The high point for Alexandrian architecture began with destruction. In 1882, a fleet of British warships bombarded and flattened most of central Alexandria as part of a bid to end a nationalist uprising and expand British influence in the region. They left three structures standing: a statue of modern Egypt’s founding father, Muhammad Ali (the first statue of a human figure in a modern Muslim country), the main court building, and the Anglican church.
Back then, the city had a municipality government run by Egyptian, European, North African and Turkish merchants living in Alexandria and working in the port.Ethnically and religiously diverse, the city was home to many overlapping cultural enclaves. Greeks, Italians, Egyptian Jews, Nubians, Turkish, and French all called Alexandria home. Following the bombardment of the city, they became flush with cash from government compensation for their destroyed homes.
This money helped rebuild the Downtown district ( Mansheyaa in Arabic), and invited cutting-edge architects of the day, including Italian Mario Rossi and Frenchman Auguste Perret, to re-envision the area. They reconstructed the city with a smattering of the latest styles: Andalusian, Mamluk, French and Italian. The building revolution and welcoming immigration policies fueled the repatriation of expat artists and writers, and soon the city’s cultural scene was booming.
As with Paris in the 1920s, Tangier in the 1950s, or San Francisco in the 1970s, Alexandria is known for a specific period of its history, and since then, it has yet to return to that level of regional, national, or global relevancy. The identity of Alexandria is deeply rooted in its buildings: the library of Alexandria, the courthouse and Fort Qaitbey. Alexandria and nostalgia are inseparable and its residents seem to love their city with a melancholy wistfulness, thinking of what it was and what it could have been, not what it became.
The city enjoyed a brief but rich cultural renaissance after the Egyptian Revolution. Following the initial revolt street art and music gained international prominence and Egypt underwent a period of unprecedented artistic freedom and cultural resurgence. Artists like Ganzeer, Ammar Abo Bakr and Alexandria native, Aya Tarek, painted public murals, mainly in Cairo and Alexandria, with some of their work being provocative in a way that was unseen before.
Taboo subjects like police brutality, social injustice and sexual harassment were addressed and examined through murals, wheat-pasted posters, and stencils. What had been kept behind closed gallery doors and word-of-mouth shows under Hosni Mubarak, was now shouted in public squares, painted on the walls, and broadcast worldwide. Bassem Youssef, a cardiac surgeon, began his TV show styled on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which quickly spread across the country during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency.
But after Morsi was deposed in July 2013, a nationalistic fever spread through the country that turned the media and the public against these artists, many of whom were publicly against the Muslim Brotherhood and current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Some fled the country, while others stopped working entirely.
Bassem Youssef left the country after a substantial lawsuit was raised against him and his staff was repeatedly threatened. Almost five years after Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, Alexandria’s artist community remains, but has now has been largely forced back underground.
The revolution had other unintended consequences for Alexandria. While it may not have dismantled the fraternity of businessmen, military officials, and politicians that control Egypt’s mainstream politics, for better or for worse, it has opened the country to ideas and informal business. Suddenly, in the absence of Mubarak’s police, young people could breathe. But almost immediately, an undercurrent of criminality began to fill the vacuum.
In Alexandria, new buildings began rising on both public and private land. Conservation laws protected the listed buildings, which stood on some of the last available land in Alexandria. According to government statistics, from 2011 until February 2014, 4,207 buildings were demolished and a reported 27,000 were built.
Officially, Alexandria is home to roughly four million people. Because it’s a regional commuter capital and a popular tourist destination for Egyptians, the city’s population ebbs and flows with the workweek and tourist seasons. “In 2004 I was in a meeting with the governor of Alexandria,” says Islam Asem, a historian and president of Alexandria’s Tour Guide Association. “He said the population was closer to seven million”. In 2012, refugees from the Syrian civil war started relocating to Alexandria. Now the population is likely closer to eight million.
Boxed in between the Mediterranean and three lakes and the nearby Baheriya governorate, inhabitable land in Alexandria is limited. From 1920, the city has been rebuilding itself on the same allotted space. In 2001, the Corniche, the highway that runs the length of the city, was expanded from four lanes to 12, flooding Alexandria with traffic. The farmland that surrounds the city had not been properly planned and lacked water supply, schools, electricity or hospitals, leaving Alexandrians with nowhere to live other than in the city centre.
Egyptian law states that newly built urban areas should house 100 to 150 people per Feddan — an area measurement used in Arab countries, which is equivalent to 1.038 acres. Certain areas of Alexandria house 900 to 1,200 residents per Feddan, according to Aboelkheir. This is roughly 80 times the population density of suburban areas of the United States. Montclair New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, has a population density of about nine people per acre. Manhattan has an average population density of about 104 people per acre. While Cairo has grown outward, Alexandria, restricted as it is, has grown vertically, and what land is left has become increasing valuable.
“If the mafia puts their eyes on a building, they are going to destroy it,” Asem says. An official Heritage listing in Alexandria should protect these buildings from demolition, but the construction mafia has developed tactics to dismantle and legally destroy them. He explains how they do it.
“A landowner wants to delist his property from the Heritage Directory to destroy it and rebuild on the land, so he files a lawsuit in the local courts. In the meantime, a team of builders begin sneaking onto the property. They seal the villa’s windows with bricks and wood, and begin destroying it from the inside, either through water damage or “ageing it”. Eventually, when officials come to inspect the site, they deem it too dangerous, structurally, to be renovated.”
On the footprint where the villas used to stand they begin construction, and in roughly a month, a 10 to 20-storey building can pop up. “My apartment took a year to plan and renovate. They build a 20-storey building in a month”, says ‘Mohamed’, an Alexandria-based architect who prefers to use a false name.
According to Mohamed they patch into the utility systems of the previously existing buildings, meaning 25-storey buildings are now using the electricity and water systems designed for three family buildings. “When you design urban space, you design for specific loads, if it goes above these loads it’s a problem,” Mohamed says.
Regulations also state that the height of new apartment buildings should be 1.5 times the width of the street, and no more than 12 storeys in height. In reality there are plenty of buildings over 20 storeys high crowding streets six to eight metres wide.
Another incentive for breaking the rules is that sixty percent of apartments in downtown Alexandria are rent controlled, and have stayed within families for over 50 years. Rents run as low as a few cents a month. Without adequate income from rent, landlords leave the buildings to fall to ruin. “When the developers come knocking, the money is too good to pass up”, Mohamed says.
These illegally built apartment buildings have become some of the last available real estate left in the city. “As the economic crisis grew in the country, the Egyptian government collected more money by fining people, asking for money if people want electricity, for example.” Asem tells me. Residents of these buildings sometimes come home to find their electricity and water shut off. Since the apartments are technically unregistered they are using water and electricity illegally, and city tax collectors visit individual apartments to collect fees to turn the water back on.
The construction mafia target existing buildings’ owners, offering them exorbitant sums of money for their property. If the owners refuse to sell, residents have reported employees of the construction mafia throwing garbage, and unleashing dogs and snakes on the land of the targeted property. The goal is to make the lives of the people living there miserable enough that the owners are eventually forced to accept the offer.
Maryese Frege lives in a small apartment building in the downtown Roshdy neighbourhood. Over the past few years, she has watched as towering buildings have slowly encircled her small apartment. “Before, we were surrounded by gardens and there was a big tree,” she says, “But they cut down the tree to build a 25-storey building.” She gets constant offers to leave her property. “I asked my landlord to keep the building until I die. Where can I go?” she adds.
In Cairo and Alexandria, developers have begun constructing satellite cities, loosely connected compounds for wealthier residents. The most attention grabbing of these is the $45 billion New Cairo, led by Emaar’s Mohamed Alabbar, that proposes to house up to five million residents. Past attempts, albeit on a far more modest scale have not been successful to relocate people from the crowded centres. “This just doesn’t work because people don’t want them,” Aboelkheir says.
Stanly is a Dubai-based luxury real estate development conglomerate and one of the few legal corporations developing property in Alexandria. The company attracted the ire of activists around the city after buying the Rialto cinema, a movie theatre and landmark of the Belle Époque era.
The owner of the building sold it to Stanly, which reportedly bought the cinema with the condition of renovating the building. Instead they demolished it to build a luxury mall and a “VIP” movie theatre. “The government doesn’t have an urban plan, they leave real estate companies to develop their own projects. We do all the planning and we ask for permission,” says Mohamed Omar, a media representative for Stanly. “There is no political will or proper vision on urban planning,” Aboelkheir says. “We are calling for feedback from the government but they don’t do anything.”
Making the ‘new Dubai’
I spend an afternoon with Mohamed Gohar and his acolytes as they document a pair of Art Deco buildings on the Alexandria Corniche. Mostly students, they are friendly and seemed happy to be part of the project. Three years ago, several of them likely participated in the January 25th Revolution. Now it’s better to stay away from overtly political or counter state causes in Egypt.
Young people have been turning to less controversial issues like the environment, or in this case, their city’s history and the reclaiming of public space. “As in cases where doctors started mobiliszing for health rights, artists for the creation of new independent cultural spaces, architects and intellectuals… sort of converted their knowledge …into a political and moral cause —, that of preserving the heritage,.” Youssef el Chazli, a political sociologist and visiting scholar at Columbia University from Alexandria, said in anvia email.
“Alexandrians discovered their streets and their city during [the January 25th Revolution], and since then there has been a war between the political powers, whether Islamists or military, defining who can wander in the public spaces, how they should be managed, built, used, and so on,” El Chazli says.
After Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and during Morsi’s presidency, places like Tahrir square in Cairo and Raml square in Alexandria shifted between seemingly utopian spaces where you could go to get anything from a haircut to medical care, where street kids were offered free lessons on politics and maths, to squalid zones of anarchy and crime with young men on motorcycles fleecing tourists and locals, with a palpable tension in the air. Now it’s all gone. The squares are empty and any attempt to return to that time is met with overwhelming deadly force.
“We had the most important people doing things for us: the first tram, train station, first cinema show after France. It is all about to disappear,” says Zahraa Adel Awed, a tour guide with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city, “They want to make the new Dubai”.
I part with Gohar and his group and head back to the neighbourhood of Loran where I’m staying. I shove my way onto a microbus and watch the skyline unfold like a jagged mountain range of new, thin buildings peeking over valleys of thick blocks of apartments and mosques. The off-white paint that was slathered on the front of every building on the Corniche in the 90s is caked in filth and cracking, a miscalculation by a government-hired chemist, years ago, that was supposed to protect the Corniche’s facades from salt and wind. Balconies slant forwards, teetering over the pavement. Everything is crumbling.
We pass murals to the fallen martyrs of the revolution: a large “74” built with plaques, listing the names of those killed in the Port Said football massacre of 2012. A memorial mural to Khaled Said, the young man who was beaten to death by two police officers outside an internet café five years ago.
We pass donkeys and small trucks, couples slyly holding hands, and men selling plastic cups of termis (a kind of small yellow bean) from hand-carved wooden carts. People seem happier in Alexandria, but it is poorer than Cairo, and Egypt has grown nothing if not increasingly poor these past three years. The people here say that life is too hard to care about things like heritage and buildings. They say the same of the trafficking of the country’s supposedly treasured artifacts.
The microbus stops and I shove my way back out onto the street. I walk away from the roaring traffic of the Corniche into the quiet residential neighborhood of Loran. I am staying in a friend’s place, a rent-controlled apartment in a crumbling Art Deco apartment building for which he pays 2.5 Egyptian pounds, or 35 American cents, a month in rent.
His is one of the few original buildings left on the block and it is literally falling apart. Across the street, men covered in soot operate some sort of basic drill hooked up to a gas generator on a vacant lot. Others snip long pieces of rebar with a bolt cutter that takes two men to operate. More workers cart wood, cement, and sand to the site. The sun is setting, but the construction has just begun.