Villa Ambron, house to the great British author Lawrence Durrell is facing danger of being demolished. Durrell, who was twice shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for literature, found inspiration in this villa to write his masterpiece The Alexandria Quartet. Many of the Alexandrians worried about the rich architectural heritage of the city campaigned against this decision. Many campaigns and Facebook events have emerged, with sirens warning against the total destruction of the ancient city’s history.
When Lawrence Durrell first explored the cosmopolitan city Alexandria to shed the layers of people living in it and give way to their desires and lusts, he produced the famous tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet. In this masterpiece, Durrell uses his lyrical and descriptive talents to interweave a timely love story on the background of World War II. The tetralogy allows the readers into the complex Alexandrian society with its lusts, breakdowns and brilliance. It has been described as one of the greatest works of literature ever written and chosen by the Modern Library among its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Alexandria is a beautiful coastal town in Egypt. It is the second largest city (1,034 sq miles “2,679 km²”) and the second largest metropolitan area in Egypt after Greater Cairo. It has a population of more than 4 million inhabitants and has been a cosmopolitan city with an eclectic mix of races, religions and nationalities. Alexandria was once home to strong Maltese, Greek, Levantine, Italian, Jewish and European communities. Among its most prominent landmarks are the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Nabi Daniel Street, the Latin Catholic church of Saint Catherine in Mansheya, El-Mursi Abul Abbas Mosque in Bahary and many ancient Greek antiquities.
Thousands of Alexandria’s fin-de-siècle villas are facing the same fate as Villa Ambron to give way for highrise apartment blocks. Alexandria’s heritage is on the brink of complete destruction. Its decaying historic districts need preservation, as noted by various activists, heritage enthusiasts, poets and architects. Alexandria’s downtown are holds a collection of genteel buildings designed in the neoclassical, baroque, art deco and neo-gothic architectural styles. Most of these buildings alongside a group of glitzy hotels and patisseries, traditional coffeehouses and villas are decayed and need immediate preservation. The greedy landlords – or “real-estate mafia” as referred to by the Alexandrian activists- have other plans in mind. Up to 25 of the total 1,135 buildings were demolished despite being protected by a 2006 preservation order. As many activists and intellects are expecting, more is to come.
Built and owned by Jewish architect Aldo Ambron, the villa was one of the centrepieces of Alexandria’s cultural life. The villa was home to VIPs including Italy’s exiled king Vittorio Emanuele III and leading Egyptian painters Effat Nagui and Saad el-Khadim.
This heritage crisis is not new. In 1987, Egyptian scriptwriter Osama Anwar Okasha wrote one of his greatest works to date: a television series called The White Flag “Al-Raya Al-Beida.” In the series, a building called Villa Abul-Ghar, belonged to a college professor and former politician named Mofid Abul-Ghar. Abul-Ghar had returned to his hometown Alexandria after years of working as an Egyptian ambassador and traveling the world. Despite plans to retire quietly in his villa, a vulgar businesswoman called Meallema Fadda Al-Meaddawi had set her eyes on the villa and wished to demolish it. It was a war of sorts, with all kinds of action and reminiscence on the city’s fading cultural and historical glory. In the end, the building was saved by the intervention of conservationists. In reality, the villa on which the series was based was pulled down two years ago. It belonged to former public works minister Osman Pasha Moharram and didn’t survive despite actual campaigns taking place to preserve it.
Twenty-five years later and still Alexandrians are not aware of their heritage being lost to real-estate tycoons. Many shouts have been let out but to no avail. Save Alex Initiative was launched in 2012 with its main statement conveying that it is:
“committed to protecting and enhancing the built environment of the city of Alexandria. It aims at increasing public awareness of what is left of Alexandria’s rich architectural heritage and of other urban challenges it is facing today.”
Will the White Flag be raised in the face of bulldozers? Lawrence Durrell’s villa is just another brick in the wall.
By Jaylan Salah
In defense of old Alexandria buildings
Photo courtesy of Justin Tuijl – Facebook