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  Photographic Memory

Cosmopolitan Alexandria

Photographic Memory

The collection of photographs and postcards within the museum, captures cosmopolitan Alexandria’s belle époque, from the early 19th century to the mid 20th century. Naturally, photographers were drawn to archaeological sites, such as Cleopatra’s Needles and Pompey’s Pillar, and scenic views, such as the Mahmoudieh Canal and its environs. They also showed a native town in its traditional narrow, irregular street pattern, reduced public spaces and vernacular housing in hybrid Turkish styles. In contrast, a depicted European center developed since 1834 around the so-called “Place des Consuls”, reflected in its urban morphology and cultivated high style pro-European architecture, the new “lingua franca” and adapted lifestyles, similar to those of grand cities in Europe.

  Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet took the first photo-graph in Egypt, indeed in Africa, the very year photography was invented, an 1839 daguerreotype Mohammed Ali’s sumptuous Harem Palace at Ras el-Tin. Maxime Du Camp, who accompanied French author Gustave Flaubert on his 1849 voyage through Egypt, captured the much humbler khan of the Hotel d’Orient, while Borgiotti recorded, from start to finish, the momentous removal in 1877 of one of Alexandria’s obelisks to London. Another rarity is Pascal Sébah’s photograph of the Place des Consuls prior to the mise-en-place of the statue of Mohammed Ali at its center in 1871. The Place des Consuls suffered terrible damage during the bombardment of Alexandria by the British fleet in 1882, chronicled by Reiser, Bonfils, and the extensive documentation of Fiorillo in his album, Ruines d’Alexandrie.

Mohamed Ali’s Harem palace at Ras El Tin
a daguerreotype by Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet taken
7 Nov. 1839, is probably the first photograph in Egypt
and Africa

  Photographs post 1882 portray the city’s cosmopolitan communities playing a prominent role in its rebuilding. Notable personalities from Greek, Italian and Levantine families built themselves grand mansions and sponsored their communities’ schools, hospitals, clubs and welfare foundations. Their glittering social life was captured in photographs such as those of the Skating Rosette, the Shooting Club of Moharem Bey, concerts at the Ramleh Casino, garden parties at Nouzha and Antoniadis and others such as those of the partners Aziz and Dorés who photographed the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt during her performance at the Zizinia Theater.

Skating Rosetta
by Nicolas Paraskevas,1907-1924


The creation of the Municipality of Alexandria in 1890 promoted further the development of the city with such projects as the electrification of the Ramleh Railways in 1904, the landscaping of urban spaces and Municipal parks (1909), the creation of the Corniche (1905-1927) and the Municipal Stadium in 1927, as represented in popular postcards of the period.

For the majority of the built environment, the hybrid pro-European culture that had emerged since the early 19th century and continued to the mid 20th century, was reflected in the urban and built environments. It was expressed in the eclectic and historic revivalist trends i.e. ; neo-classic, neo-gothic, neo-renaisance, etc., and represented the cosmopolitan mix of the Alexandrian society. An architecture “face à l’Orient” provided little opportunity for local expression and identity (i.e. neo-Islamic or neo-Pharaonic) yet found some expression in the form of exotic orientalism. Though rather suppressed in the dominant cosmopolitan environs, the local identity was also influenced by the socio-economic and political climates of rising nationalism and pan Arabism.

Zizinia Theater
and actress Sarah Bernhardt-1907

   As Alexanria moved further into the 20th century, architecture shifted towards the more popular Decorative Styles. This is beautifully highlighted in the Art Déco legacy of the French architect Auguste Perret, in the villa Gustave Aghion 1926 and the Immeuble Daira Yehia Pasha 1934. The shift towards Early Modern rational architecture is introduced in such examples as the Italian Littorio Schools by Clemente Busiri Vici in 1931, the Cozzika Greek Hospital by Jean Walter 1936 and the Moassat Hospital by Ernest Koop in 1938. An Egyptian participation is marked by the contribution of the first generations of Egyptian architects such as Moustafa Fahmy Pasha and Ali Labib Gabr Bey. Local expression inspired by the unspoiled traditional environment, though again rare in the Alexandrian experience, was expressed in the neo-vernacular trends promoted by the Alexandrian-born architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989). In his quest for an architecture built for the poor by the poor, compatible with the economic needs of society and in harmony with the environment, he encouraged the revival of traditional building techniques and the development of a local architectural language.

Villa Gustave Aghion
by A.Perret, 1926