Map of Alexandria. In the early 20th century, Europeans and North Africans flocked to Alexandria, Egypt, due to its open-border policies and thriving port. They imbued the city with a range of architectural styles, cribbing from their home countries, and the urban center became an ethnically diverse, religiously pluralistic place. Then came a turning point in 1952: a coup, led by the Free Officers Movement. Soon after, in a sweeping move, the Egyptian state seized much of the country’s industry and land. Almost overnight, Alexandria’s well-heeled foreigners began an exodus from the city.
The decades since have not been kind to Alexandria. A lack of government planning and a growing population, exacerbated by Egypt’s complicated, post-revolutionary politics, have minimized access to livable space and driven up land prices. Recently, in an effort to capitalize on the need for housing, real estate developers have targeted the city’s heritage buildings, destroying them -- in many cases illegally -- and in their place erecting towering but shoddy mid-rise structures.
Mohamed Gohar, a trained architect, has spent two years working to capture the city he’s known his entire life before it vanishes. The creator of “Description of Alexandria,” a self-funded multimedia project, he has been collaborating since 2013 with a small team of artists to document Alexandria in its current state of suspended decay. The team members meet regularly to sketch Alexandria’s buildings, including many constructed during the city’s “belle époque.” In addition to sketches, the team is including comics, photographs, and even prose in their collection, which is being published in a series of installments in print and online.
The following images were drawn by Gohar and his team. Gohar hopes his project will provide future generations of Egyptians with a detailed record of what Alexandria once was. “We remember history, but we failed to save it,” he said. “I document to complete an archive of this great era in Alexandria’s history.”
Gohar and his team are tracing the chronological expansion of the city, indicated here by the numbers on the map. Starting from Fort Qaitbay, a defensive stronghold built on the edge of the city by Sultan al-Ashraf Qaitbay in 1477, and following the Corniche, the highway that spans the length of Alexandria along the Mediterranean, the group has already documented around 40 buildings. It is now working around Raml Square, in the heart of downtown. When the group, which includes around 15 people, meets each week, it focuses on a single structure: Some members draw, while others take photographs or write about chosen details and specific elements of the building and its surrounding environment.