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The Pencil Is Mightier

A small group of artists is racing to sketch every historic building in Alexandria before the Egyptian city is lost to the ravages of urban development.

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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.

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Court of First Instance, opened in 1937. In 1882, British warships bombarded downtown Alexandria from the Mediterranean in an effort to stop political turmoil between supporters of Colonel Ahmed Orabi, who opposed French-Anglo influence in Egypt, and many of the city’s foreign residents. Most of downtown, called Mansheya in Arabic, was destroyed. Once the unrest settled, new arrivals from France, Italy, Greece, and other countries began building in the bombed-out lots, and downtown bloomed with a wealth of assorted architecture. The Court of First Instance was constructed over several years and inaugurated by King Farouk in 1937. Designed in a neoclassical, Greek-inspired style, it houses courtrooms, a library, jail cells, and at least one courtyard, where the detained await transfers. Every day, the families of prisoners gather on a bordering street to shout to their relatives and toss food and clothing over an exterior wall.

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Court of First Instance, rendering of "Life." Gohar’s group uses different media in its documentation, in an effort to capture the subtleties of life in and around Alexandria’s architecture. Mai Koraiem, a cartoonist, sketched a street vendor selling ghazl el-banat, a Middle Eastern dessert, outside the Court of First Instance.

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Alexandria National Museum, built in 1926. The ground underneath Alexandria, which was founded around 331 B.C. as Alexander the Great’s port of operations, is laden with artifacts from centuries past. Developers routinely unearth new antiquities. The Alexandria National Museum houses an 18,000-piece collection of objects found within the city. The museum is an Italian-style villa, a common fixture around town. Once the home of a wood merchant, it served as the U.S. Consulate from 1960 to 1990.

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Cecil Hotel, built in 1929. The Cecil was once Alexandria’s best-known hotel, where Egyptians and Europeans drank and dined among musicians, military officers, and an army of waiters. The hotel, which sits on Raml Square, appeared in writer Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Miramar. It once played host to Somerset Maugham, Winston Churchill, and Al Capone, and it housed the operation center of the British Secret Service during World War II. Commissioned by a prominent Alexandrian Jew, Albert Metzger, and built by Italian architect Alessandro Loria, the hotel is an example of Moorish-inspired architecture. Although the Cecil has had several different owners over the years, it remains relatively unchanged physically; it is still the city’s landmark luxury hotel.

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Casa di Riposo, built from 1929 to 1935. Gohar’s group plans to sketch every building on each of Alexandria’s streets, but its main focus is on structures with unique or influential histories. The Casa di Riposo, a retirement home in the Chatby neighborhood designed by Ernesto Verrucci, King Fuad I’s personal architect, is one such building. Originally, the home was funded the Catholic Church and run by Italian nuns. Italians began seeking asylum in Alexandria in the early 20th century, hoping to escape war and poverty in their home country; according to material written for Gohar’s project, they numbered about 80,000 in the 1920s. The Egyptian military took control of Casa di Riposo after the 1952 coup, but today, the local Italian community, now comprising about 4,000 people, collects donations for the building’s residents.

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Casa di Riposo, detail of windows and doors. "Description of Alexandria" includes written "memories," both distant and recent, of the buildings sketched. Chase Smithburg, an English-language writer in Gohar's group, records scenes of daily life at each site through written physical description and interviews with people at the scene. Here, he describes Casa di Riposo, whose Italian- and French-inspired windows and doors exemplify Alexandria’s architectural internationalism: “Over time, the static property found itself moving closer and closer to the city until it became part of what is now viewed as the city center. A metal fence surrounded the home, keeping out the encroaching bad elements, and in recent years, barbed wire was added [to] the top of the back wall that butts up against Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts.”

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Bulkeley tram station. Alexandria was the home of many firsts in Egypt: The country’s first cinema was built there, for instance, as was its first tramline. That line is now the oldest one still running in Africa. Trams were once vital methods of transportation, ferrying Alexandrians along the city’s main arteries. Today, trams are slow and inefficient. It costs 0.25 Egyptian pounds (about 3 cents) to ride one, and the line is becoming increasingly decrepit; trams often get stuck in Alexandria’s worsening traffic.

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French Consulate, built in 1911. As Alexandria’s influence and diversity have waned, and particularly since the 2011 revolution, some consulates and cultural centers have shut their doors due to security threats and lessened foot traffic. The French Consulate, a detail of whose Beaux Arts design is shown here, has remained open at a limited capacity.

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Al Qaed Ibrahim Mosque, built in 1948. Before the 1952 coup, Alexandria was home to a sizable Jewish population and multiple Christian denominations. Most churches and cathedrals have since become Coptic Christian. Synagogues in the city remain, but many are crumbling and have highly restricted access. Islam is now far and away the city’s dominant religion. Al Qaed Ibrahim mosque stands downtown next to Raml Square, which, like Cairo’s Tahrir Square, has been a meeting point for political protestors. Several times in 2011 and during the years after, the mosque was overrun by groups of demonstrators clashing with police forces.

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Turkish house, Sesostris Street. Officially, Alexandria’s population is estimated at around 4.4 million. Some planners and architects say it’s much, much larger. People continue to move to the city, which is a regional economic hub, and available, habitable land is scarce. This has led to the destruction of old buildings to make way for new ones or the division of space inside existing structures into smaller and smaller spaces. This wooden, Turkish-style house stands on a residential block downtown. Buildings like these were erected by Turkish expats, many of whom worked at the city’s port long ago. Now such buildings are often decaying and overcrowded.

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Saba Paşa Villa, demolished July 2014. Villas like Saba Paşa, which was destroyed on July 27, 2014, are now being demolished illegally by developers. After hired crews dismantle the buildings, they usually build structures on the empty land. (Developers often get away with these actions simply by paying fines.) The new buildings, some of them 15 to 25 stories tall, usually house apartments. They can go up in a matter of weeks, and the tall structures, usually slathered in bright pastel plaster, teeter over the tight, winding streets of downtown.

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Old building in the Bahari neighborhood, demolished in 2013: According to architects and government researchers, since 2011, around 4,000 buildings in Alexandria have been demolished, 100 of which were technically heritage structures. Save Alex, a group of architects and activists devoted to protecting Alexandria’s old buildings, routinely petitions the government to stop demolishing historical landmarks and to plan more efficiently and sustainably for population growth. The government’s response, activists say, has been underwhelming; authorities usually only condemn the obliteration of a heritage building after it happens. The seemingly unstoppable forces of overcrowding and destruction mean that “Description of Alexandria” is a love letter to the city, but also a eulogy -- a final testament to a once-vibrant world capital. As Gohar says, “When you destroy a building, you destroy hundreds of years of memories.”

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