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Located on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, Alexandria has achieved a symbolic resonance far beyond its size and economic importance. Its iconic status is assured, not simply because of the decadent sensibility consistently attributed to it, but also because numerous writers, both gay and straight, have paid it warm tribute, naming it as their city of cities. More often than not they cite the archetypal homosexual poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) as its principal muse and presiding spirit.

Cavafy came to be identified with Alexandria through his poetry, which presents readers with a myriad of classical, historical, and scholarly allusions, along with a hedonistic, sensual, cynical, and modern outlook. These mingled influences and perspectives are embodied in Alexandria's culture, which combines elegance and ennui.

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For writers, such as E.M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell, the mythic, imaginary, and real-life city all converge on the streets and in the cafes. In his poem "The City" (1910), Cavafy embraces the paradox of the city: it is both a prison and one's means of escape through art. "The city will follow you. In the same streets, you'll wander endlessly."

Why Alexandria? History

Alexandria's history continues to fascinate many. Founded in 333 B.C.E. by Alexander the Great, whose body was returned there after his death, the history of the city is a long one, encompassing numerous religions and dynasties.

From the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra, who lost the city, is endlessly intriguing as a female who embodied sexual allure with political astuteness. The famous university library gardens of Mouseion, alleged to have been burned by invading Arabs, were in fact burned by fourth-century Christian zealots, who also murdered Greek philospher and mathematician Hypatia. Alexandria, home to Euclid, the mathematician, witnessed the rise to prominence of new and hybrid schools of philosophy: the Gnostics, Neo- Pythagoreans, Neo-Platonists, Monophysites, and Judaists.

That the city underwent shifts of religious allegiance, also meant that it experienced both dialogue and sectarian clashes of belief. It was conquered by both Romans and Moslems, and in the early twentieth century had a European outlook, housing enclaves of Greeks, Jews, Coptics, and Syro-Lebanese.

Famous Visitors

Gustave Flaubert visited Alexandria in 1849 but disdained it as too European, preferring the ancient temples and camels further south. Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward were also regular visitors at the Cecil Hotel on the corniche. Yet, of all the homosexual writers, initially outsiders to Alexandria but who had personal epiphanies there, none was more indebted to it than E. M. Forster.

During World War I, Forster spent two years in Alexandria working for the Red Cross. While he was struggling with drafts of A Passage to India (1924) and Maurice (1971), he had his first fully satisfying sexual experience with a young Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed el Adl, then only 18. As the result of this experience, Alexandria became for Forster a totem that triggered a flood of Proustian nostalgia. In Alexandria, he met Cavafy, whose poetry he admired and was to promote and bring to the attention of the English-speaking world. He later claimed "It was the best thing I did."

Like Cavafy, Forster was fascinated by the city's history. He wrote an account of the actual city, Alexandria: A History and Guide (1922), and a guide to the city's unseen aspects, Pharos and Pharillon (1923).

The Genius Loci: Cavafy

Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) lived in Alexandria for most of his life. He was a clerk in the Public Works Department. His rooms have become a museum, now housed at the Greek Consulate. While caution was always necessary, Cavafy found solace in Greek youths whom he cruised in billiard halls, cafes, and tavernas. Like the ancient Alexandrian poet Callimachus, famed for his polished epigrams, he had "the disease of loving boys." Both poets wrote accounts of attraction and dalliances. In addition, however, Cavafy developed a sophisticated idea of history, one that privileged the ages of decadent Hellenism rather than that of Classical Greece.

City of Memory

Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, initiated by Justine (1957), has also created a distinctive impression of parallel but disjunctive aspects, revolving around the sexual ambivalence of Alexandria's inhabitants. "Only the city is real," Durrell declared, meaning that in Alexandria personalities were subsumed to the city's larger influence. The character of Balthazar is said to have been modelled directly on Cavafy.

Durrell also echoed Cavafy's notion of the city, familiar to gay people, many of whom relocated in order to discover and be themselves. He stated that there two cities, the one you are born in and the one of your predilection. For him, Alexandria was that city of mind and memory. He believed that one relationship there could make it become one's entire world.

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