On the second floor of an old turn-of-the-century house on a quiet side street, near the Cairo Opera House (Fouad St.) on Rue C.P. Cavafy (formerly Rue Lepsius and Rue Sharm el Sheik), the Cavafy Museum is located. It is where the most prominent Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy lived and created at the beginning of the last century, at a time when Alexandria was once a multicultural city where Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and others lived and prospered.
His poetic production represented the epitome of Greek Alexandrian culture, while his biography preserved the wonderful history of the Greek community, one of the largest foreign communities that lived in Egypt.
Constantine P. Cavafy was a great Greek poet and one of the most famous modern poets. He is regarded as both the greatest contemporary Greek poet and the greatest Greek poet known to Egypt. Cavafy’s full name was Kostis Petros Fotiadis Cavafy but he was known only as Constantine Cavafy or Cavafy. He was born on April 29, 1863 AD in one of the houses on Sherif Street in Alexandria. His father Petros was descended from the Photiadis family and had migrated from Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Caliphate at the time, to Alexandria.
Some researchers believe that the family of the poet Cavafy was of Armenian origin, but Cavafy himself did not refer to this privately or publically, as he was always proud that he was a Greek from Byzantium.
Majalla went on a tour of the home-turned-museum, where we crossed the museum's gate, which is open to all. We climbed two floors of the museum, which is filled with Alexandrian history and poetry, before meeting Mohamed El-Sayed, the museum's curator since 1992.
El-Sayed met us and began telling the story of the Greek poet, saying: "Cavafy was born on Sherif Street in the center of Alexandria on April 29, 1863, to Greek parents of Turkish origin, who immigrated to Alexandria in 1850 and had eight sons and a girl, Cavafy was the youngest of them.”
"Cavafy was a distinguished and simple poet, his poems carried his own philosophy, and his poetry style entices you to read his works and poems. His longest poem was two pages long. The most famous of Cavafy's poems is "Ithaca," which Sean Connery read in ‘007’, Mohamed El-Sayed, the museum's curator said.
As for his upbringing, “His father was a wealthy man who owned a cotton ginning factory in Alexandria as well as a chain of agricultural crop stores. He was a close friend of Khedive Ismail, who invited him to the Suez Canal opening ceremony in 1869,” El-Sayed said.
When you enter the house where Cavafy lived, you move from the current era to the royal era in Egypt, when thousands of citizens of foreign communities lived, merging in a tolerant atmosphere, and open to the other. The house is adhering to the distinctive furniture style of the beginnings of the last century, so that the house looks exactly as it was during the life of the late poet, even if the pieces of furniture used were not original pieces, as the curator of the museum, Mohamed El-Sayed, assured us.
El-Sayed added that, “the original pieces from the time of Cavafy himself in the museum are limited to the hanging mirror in the office room, a small commode in the bedroom, and a desk he used for daily writing. It was placed in the entrance to the house, with a large notebook on it, so that visitors could record their impressions of the place.”
“When Cavafy reached the age of seven, his father died, and at the age of nine, his mother had to emigrate with him and his brothers to England. They returned to Alexandria after seven years, and settled in here," the Museum curator continued.
Cavafy’s proficiency in five languages besides Arabic resulted from these trips, and five years after his return, he worked as a freelance translator in the Ministry of Irrigation Inspection. However, he was not committed to attending appointments or going to the workplace, which allowed him to work as a broker in the Manshiya Cotton Exchange, at a time when Alexandria was at the height of its golden age and was a global center for the cotton trade. After finishing his work, he would return home and start practicing his hobby of writing poetry.
The museum curator revealed that in July 1923 Cavafy wrote his will in which he recommended that his belongings be returned to his Greek friend and business manager. However, the manager transferred most of the furniture and belongings to Greece, leaving only a few pieces, while the Greek Association moved the rest of the furniture to its headquarters and set up a special museum in Cavafy.
Kostis Moskof initiated the establishment of the Cavafy Museum in Alexandria in 1992. Moskof was an energetic and charismatic poet and scholar who was appointed cultural attaché to the Greek Embassy in Cairo in 1990. He held this position until his death in 1998, and during his time in Egypt, he worked tirelessly to establish the Cavafy Museum and support study of the poet through the Cavafia Conferences, which were held on a regular basis in Cairo and Alexandria.
The museum is crammed with photos from his younger and later years, as well as his handwritten will and birth certificate in Greek, as well as numerous scripts and books. Some publications are also sold to generate revenue for the preservation of the site. The house’s holdings also included many of Cavafy’s poems in his own handwriting, as well as some paintings inspired by his poems by the Croatian artist Stanislav Mariganovic and others, in addition to more than 70 critical and literary works about the poet in different languages, including Arabic.
The pictures also reflect his extensive social relationships, along with a large-sized oil painting of Khedive Ismail, who was a close friend of his father. In addition to items donated by the Greek Church to the Museum, there is also some furniture, personal belongings, a mirror, a collection of icons and archaeological objects, postage stamps and certificates of appreciation that he obtained, as well as a set of videos for the films that were produced about him.
Cavafy's apartment became a cheap hostel after his death in 1933. A sort of museum was later established on the upper floor of the Greek Consulate General, which is located in Alexandria's Hellenic Quarter. Although the poet's heirs sold his furniture, his library was saved.
"The place has been open to visitors since 1992, it is famous throughout the world, and it is visited by people from all over the world," the curator said.
“Egyptians have become frequent visitors to the museum, especially since the January 25 revolution. It has recently attracted a large number of visitors, particularly from outside Alexandria, the Delta, and Upper Egypt. Unfortunately, the people of Alexandria are unfamiliar with their own city,” El-Sayed added.
The cultural atmosphere in Alexandria during Cavafy's lifetime was dynamic and diverse, with literary works published in French, Greek, and Italian in addition to Arabic. This coincided with the transformation of the city into an important global commercial center, which contributed to the delegations of foreigners to Alexandria.
The city's fame drew a number of Western writers, including the English writer E.M. Foster, who came to Alexandria to write his most famous novel "The Road to India," where he met Cavafy and helped to translate his works into English.
E.M. Foster introduced Cavafy to English readers as "The Poet," with English translations of some of his poems done by Valassopoulos. Cavafy has since been translated into numerous languages, including his native Egyptian Arabic. He has become inextricably linked with his beloved Alexandria, both through his own work and that of others, such as Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, in which Cavafy weaves in and out of the narrative via quotes from the poems and indirect references.
“Many famous people have visited the museum, including Nobel laureate Ferit Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist and screenwriter who won the Nobel Prize in 2006, as well as Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa and a number of actors and presidents. Other visitors include many Arab poets such as Saadi Yousef, Mahmoud Darwish, and Adunis, and many writers and thinkers from around the world.” Mohamed El-Sayed, the museum's curator said.
The Onassis Foundation plans to restore the Cavafy Museum in Alexandria in collaboration with the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, which has run and maintained it since its inception in 1992. On the 159th anniversary of the great Greek poet's birth, the announcement was accompanied by an emotional video of the museum.
The Onassis Foundation purchased Cavafy's archive ten years ago and digitized it using cutting-edge archiving techniques, producing over 2000 items that are now freely available to all researchers and friends of the poet. Its most recent goal in honor of the Alexandrian poet's legacy is for the upcoming restoration to turn the Cavafy museum in Alexandria into a cultural magnet for visitors from all over the world.