Cavafy did not take to his birthplace easily. He found Alexandria dull and backward. In a note dated 28 April 1907, he confessed: “I’m used to Alexandria now, and odds are I’d stay here even if I were rich . . . (still I’m not absolutely certain I’d stay here) because it’s like a homeland, it connects me to my life’s memories. But oh! how a person like me, someone so different, needs a big city! London, for example. . . .” Yet Cavafy’s poetry gradually finds its place in the old port city. He gives character to Alexandria: the character of decline and oppressive limits but also of learning, exotica, and people following important developments from the sidelines.

District of Alexandria. E.L.I.A.
The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong-
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Click here for additional photographs of Alexandria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the E.L.I.A. archive.