Alexandria villa that inspired Lawrence Durrell novels may be razed

Inspiration for acclaimed author's most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet, could become latest historic building in city to be demolished

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 8:57pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 2:28am


The villa in Alexandria, Egypt, which inspired one of the 20th century's most acclaimed works of literature, may soon be demolished, says its new owner.

Villa Ambron was once the home of Lawrence Durrell, the British author twice shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for literature, whose experiences while living at the villa inspired his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet.

But the businessman who owns it says it may soon make way for an apartment block.

If bulldozed, Durrell's crumbling former home would become the 36th listed building from Alexandria's fin-de-siècle heyday to be demolished in five years, according to campaigners.

Up to 25 of the buildings were destroyed illegally by developers, prompting Alexandria's historians and architects to fear for the legacy of a city that was once one of the grandest in the region.

Many of the 1,135 buildings nominally protected by a 2006 preservation order are in disrepair and at risk of demolition.

"Alexandria is lost in my opinion," said Mohamed Awad, the founder and president of the Alexandria Preservation Trust, a group set up to help preserve the city's architecture.

I have been waiting 15 years and soon I won’t be able to wait any longer

"We are putting up a fight, but we are going to lose the war in terms of preservation."

Until the 1950s, Alexandria was one of the Mediterranean's most cosmopolitan cities, attracting an eclectic mix of nationalities, religious groups, artists and writers.

The novelist E. M. Forster and Greek poet C. P. Cavafy both lived in Alexandria, while the last king of Italy died there - all in buildings designed by some of the 19th century's leading architects.

Villa Ambron was one of the centrepieces of Alexandria's cultural life. Built and owned by architect Aldo Ambron - one of a then 70,000-strong Jewish community that has all but vanished - the house has been home to dignitaries including Italy's exiled king Vittorio Emanuele III and leading Egyptian painters Saad el-Khadim and Effat Nagui.

"It was the place to be seen if you were an artist," said Awad, who has led the fight to save many of the city's buildings.

After fleeing Nazi-occupied Greece, Durrell lived on the villa's top floor for much of the second world war with his Alexandrian second wife Eve Cohen, the inspiration for Justine, the heroine of T he Alexandria Quartet.

Durrell wrote the novel Prospero's Cell in the house's distinctive octagonal tower.

He left Egypt after the war and the Ambron family sold the house in 1996 to local developer Abdelaziz Ahmed Abdelaziz.

Having already built two apartment blocks in the villa's garden, Abdelaziz said he was granted judicial approval to demolish the villa last March.

Awad says the house is still legally protected by the 2006 protection order, but Abdelaziz claims he will knock it down this month after no one raised enough money to buy the site.

"Although I already have the right, until now I haven't demolished the building because I want to keep the memory of Lawrence Durrell alive," Abdelaziz said.

"But I've been waiting 15 years and soon I won't be able to wait any longer. It will be demolished if I don't get a quick response."

Other developers have been less patient. In early November, the Majestic Hotel, where Forster once lived, saw its distinctive rooftop cupolas dismantled to make way for two more floors.

Meanwhile, the nearby Villa Aghion, a renowned house built by the Belgian architect Auguste Perret - whose work in France was designated a Unesco world heritage site - is collapsing due to a lack of maintenance.

Activists do not entirely blame the developers. Thanks to Egypt's antiquated rent control system, tenants of the city's oldest buildings need only pay rent at decades-old rates, meaning their monthly dues are sometimes ridiculously low.

"I can't blame the owners of the buildings," said Mohamed Aboulkhier, the co-founder of Save Alex, another movement that campaigns to protect the city's heritage.

"How can you ask a building owner to turn away a fortune by selling the property if he's not making any other money?

"How about we give this guy alternatives. Rather than making the building an obstacle, let's turn it into an opportunity, so he doesn't have to turn it into a high-rise block."