In 1959, Elie Moreno, then a 19-year-old sophomore engineering student at Purdue University in Indiana, visited the Egyptian port city of Alexandria on his summer vacation, and brought his camera. Moreno, an Egyptian of Sephardic Jewish descent, had been born in Alexandria and raised in Cairo. But the Egypt in which he had grown up, the milieu of the country's multi-ethnic urban elite, was fast disappearing; the summer of 1959 was the last Moreno would see of it.
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The late 1950s marked the end of an era in Alexandria that had begun in the late 19th century, when the port -- then the largest on the eastern Mediterranean -- emerged as one of the world's great cosmopolitan cities. Europeans -- Greeks, Italians, Armenians, and Germans -- had gravitated to Alexandria in the mid-19th century during the boom years of the Suez Canal's construction, staying through the British invasion of the port in 1882 and the permissive rule of King Farouk in the 1930s and 1940s. Foreign visitors and Egyptians alike flocked to the city's beaches in the summers, where revealing bathing suits were as ordinary as they would be extraordinary today.
But by midcentury, King Farouk -- a lackadaisical ruler in the best of times -- had grown deeply unpopular among Egyptians and was deposed in a CIA-backed coup in 1952. Cosmopolitan Alexandria's polyglot identity -- half a dozen languages were spoken on the city's streets -- and indelible links to Egypt's colonial past were an uncomfortable fit with the pan-Arab nationalism that took root under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1950s and 1960s. "[W]hat is this city of ours?" British novelist Lawrence Durrell, who served as a press attaché in the British Embassy in Alexandria during World War II, wrote despairingly in 1957 in the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, his tetralogy set in the city during its heyday as an expatriate haven. "In a flash my mind's eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today -- and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either." By the time of Hosni Mubarak's rule (and largely in response to his secularism), Egypt's second-largest city had become synonymous with devout, and deeply conservative, Islam.
The pictures from Moreno's collection, taken on the 1959 visit and several beach trips in previous years, capture the last days of an Alexandria that would be all but unrecognizable today, in which affluent young Egyptians of Arab, Sephardic, and European descent frolic in a landscape of white sand beaches, sailboats, and seaside cabanas. Two years later, in 1961, the structural steel company Moreno's father ran was nationalized by Nasser, and his family left for the United States shortly thereafter. Moreno, who went on to found a semiconductor company in Los Angeles, wouldn't visit his birthplace until he was well into middle age.
But the memories aren't all bittersweet. The woman on the far left in the above photograph, taken on Alexandria's Mediterranean coast in 1955, is Odette Tawil, whom Moreno first met in Alexandria in the summer of 1959. Reunited in the United States years later, they visited Egypt together in 1998, to get married.
Courtesy of Elie Moreno