Constantine P. Cavafy Museum in Alexandria, Egypt.

The Cavafy Museum, 4 Sharia Sharm el Sheikh, is run under the auspices of the Cultural Section of the Greek Embassy in Cairo and is open Tues -Sun 10.00 - 15.00.

The Greek poet, Constantine P. Cavafy, is inextricably bound to the city of Alexandria, where he lived most of his life. His parents were from Constantinople. but Cavafy was born in Alexandria on 29 April 1863, and he died there on the same day in 1933. In Cavafy's days, Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city with a Bohemian atmosphere. It rivalled Paris and proved a powerful stimulus for literary output with one- third of its population of foreign origin, among them T.E. Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling, Evelyn Waugh, Lawrence Durrell and E.M. Forster.

Who was Cavafy?

Cavafy’s father was a wealthy merchant who traded in Egyptian cotton and Manchester textiles. Cavafy senior's death in 1870 left his wife and seven sons poorly provided for. In 1872, the family left for Britain to concentrate on the British part of the business. Inexperience in running the business caused the ruin of the family fortunes, and seven years later they returned to Alexandria to a life of genteel poverty. Cavafy found those years in Britain an enriching experience. His exposure to English and Ancient Greek history shaped his sensibilities and became a potent force in his poetry. His fluency in English allowed him to write his first poem in English. However, all others were written in Greek.

Cavafy spent the rest of his life in Alexandria apart from three years from 1882 – 85 when the family moved to Constantinople to live in the maternal grandfather’s home. It was in Constantinople that he was introduced to the city’s nightlife and experienced his first homosexual encounters. When the family returned to Alexandria, Cavafy took on an uneventful job as a clerk working for the British Irrigation Service. But at night he led his real life and above all he wrote. Not much else is known about the man Cavafy. He left no autobiographical notes but Lawrence Durrell allows us some glimpses as he used Cavafy as the basis for his character Balthazar in the Alexandria Quartet.

Cavafy wrote a hundred and fifty-four poems. During his life his work was not well-known because he wrote in Greek, a language not widely spoken. He lived for his poetry, but never published an official volume of poetry, only contributed some of his poems to literary magazines. His private life must have been a shipwreck. In his poems, he never addresses anyone as his beloved. The word you is never used. Instead he hoards up fragments of his ephemeral loves. Memories alone survive and are transformed into immortal poems.

He lived for his poetry. His oeuvre consists of provocative philosophical poems, historical poems about forgotten heroes of the Hellenistic Age, and erotic poetry obnoxious for those who understood the meaning. In 1951, John Mavrogordatos translated Cavafy’s work into English and since then the poet’s work has been translated into most of the world’s languages.

Cavafy Museum, Alexandia

The apartment in Alexandria where Cavafy lived is now a museum. It is tucked away in Sharia Sharm el Sheikh, a side street off Sharia Nabi Danie. A plaque next to the front door indicates, in Greek letters, that this is the building where Constantine P. Cavafy lived until 1933.

A central front door opens up to a stairwell. A worn flight of steps leads to the landing on the second floor and to the Cavafy Museum. On hearing the tinkling sound of the front door bell, the custodian opens one part of a huge double-winged door to the apartment. Inside, the narrow hallway smells of beeswax and old musty books. Some of the wooden floorboards creak with age. A tall bookcase has its shelves stacked with books in all shapes and sizes. A glass door prevents dust from soiling their covers and pages.

Cavafy’s study is a high-ceilinged room; subdued light shines in through the draped windows. A soft recorded voice recites his poetry. The words flow melodiously to a non-Greek speaker. Listening to the words is an uplifting experience. His desk stands in one corner. His pens lie neatly arranged, ready to use. It is not difficult to imagine the man himself sitting behind this writing table. From the wall, his portrait looks benignly on his visitors. On his aquiline nose rests a round-rimmed pair of spectacles. He has bushy eyebrows, and a receding hairline parted in the middle. His mouth shows a faint smile. In middle age he dyed his hair, and asked for the wrinkles to be left out of his portrait. Family photos on all walls show glimpses of his private life.

In the next room there are more photos, some of his brothers, his parents and others taken in Constantinople. One of them is a faded black-and-white picture of the Hagia Sophia. In the middle of the room glass-cases display books and manuscripts: the translations of his poetry in twenty languages by forty different scholars. Filing cabinets line the wall. When the custodian opens them, they brim over with some thirty thousand articles and works written about his poetry.

He died of throat cancer from excessive drinking. His homosexuality was never openly referred to. However, Cavafy himself attributes his art to his sexuality.

My younger days, my sensual life
how clearly I see their meaning now.
How needless the repentance, how futile...
But I didn't see the meaning of it then.
In the loose living of my early years
the impulses of my poetry were shaped,
the boundaries of my art were plotted.
That's why the repentance was so fickle.
And my resolutions to hold back, to change,
lasted two weeks at the most.

Constantine P. Cavafy 1918

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