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Constantine Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863 and his parents were of Constantinople descent. He was a cosmopolitan, since his family roots were spreading from Constantinople to Alexandria and from Trapezounta to London. He lived as an authentic Greek and as a world's civilian at the same time.
Cavafy's father, who was a very capable merchant, died too early and his mother was forced to move to England with her children, when Constantine was 9 years old. She then returned to Alexandria, but she moved again to Constantinople, before the city's bombardment by the British navy.
During the fire that followed the bombardment of Alexandria, the family's house was destroyed as were all of the poet's books and manuscripts. After the family's final return to Alexandria in 1885, Cavafy was hired by an Egyptian irrigation company, where he worked for thirty years. At the same time, he also worked as a stockbroker in order to supplement his income and that way he managed to have a decent life until his last days.
The Egyptian irrigation company was housed in the building where hotel "Le Metropole" is today, in the famous Corniche coastal avenue. Nothing has changed on this building, not even the elevator, which has not any manhole and it keeps hanging by a wire, like a pendulum. Its canopy looks like a rare handmade piece of furniture, where passengers need to open some heavy locks, cast iron sliding rolls and carved wooden doors to get in. Cavafy worked for thirty years in this building, spending his breaks in front of his window, gazing at the Mediterranean Sea.
Cavafy had clearly separated his professional from his personal life, which was an object of scandal-mongering from the moment his poetry started to become well-known. Above all he was a poet and that's what he wanted to be known as, without any other designations, but those that defined his Greek identity.
That's why he always wanted to live carefully, without giving any excuses to the Alexandrian society and the Athenian status quo, which since 1903 had foreseen a threat against the poetic world order in Greece, as it was then incarnated by the indigenous poet Costis Palamas, a threat coming from this peculiar Greek poet.
In 1932 Cavafy was affected by cancer of the larynx and travelled to Athens for treatment that didn't work out. The tracheotomy he underwent deprived him of speech and he had to communicate by writing notes. He returned to Alexandria to die a few months later, in the dawn of his seventieth birthday, at the Greek hospital which was near his home.
This home has now turned into a museum, where his personal objects and rare publications of his work are being kept. A room of the same house is dedicated to Stratis Tsirkas, another great Greek Alexandrian litterateur (1911-81).
Under Cavafy's home there was a brothel, the Greek monastery of Saint Savvas was across and a bit further there was the Greek hospital "Saint Sophronius". When the poet moved in this house, 25 years before his death, he had prophetically said: "Where would it be better for me to live? Under my home, the brothel heals the needs of the flesh, across the street there is the church where sins are being forgiven and a few metres below the hospital where we can die".
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS