ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT-As the old hotel elevator rumbles upward, its antiquarian wood and brass cage carries me backward.

Back to the 1930s when the Cecil Hotel — staring out at an ancient harbor, a busy square and chic European-style patisseries — was the gathering place for aspiring (and already world-famous) writers, for social climbers and for curious foreigners caught up in Egypt’s mystique. Back to a breezy, Mediterranean city on the edge of Africa that once felt like Marseilles and London and Naples and Istanbul, and a mixture of everything from the Middle East thrown into an exotic urban stew.