Egypt’s Armenians

22-04-2015 02:59 PM

Sheri Abdel-Massih


Armenians are a community with a long history in Egypt. Ever since the Fatimid era in the 11th century they have lived in the country, enjoying social, cultural, and religious freedom. This encouraged many more Armenians to make Egypt their home.

When the Mamluks—themselves slaves who served in the army and rose to be military leaders—ruled Egypt (1250 – 1517), they brought in some 10,000 Armenian slaves (mamluks) whom they captured during invasions of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia between 1266 and 1375. Some worked in agriculture and as craftsmen, while the youngest were converted to Islam and educated in army camps following the Mamluk system. The Mamluks remained a powerful force in Egypt until Mohamed Ali, who ruled from 1805–1849, killed them all in the notorious citadel massacre, and went on to found the dynasty that took Egypt into the modern era.

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Achieving high rank

The first Armenian churches in Egypt were built in the 1730s to serve the thriving Armenian community. Muhammad Ali hired civilian, non-Muslim Armenians in government positions, and they greatly contributed to the socio-economic development of Egypt.

In 1837, Mohamed Ali appointed Boghos Yusufian (1768 – 1844), a banker and businessman, head of the Diwan al-Tigara (Bureau of Commerce) and overseer of other financial affairs. For decades Yusufian was Egypt’s leading statesman and was the first Christian in Egypt to be granted the title ‘Bey’.

Perhaps the most famous Armenian statesman in Egypt was Nubar Nubarian (1825 – 1899), who was the first Prime Minister in modern Egypt and served three terms between 1878 and 1895. Nubar Pasha was a uniquely gifted statesman who held high posts for five decades, achieved international stature and left a decisive imprint on Egypt’s modernisation, especially in the sphere of social justice.

 

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Migration of Armenians to Egypt continued along the 19th century. The community established schools for their children, and a hospital to treat their needy. Their main centres were Cairo and Alexandria, with a smaller number settling in Damietta and Rosetta, Suez, Beni Sweif, and Qena. Many chose to live near their churches in older districts of Cairo, such as Faggala, Muski and Azbakiya, but later moved to the modern areas of the time, such as Shubra and Abassiya.

Another profitable development was the cultivation and large scale export of the tangerine, a fruit introduced by Yusuf Effendi al-Armani (Yusuf the Armenian, Esquire), who brought in the saplings from Malta and planted them in Mohamed Ali’s orchard. The fruit, aptly named Yusufeffendi, became popular and its production a lucrative business to this day.

Gifted professionals

Mahdesi Yeghiazar Amira Bedrossian was a money changer from Agin who was appointed Mohamed Ali’s tax collector and special counsellor. The influence of Armenian money lending escalated during the 1830s when, owing to the Russo-Turkish war and persecution of native Armenians, many merchants and financiers settled in Egypt and even succeeded in launching Egypt’s first bank, which operated from 1837 to 1841.

Yacub Artin Pasha Cherakian (1842 – 1919) was known as al-Ustaz al-Kabir, the Great Teacher, for his landmark reforms in Egyptian education.

The Egyptian Armenian community established printing presses in Cairo and Alexandria; altogether there were 41 Armenian printing houses, 28 in Cairo and 13 in Alexandria. The Nubar Printing Press, a family enterprise founded in Cairo at the turn of the century, is still successfully operating today.

Armenians contributed to the development of many industries in Egypt including ship building, textile production with spinning and weaving, carpentry and blacksmithing, stone masonry, agriculture and tobacco production, as well as shoemaking and jewellery which required state-of-the-art workmanship and designs. Shoemaker Krikor Papazian served the royal family and elite circles, while the Sukiassian Company specialised in tanning, leather treatment and shoe manufacturing for the wholesale market.

Tailoring and shirt-making were also occupations at which Armenians excelled. Mohamed Ali’s tailor was Hadji Garabed. During the reign of King Fuad I, Arsen Sarafian served as the palace tailor.

The 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey marked a turning point in the history of the Armenian community. A large number of survivors migrated to Egypt, taking the total number of Armenians in Egypt in 1917 up to 12,854.

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Vibrant community

By 1952 the number of Armenians in Egypt had reached 40,000. That year in July the revolution erupted and overthrew the monarchy. Subsequent socialist policies and nationalisation of private businesses in 1960 hurt Egyptian Armenians who were mainly in the private sector of the economy. Many migrated from Egypt.

Today about 8,000 Armenians remain, most born in Egypt and enjoying Egyptian citizenship. They are a vibrant, faithful community and their men fight within the ranks of the Egyptian Army.
For Egyptian Armenians, Armenia is the heritage and culture each generation hands to the next. Once every eight years, Armenians elect 24 members for their community council; these in turn elect an executive body of seven for a two-year period to run their institutions including schools, churches, cemeteries and endowments.

The Armenian Church and the apolitical structure of the Armenian community unify Armenians in Egypt. There are six operating churches and the community runs associations such as the Armenian Red Cross Association, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, and the Housaper Cultural Association, three schools, six social clubs in Cairo and Alexandria. There is a home for the elderly, and a dance company and choirs for the young.

The Armenian Catholic Sisters school in Heliopolis is among the most sought-after for girls in Cairo. It was founded in 1937 by three Sisters who came to Egypt at the request of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate. The school was limited to Armenians until 1967 when it opened its doors to all.

Many Armenians excel in theatre, cinema, and fine arts. The Egyptian Armenian actresses and cousins of the 1960s Fayrouz, Nelly and Libliba are among the most famous; also cartoonist Alexander Saroukhan who set the standard for caricature in the Arab World.

Watani International
22 April 2015

 

   

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