This week’s first round of the Nostos Programme in Alexandria brought back many memories for the former Greeks of Egypt. The visit was held in collaboration with the ministries of emigration of Egypt, Greece and Cyprus.
It started in Alexandria with an event inaugurated by the presidents of the three countries who made statements to acknowledge the shared Mediterranean history and culture of the three countries and the influences of the Greek and Cypriot communities in Egypt.
According to Maha Salem, spokesperson of Egypt’s Ministry of Emigration, the remainder of the visit of the mostly elderly women and men who had come to Alexandria, not just from Greece and Cyprus but from all over Europe and North America, was designed to include a visit to Cairo and Giza, especially the Pyramids area, and then to Sharm El-Sheikh, especially the Greek Orthodox Church affiliated to St Catherine’s Monastery.
“These are not just the places that the Greeks and Cypriots of Egypt once lived in, because they lived in many parts of the country, including the Suez Canal Zone. This is the path designed for the first round of the Nostos Programme,” Salem said.
Nostos is a Greek word that literally means a return to roots, or homecoming, particularly to roots near the sea.
“It makes perfect sense because Alexandria has always been perceived as the Hellenistic centre of the Mediterranean, and while the Greeks of Egypt, or the Egyptiotes as we call them, lived all over Egypt, they lived mostly in Alexandria,” said Michael Diamesis, ambassador of Greece to Egypt.
“The visit is not just about nostalgia but is also about our long common history. There was always a connection between our people, and there is plenty of archaeological proof for relations that in their modern phase started in the late 19th century. They go back centuries before that,” said Mortisis Charis, ambassador of Cyprus to Egypt.
By the early decades of the 20th century there were over half a million Greeks and Cypriots living in Egypt. Today, there are around 5,000 Greeks and 500 Cypriots. However, as both Diamesis and Charis agree, the Greek presence is still there and not just in the imprint of the monuments, churches and restaurants. The Greek and Cypriot communities, with their leaders and institutions, are still very active in Egypt, unlike some other former foreign communities.
Andreas Mavromotis is a third-generation Cypriot of Egypt who currently heads the Cypriot community in Cairo. Mavromotis’ grandfather was born in 1873, “the date when the Cypriot Community Association was established,” he said.
Mavromotis grandfather came to Egypt in 1915.
“He came to live and to work — not to work and then to leave,” he said.
Maria Mavromotis, the grandmother of Andreas Mavromotis
It was in Mosky, a Cairo neighbourhood known to have hosted representatives of the middle and lower-middle classes of several foreign communities, that the first Mavromotis married and lived for several years.
“He was starting a button-making business, and at that time Mosky was the commercial hub of the city,” Mavromotis recalled.
One decade down the road, the family moved to the then new suburb of Heliopolis, also at the time a place that housed many foreigners.
The parents of Andreas taking a stroll in Cairo
Today, Mavromotis lives in Heliopolis and is still running the same business that was started by his grandfather. Born in 1954, however, Mavromotis does not have the company of many Cypriot families as his father and grandfather did. Today, there are just a few families in Cairo and a few more in Alexandria.
These families share with their Greek counterparts “almost everything” in terms of social and religious life.
“We share and complement one another as a community of people who came from the Mediterranean to live in Egypt. Like the Greeks of Egypt, we feel at home here,” he said.
Mavromotis was looking forward to the Nostos Programme. “It is a unique reunion event, and it could well be the beginning of the return of the Cypriots to Egypt, not just to visit and walk in the paths of the good old days, but also to start a new beginning of cooperation and social and cultural engagement,” he said.
Andreas (Left of Greek Orthodox priest) at school.
Dimitri Cavouras, a fourth-generation Greek of Alexandria, also has high hopes of Nostos.
Cavouras hopes the event can offer an opportunity to those not familiar with the history of the Greeks of Egypt to learn more about it.
“I think many people in Alexandria, maybe most, know about this history as the buildings are there and the names and venues of old restaurants and patisseries still survive. But outside of Alexandria, I am not sure that many people know what the Greeks of Egypt were about,” he said.
One thing that Cavouras is keen that people should learn about the Greek community of Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is that this was a people who settled in and belonged to Egypt, who spoke Arabic, “as most of us do fluently,” and who “loved this country as their homeland and nothing less”.
As Lilianne Eissa, half-Greek and half-Lebanese and an Alexandria resident, put it, the Greeks never lived in ghettos.
“Not at all — they integrated widely, with Egyptians as well as with other foreigners,” Eissa said.
The marriage of Eissa’s father, a third-generation Lebanese who lived in Alexandria, with her mother Fotini Hamos was a story of this integration.
Today, the name Hamos still survives as one of the most popular patisseries in Alexandria.
Alexandra Hamos, the spouse of the founder of pâtisserie Hamod
While the Hamos of today is in the Sporting neighbourhood, “where it has been for over ten years,” the first was in Ramleh, the centre of the eclectic Alexandrian Greek community, and then in Ibrahimiya, which also had a high foreign presence, especially of Greeks, until the late 1950s.
Hamos is famous today for its classic recipes that include French items, Greek delicacies including Easter brioche and finikia (or mellomakarona, Greek honey biscuits) and kahk Al-Eid (traditional Egyptian biscuits).
For Eissa, the Greeks of Alexandria are there to share the diverse culture they belong to.
The picture of the founder of Hamos on the wall of the store that still carries his name
Some, such as dentist Lilika Thlivitis, is Greek-Egyptian. A third-generation Greek by birth and Alexandrian by history, Thlivitis and her husband and three children became Egyptian nationals in the late 1970s.
“It was late president Anwar Al-Sadat who honoured us with the nationality, and today we are hoping that under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi there will be a very close cooperation between Egypt and Greece. We have a heritage to share and so much in the future to look forward to,” Thilvitis said.
“There is still room for people to come and build their lives and have their businesses here, and of course so much cooperation,” said Georges Eleftheriou, a member of the Cypriot Community Association in Alexandria.
Eleftheriou said Egypt has “very promising business opportunities that just need promotion”. This was the reason he had chosen to come back to Egypt, where he was born as a third-generation Cypriot, after having graduated and started a business in Europe. “I came back because I liked the country and the people, but also because I saw a business opportunity here,” he said.
Business cooperation is a top issue on the agenda of the three presidents meeting for the Nostos event in Alexandria. Cultural cooperation is particularly important, according to organisers at the Ministry of Emigration.
Starvoula Spanou, head of the Greek Cultural Centre in Alexandria, who was born in Greece and has been working in Alexandria for over 20 years, and Papadopoulos Christos, head of the Greek Cultural Centre in Cairo, share a firm belief in the growing volume of cultural cooperation between Egypt and Greece because of Nostos.
“Already we have a lot of cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, and when Nostos meets in Alexandria a delegation from the Alexandria Greek Cultural Centre will be in Athens for a literary event. I am confident that because of Nostos there will be keener interest on both sides at the official and civil society levels to promote cultural cooperation, which is the key to relations around the Mediterranean,” he said.
This cooperation does not exclude the Cypriots. “We keep on saying that we have all lived around the Mediterranean, and we are very close to one another,” he said.
It is this proximity, not just geographical but also cultural, that made the men and women who crossed the Mediterranean come to Alexandria and be able to live and integrate in their new home, argues historian Khaled Fahmi.
At the end of the 19th century, when waves of immigration from the north to the south of the Mediterranean started, there was no separate country of Cyprus and parts of Greece and Cyprus were part of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt too was part of the empire, but under the rule of the Mohamed Ali dynasty it enjoyed a kind of autonomy and a booming business life.
“For those coming from Athens to Alexandria, they were in fact coming to the dolce vita… Egypt was a magnet at the time, and Alexandria was perhaps the most active of all the Greek communities around the Mediterranean,” Fahmy said.
Until the 1920s, Fahmy explained, it was much more interesting for many Greeks to be in Egypt. Then, he added, it became interesting for them to start going back to Greece again.
However, Fahmy noted, as many of the Greeks were integrated in the societies they lived in, some chose to stay on.
“They came to live and to die in Egypt. They had their schools, their houses, their shops, their churches and their cemeteries here,” Fahmy noted. “They belonged in Egypt, and this was part of their choice to stand with Egypt upon the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956,” he said.
Fahmy also notes the socio-economic profile of the Greeks of Egypt as another indication of the nature of the history that the community had in Egypt. “Some had big companies and others had small jobs. They lived all over the country, and they conducted their lives and affairs without the support of the colonial presence of the French and the British,” he said.
If they had legal problems or fell on the wrong side of the law, they were dealt with like any other Egyptian.
Today, Fahmy believes, re-visiting the history of this community entails reading its history carefully.
“I don’t think that the history of this community has been written as thoroughly and efficiently as it deserves to be. It is a huge endeavour that will require time and resources and above all access to the documents and archives,” he concluded.
* This story was first published under the title 'Back to their roots' in Al-Ahram Weekly