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Friday, 28 February 2020

Armenian genocide refugees remembered in Egypt's Port Said

Once again, the Armenian community in Egypt added a new chapter to their rich history which thousands were recently proud to witness. Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian reports from Port Said.

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Saturday 24 Oct 2015
Bishop Mnatsaganian
Bishop Mnatsaganian addressing the attendees in front of the newly inaugurated memorial (Photo: Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian)
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Last week 250 Armenian community leaders and members hit the road to Port Said, to take part in the inauguration ceremony of a memorial dedicated to the Armenian refugees who fled the genocide to settle in Port Fouad camps after the heroic battle of Musa Ler, or the Mountain of Moses, as translated from Armenian.

The memorial was built on a mass grave that was previously found in the city's Orthodox cemetery where refugees who lived in the camps from 1915 to 1919 were also buried. Primate of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Egypt Bishop Ashod Mnatsaganian led the services dedicated to those who died.

In his spiritual address, Mnatsaganian highlighted the importance of organising and constructing such a memorial which proves how the Ottoman Turks failed to annihilate the Armenian nation, "since we still live, will live and multiply" he said.

Citing the example of the Battle of Musa Ler, Mnatsaganian explained how the people at the time had a purpose in life, not only to survive but had an eternal struggle for survival.

"For survival,we must fight ,this is what we aim for. We should educate the new generation so as to survive through them. We owe it to those who fell in the battle and to those who fled to Egypt seeking life. It is because of them that we are here today, to remember and memorise, to prove that we will continue our mission in life, on this land".

On the occasion, 14 Lebanese-Armenians from the town of Ainjar came especially for the memorial opening. Their ancestors were among the refugees who settled in Port Said in 1915. On their behalf, Yessayi Havatian, head of Musa Ler Battle's 100 anniversary committee, gave an expressive speech in which he considered the occasion the most important of all the commemorations this year “because we returned to the land where our ancestors settled”.

Havatian, whose grandfather was among the refugees and whose father was born in Port Said in 1919, said that French warships which transported the Armenian refugees first asked Cyprus to host them, but were refused. When Egypt was asked to do so, the Egyptian government immediately accepted the idea of hosting them for which they are still  grateful and touched.

Moses Mountain was the site of an Armenian resistance story in 1915 when the Turkish government conducted violent operations in the region.

Five thousand of the population climbed the mountain to revolt and escape the deportation; 250 of them took part in a battle that lasted 53 days.

French naval forces in the Mediterranean sighted the survivors as they prepared rescue banners for attention. On 15 September 1915 four French warships, including the Guichen and one British naval vessel, evacuated Musa Ler and transported 4,231 refugees to Port Fouad where they lived peacefully and securely until they were able to return to their homes in November 1919. Some of them resettled in Lebanon, in the town of Ainjar, located in the Bekaa Valley, and established a 100 per cent Armenian-populated town in 1939. Today Ainjar is inhabited by 5,000 people.

Born in Ainjar, Egyptian-Armenian jeweller Varouj Chilinguirian, a member of the Musa Ler Battle’s 100 anniversary committee, and coordinator of the group which visited Egypt, was relieved once he stood on the land where his maternal grandfather settled in 1915.

“I’ve been dreaming of this moment since 2008 but then the revolution came and I had to practise patience. We owe it to the community’s church committee who finally made such a memorial come true,” Chilinguirian told Al-Ahram Weekly. His grandfather, who later became a priest, was 17 when he arrived in Port Fouad Camp. In 1919 he left to Musa Ler then settled in Ainjar.  

The memorial is designed by Egyptian-Armenian architect and archaeologist Nairy Hampikian. “It is a mixture of the Sartarabad Battle and the genocide memorials found in Armenia,” stated Hampikian. Construction work started in autumn 2014 and was completed in February this year. The memorial, sitting on a mass grave of the remains of around 400 refugees, is made of Italian black and white karara marble.

“I consider the memorial a revival of the remains of those refugees who settled in Port Fouad camps,” Hampikian told the Weekly.

Historical events in Musa Ler inspired Austrian Franz Werfel to write his novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in 1933. A movie of the same name was released in 1982.

Head of the Armenian Catholic Church in Egypt Bishop Krikor- Okosdinos Coussa, Ambassador of Armenia Armen Melkonian, representatives of the Coptic Church in Port Said and Mayor of Ainjar Garabed Pamboukian attended the memorial’s opening.

Egypt received large waves of Armenian refugees from the Hamidian Massacres, the CUP (Committee of Union and Progress) Ottoman genocide and the Kemalist wars.

After the prayers and before leaving the cemetery, members of the community and ancestors of the Port Fouad Camp refugees laid red roses on the memorial in respect to their souls.

*This story was previously published in Al-Ahram Weekly.

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