What is the story behind the presence of the Armenians in Egypt? And what made this well-integrated but highly distinct community able to stay on beyond the fifth and sixth decades of the 20th century when almost all Egypt’s other foreign communities, diverse as they were during the earlier decades of the century and during the century before it, mostly left?
These are questions that Egyptian historian Mohamed Rifaat Al-Imam attempts to answer in his thorough book on the subject, his third on the matter and first published in 2002, that examines the Armenian presence in Egypt.
Unlike his previous two volumes that looked at the earlier arrivals of Armenians in Egypt in the 18th and early 19th centuries prior to the Armenian Genocide that started in the former Ottoman Empire in 1896, this volume is more focused on Armenians who fled to Egypt during the genocide itself.
Through its well-referenced six chapters, the book explains the political setting in which the Armenians fell out of favour with the Ottoman authorities to the point that they were the victims of mass executions and were forced to make haphazard escapes from their homes that took them to Europe and the eastern and southern Mediterranean.
Egypt, Al-Imam explains, was a particularly opportune place for Armenian refugees because while it was still part of the Ottoman Empire at the time it enjoyed a certain level of political and administrative independence.
Unlike some other parts of the Ottoman Empire, it also enjoyed a level of economic prosperity that allowed for the accommodation of new arrivals.
Egypt, as Al-Imam’s book reminds us, had an already well-established Armenian community that was started by 18th-century immigrants who had taken up jobs and settled well enough to the point that by the late 19th century there was already an Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate in Cairo that looked after many of the bewildered refugees that arrived in the country during and after the Armenian Genocide and a Catholic Armenian Church that also reached out to them.
The book offers a detailed account of the waves of refugees that started to arrive in Egypt during the Genocide and the governorates that they went to, essentially Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal cities, before they moved on to settle across the country though staying especially in these parts.
Settling in was not easy, however, as readers of Al-Imam’s book learn. According to his account, the refugees were not always welcomed, and there were currents, Al-Imam says, that opposed the accommodation of the devastated refugees, either out of fears of economic competition or out of sympathy with the version of events put about by the Ottoman authorities that demonised the Empire’s Armenian subjects.
These had “betrayed” the trust the Ottoman sultan had put in them, this version of events said, and for this reason they were being punished.
However, liberal quarters in Egypt defended the ethical duty of accommodating the Armenian refugees and declined calls made by pro-Ottoman currents to turn them away.
The book contains details that the author has collected from documents kept by the Orthodox Armenian Church and from copies of Egyptian dailies published at the time, and these reflect the debate between the two opposing currents, with some supporting Egypt’s giving asylum to the Empire’s Armenian subjects and others opposing the idea.
It also reflects on the influence of international power struggles over the fate of the Armenian refugees. It particularly explains the confusing role played by Britain and France, the major European colonial powers of the time, in using the Armenian cause as a part of their political maneuvering with the Ottomans.
In the second part of his book, Al-Imam offers a detailed account of the lives of Armenians who managed to settle in Egypt — who helped them, the role of the Armenian churches and charities, the part played by the rest of the Armenian community, and the role of the state.
In this respect, his book is testimony to the remarkable survival skills of the Armenian refugees who managed to live through their ordeal and to start various businesses and take up different professions.
They were famous for the print shops that they established in many governorates, helping to revolutionise the printing business in Egypt. They were also celebrated for their tobacco industries, their watch- and jewellery-making, and for their photographers and artists.
However, for decades, the Armenians, restarting their lives in Egypt, producing their own daily papers, and setting up their own schools, were denied citizenship rights.
This was not just a function of Egypt’s earlier affiliation to the former Ottoman Empire, as the book shows, because even decades after the fall of that Empire the Armenians of Egypt were still for the most part without identity papers.
This was the case when Egypt was under formal British occupation, and it was still the case when the country gained its independence. Through the years of the monarchy and the early years of the republic, the Armenians of Egypt, now often in their second and third generations, were only slowly managing to acquire Egyptian nationality.
The attempts by community and church leaders to fix the situation are described in detail by Al-Imam, revealing what was a slow and hesitant progress. It was only in the early 1960s that the issue was really attended to by the Egyptian authorities.
However, by then it was time for the Armenians in Egypt to think about moving on once again, as former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser was presiding over nationalisations that forced many foreign nationals out of Egypt.
Al-Imam’s book, more than 700 pages long, is not exactly a traditional history, though it is not a social study either. Instead, it represents an attempt tobook document the arrival of the Armenians in Egypt in the years of the Armenian Genocide and their attempts to start new lives in the land they now treated as home.
While the book has many references that offer various leads to interested researchers, it has no photographs at all.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The taste of pomegranates