Heritage of Egypt’s Levantines

Farah El-Akkad, Tuesday 15 Mar 2022

The architecture of many older buildings in Alexandria is symbolic of how Egypt’s Levantines were once part and parcel of the country’s cosmopolitan character, writes Farah El-Akkad

The Sabbaghs in King Mariout villa
The Sabbaghs in King Mariout villa (courtesy of Magdy Sabbagh)

Imagine going back in time. How would the streets you know today look a century ago? What has changed with the years and what is left? Even if it is possible to get a glimpse of what streets and buildings once looked like from pictures or films, what about the people who once lived in them?

When we dig deeper into the backgrounds and culture of those who played a significant role in shaping the society of cosmopolitan Egypt, it is clear that though the people may be long gone, their descendants still carry their inheritance with love and pride. This is particularly true of those coming from the Levant or the Shawam countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine.

Something of their legacy can be seen in architecture, for example the entrance of an old building in Saad Zaghloul Street in Downtown Alexandria. Known as the Four Seasons building, the entrance is adorned by the statues of four fine ladies, two on either side and each representing a different season. Spring carries a bunch of fruit, winter boasts a rich shawl, and summer is donned in light attire.

Digging deeper into the history of this facade, it turns out that the building was once owned by the Souccar family, one of the largest of the Levantine community residing in Egypt. Many of the old buildings remaining in Alexandria today were mostly owned by Levantines.

The Levantines were immigrants like the Greeks, Italians, and other communities who came to Egypt during the late 19th century in what was known as the Era of Immigration, so-called by author Massoud Daher in his The Levantine Immigration to Egypt (2009).

However, unlike these other nationalities, the Levantines were also Arabs, even if they had privileges that many Egyptians did not have at the time. Many went to Catholic schools where the main teaching language was French. These schools were considered to be more “open minded” where students from different backgrounds, religions, and cultures coexisted together, unlike the schools of the Egyptian Coptic community which preserved a more local culture.

The Kanawatis and Sabbaghs, with Charles Kanawati, Nadim’s grandfather
The Kanawatis and Sabbaghs, with Charles Kanawati, Nadim s grandfather (second from left) courtesy of Nadim Kanawati

Their education translated into various advantages, among them the fact that they often held administrative positions owing to their cultural openness. They were Arabs and “easterners,” yet for decades they played a notable role as middlemen between the Egyptian government and foreign organisations in Egypt such as embassies and consulates.

 “They were considered the main link between foreigners and the Egyptian state. There was a time when most positions related to foreign affairs were held by Shawams,” one author on the period said. Christians from the Levant also often had closer relations with Egyptian Muslims than they did with Egyptian Copts.

When Egypt’s independence from the former Ottoman Empire was formalised after World War I, the Levantines along with many other immigrants were given the choice to become Egyptian citizens on the condition that they give up their native nationality. Egypt was considered a safe haven at the time and a land of opportunity.

Adel Rabaa, the now-retired former director of Air France in Alexandria, is a leader of the Shawam community in the city today. His family is originally from Palestine, and he said that historically the word Shamy was used to describe those coming from Syrian descent. “A Lebanese person, for instance, would not usually call himself Shamy. However, today the word Shawam in Egypt usually refers to communities who immigrated from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and/or Palestine,” Rabaa added.

Entrance of the Graeco Catholic Church in Manshiya (built late 19th century)

In his book, Daher explains that despite being considered Egyptians, the Shawam still have a keen sense of their Syrian-Lebanese ancestors originating from the Levant. “They were originally considered as an ethnic group as Lebanon wasn’t an independent state at the time they first came to Egypt. It was part of Ottoman Syria, or bilad al-Sham, in Arabic,” he said. “The majority of Egypt’s Levantines are Christians, while some others are Muslim or Jewish.”

However, even though the shawams only became a distinctive minority in late 19th-century Egypt, there had always been a Levantine presence in Egypt. They had started coming to “Egypt in the late 18th century for reasons such as their natural propensity for commerce, inherited from the ancient Phoenicians, and their French education that made them seek employment as translators during the French occupation of Egypt under Napoleon Bonaparte from 1798 to 1801. After the eviction of the French, they were employed by Mohamed Ali Pasha, the then ruler of Egypt, to translate books from western languages, especially French, into Arabic,” Daher said.

“During the conflicts that took place between the Syrian Christians and the Druze between 1840 and 1860, hundreds of Syrian-Lebanese, and a few Jordanian and Palestinian Christians too, fled their native lands to come to the safety of Egypt. The country was encouraging people from across the world to come and settle, offering them job opportunities and various concessions especially after the construction of the Suez Canal and the creation of a modern downtown area in Cairo.

“By the end of the 19th century, the Syrian-Lebanese community was in the midst of rapid growth that began in the 1860s and peaked by the 1930s. As most of them were French-speaking and well educated, they flourished as an active and cosmopolitan community in Egypt until the late 1950s. The Levantines’ openness and their fluency in languages enabled them to hold various high-ranking positions in society, some of them in the Egyptian government,” he added.

Inside the four seasons statue building in downtown Saad Zaghlould Street, Alexandria. Each statue presents a different season (one of Souccar family estates)

SHAWAM FAMILIES: Magdi Sabbagh is an Alexandrian architect whose family originally came from Syria during the late 19th century. His great-grandfather Aref Sabbagh and his brothers were friends with other families, such as Nadim Kanawati’s grandfather Charles Kanawati in the 1940s. Decades later, the grandsons met through common friends in Alexandria, finding out about this longtime friendship through old photographs.

Constantine Sabbagh, Magdi’s other great grandfather, immigrated to Egypt from Syria. He followed the Greek Orthodox rite, and similar to many people following this rite at the time their names were usually Greek.

Constantine came to Egypt as a landowner. “He bought land in Tanta and specialised in onion farming,” his great-grandson said. His four children had the foresight to predict that Egypt would gain a strong industrial foothold in the future, however, and he decided to focus on dried onions, renting land in Mina Al-Bassal (the onion district), that specialised in this line of production.

During the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, many such businesses were nationalised, and most of the Sabbagh family’s lands were confiscated. Three of the brothers died in tragic circumstances over the years, leaving a sole brother.

Nadim Kanawati’s family, on the other hand, immigrated from Lebanon to Egypt in the late 19th century and worked in real estate, owning a number of buildings known as dayra from the Arabic word idara (management). “Most of the foreign communities living in Egypt decided to leave during Nasser’s era. However, the Shawam was the biggest community that remained in Egypt,” Kanawati said.

Sabbagh said that his ancestors’ onion farms were rented from the prominent Levantine figure Asaad Bassili Pasha (1895-1943), a wood industry tycoon, estate owner, writer and journalist. He is known for building a mosque for his workers, which is still present today in the Al-Wardian district of Alexandria and is called the Bassili Mosque.

Co-founder of Alexandria’s Chamber of Commerce and head of the Syrian Club, Bassili was an active member of the city’s economic, social, and cultural life. His palace was later sold to the US consulate and then to the Egyptian government, where it is being used as the Alexandria National Museum in Fouad Street.

Daher points to Sabbagh’s family in his book, specifying a relation between the family in Cairo and that in Alexandria, as they both immigrated from Syria and were Greek Orthodox. Hana Sabbagh in Cairo was the secretary of Belgian industrialist Baron Empain, the builder of Heliopolis in the early decades of the last century, and was given the position because of his expertise in French and openness as a Levantine. His grandson George Sabbagh became a well-known artist in France and Egypt.

“He was known as a French artist in Egypt and an Egyptian artist in France,” Sabbagh adds with a note of amusement in his voice.

Unlike Sabbagh and Kanawati, the Rabaa family is of Palestinian origin. “My great-grandfather fled from Akka in Palestine to escape the Israeli occupation after 1948. At the time Egypt was considered promised land,” Rabaa explained.

George Abdu Souccar was a prominent real-estate investor in Alexandria, originally from the Bab Touma neighbourhood in Damascus and from the Christian Greek Orthodox rite. He immigrated to Alexandria during the late 19th century and built, owned, and managed more than 30 buildings, most of which were located in the central downtown district. Today, some of these are listed among the city’s heritage, such as the Four Seasons building described earlier.

Souccar was an active member of the Shawam community, giving regular donations to the Church for reliving the poor. His son Albert Souccar (born 1914) married Marie Madeleine Zahra, daughter of Richard Zahra and Victorine Sabbagh who was an Italian living in Alexandria. Albert and Marie had no children and sold all their properties in the 1990s.

Over the years, Souccar’s main income came from renting out the buildings he owned. The family was known for throwing parties in their apartment on the second floor of the Four Seasons building. They also had a habit of travelling to the Levant for religious pilgrimages and around Europe, often collecting icons from monasteries visited on their travels.

Other famous Alexandrian Shawam names include Kordahi Bek, a prominent businessman and cotton industry tycoon. Unfortunately, a number of villas belonging to Kordahi have been demolished, giving way to new buildings without architectural style or historical value.  

SHAWAM HERITAGE: Walking through downtown Alexandria with Sabbagh and Kanawati, it is impossible not to see the remarkable architecture and the old mosques and churches that bear witness to one of the city’s most active communities.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of buildings owned by Shawam is their various styles. The architecture did not stick to one specific mode, modern, classical, or art deco, and the buildings, like their owners, were diverse. They were both residential and commercial. One of the best-known Souccar buildings located in the downtown area was actually the first mall of its kind, the first floor being for shop owners and the upper floors for residents.

The Levantines were a smart community, always open to change, adaptable, and accepting differences, and mixing and mingling with all sorts of people. They were always on the move, following the latest trends, foreseeing the future, and presenting a striking combination of cultural openness and eastern origins.

One famous name is that of Girguis Al-Tawil, a leader of the Greek Catholic community. Al-Tawil facilitated the immigration of shawam to Alexandria, and as a real-estate investor, he built a number of buildings providing them with houses, work opportunities, and a cathedral, the Patriarcat Grecque Catholique located in the Manshiya district, to meet their religious needs.

His name is still present on buildings standing today in Manshiya and Attarin streets, reading Foundation G Tawil. Waqf Girguis Al-Tawil.

The Church of Debbané located in a small street between Raml Station and Manshiya is also linked to the Shawam community. In 1868, the then emperor of Brazil, Pedro II, ordered the construction of a Brazilian church in Alexandria, which was first established in the garden of the Brazilian consulate. Later, the Brazilian consul, who was of Lebanese descent, built the current church. It is the only church belonging to Brazil in Alexandria. In 1871, it was visited by the emperor and his wife, the first Brazilian head of state to visit Egypt and the Middle East.

“The Levantines were involved in a wide range of activities and professions, including as civil servants, engineers, doctors, lawyers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, cotton and wood merchants, publishers, etc. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram was established by the Syrian-Lebanese Takla family, and so was the major printing house Dar Al-Hilal, established in 1892 and having an enormous influence on the country’s cultural life,” Daher said.

“Rose Al-Youssef [1898-1958], the great Egyptian cultural figure from the first half of the 20th century, was of Levantine origin. The political and literary magazine named after her continues until today, albeit in state hands.”