Emigration Minister Nabila Makram on the 'Nostos' project to host Greeks, Cypriots who once lived in Egypt

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 26 Apr 2018

Nostos is the beginning of an ambitious project under-consideration to acknowledge the cultural contributions of the foreign communities who once lived in the country, the minister explained to Ahram Online

File photo: Egypt's Immigration Minister Nabila Makram Ebeid in Cairo, Egypt, February 29, 2016 (Reuters)

‘Nostos’ is the name that the ministers of emigration from Egypt, Greece and Cyprus have chosen for a week-long event that will open on Monday in Alexandria to celebrate the Greek and Cypriot communities in Egypt.

The literal translation of the Greek word ‘Nostos’ is “return to the roots.”  It is a theme used in Greek literature which includes an epic hero returning home by sea.

This is precisely why Egypt's Minister of State for Emigration and Egyptian Expatriates' Affairs Nabila Makram and her counterparts from Greece and Cyprus chose this name for the event, which will give an opportunity for Greeks and Cypriots who once lived in Alexandria to return to their old homes in the Mediterranean harbour city, which was originally built by no other than Macedonian King Alexander the Great.

Makram said in an interview with Ahram Online that the event will be inaugurated by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and his visiting counterparts from Greece and Cyprus, who will address some 200 attendants, including 120 Greeks and Cypriots who will arrive in Egypt over the weekend to take part in the event.

Makram explained that the visiting, or rather “homecoming,” Greeks and Cypriots will later go on a tour of the city to visit their old homes and those of their families.

The tour will involve a walk through the city, with its many cosmopolitan stops including the Greek schools and other institutions, including the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy in Alexandria.”

The visitors will then go to Cairo and Giza to see the historical sites, including the pyramids, before moving on to Sharm El-Sheikh to visit St Catherine’s Monastery, which is affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Church.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Greeks and Cypriots emigrated to Egypt, especially Alexandria, to live and work in a country that was flourishing and where foreigners had certain colonial privileges.

Many stayed in Alexandria, at least for the first few years, and some moved on to live in other parts of the country, including Cairo, the Suez area, and the Nile Delta.

By the third decade of the 20th century, the Greeks and Cypriots had established a very visible presence in the heart of Alexandria, side by side with other foreigners.

Unlike other foreigners, however, many of the Greeks and Cypriots considered themselves “nationals of Alexandria.”

In the 1950s and 60s, however, the foreign presence in post-independence Egypt started to decline, which included the Greek and Cypriot communities. Most left the country, while some stayed and others chose to go back and forth between Egypt and their country of origin.

“The imprint of these foreign communities, especially the Greeks and Cypriots, on the city of Alexandria in particular cannot be overlooked; it is an imprint that is part of the colourful and diverse profile of the city. It is a diversity that has always been cherished, and not just by Alexandrians who had lived with these communities,” said Makram, who was herself born and raised in Alexandria.

“This is one of the purposes of the Nostos event: to celebrate diversity and to show the many and true colours of Egypt as a country that has always managed to accommodate,” she said. “And it is also about showing the wish of Egypt to honour all the participations of these communities.”

Another purpose of the event, according to Makram, is to remind the world that Egypt can still, as it once did, host and accommodate diverse cultures, and that Egypt is a safe haven and destination today as it has always been and should always be.

“With this event, we should also be able to encourage tourism and foreign investment, as well as promote wider cultural cooperation among these three Mediterranean countries, who have always shared so much and who today have so much in common to work on and to hope for.”

The idea for Nostos, Makram said, came up during a discussion about enhancing cooperation with the Greek emigration minister. The project was later was expanded to include Cyprus – given the close links between the Greek and Cypriot communities in Egypt.

“Obviously, the clear growth in high-level cooperation among the leaders of the three countries is a key factor, and certainly President El-Sisi’s support of this event and his willingness to be there for its launch helped the idea take off,” Makram said.

The leaders of Egypt, Greece and Cyprus have been intensifying cooperation since El-Sisi was first elected to office in June 2014.

Throughout these four years, Greece and Cyprus have expressed their support for Egypt and have been close economic partners, especially in ambitious gas projects in the eastern Mediterranean.

“So, in a sense, Nostos is also about the twining of public diplomacy with the high-level state cooperation that the three countries already have and are working to expand,” she said.

Nostos, which will bring together Greeks and Cypriots “who left Egypt to go all over the world, not just back to Greece and Cyprus,” is only the beginning of a very ambitious project that is currently being considered to acknowledge the cultural contributions of the foreign communities who lived in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Makram said.

Future steps, the minister explained, may include Nostos II, which will allow more Greeks and Cypriots to return to Egypt “given the big interest that many have demonstrated,” and allow them to connect with family who remained in Egypt.

By the early decades of the 20th century, Egypt was host to around half-a-million Greeks and a quarter million Cypriots. Today, there are no more than a few thousand Greeks, a little under 5,000 by estimates from Greek community leaders in Egypt, and less than 500 Cypriots by estimates from Cypriot community leaders.

The future recognition of the foreign communities of Egypt, Makram said, would not just be confined to Greeks and Cypriots, but would include Armenians, “whose presence and cultural imprint in the past and today is also worth acknowledging.”  

“We are still in the early phase of brainstorming, but I can say that we are currently considering a similar event for the Armenians and possibly the Italians of Egypt, and then we could [move on to other communities],” Makram said.

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