How the Armenian community made Egypt a home
The Armenian population in Egypt is small in number but great in influence. Nestled with Egypt since ancient times, the Armenian population in Egypt continued to impact a myriad of areas in Egypt.
Armenia is hidden right between Europe and the Middle East, a landlocked country with Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north and Azerbaijan to the east. It houses one of the oldest Christian communities around the world, making Christianity its official religion since 301 AD
In 1915 the Armenian Genocide, a campaign of deportation and massacres of the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, forced the spread of Armenians around the world. Egypt has become home to one of the largest communities in the Armenian Diaspora At the beginning of the 20th Century. Migration to Egypt increased in the 1940s, numbering to nearly 40,000.
However, following the 1952 revolution in Egypt and the new economic and political policies of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a considerable number of Armenian Egyptians emigrated from Egypt to Europe, Australia and the United States.
In exile, but at home
Most Egyptian-Armenians today were born in Egypt and now reside primarily in Cairo or Alexandria. Facilities such as social clubs, schools, and sports clubs strengthen communications among Armenian Egyptians and revive the heritage of their ancestors.
In Cairo, the Armenians resided in Haret Kenisset el-Arman (Armenian Church Alley), an alley in the Moski neighborhood that was home to hundreds of Armenian families, as well as downtown Cairo. However, in the 1950s, many Armenian families moved to Heliopolis, which later became the center of their community and organizations.
“The Armenian community in Egypt is not large, quite the opposite. Today we count around 5000 people,” says Arto Belekdanian, an Egyptian Armenian Egyptologist. “At its height in the early 20th century, the Armenian population was much larger; however, it might seem like there are more of us due to the impact the Armenian community has had on Egypt.
Although Belekdanian never had to move to Egypt from scratch since his family has been around since his great-grandparents arrived, he says Egypt has welcomed the community with open arms. A tight-knit community, the Armenians of Egypt make sure to stay in touch with their roots far from their homeland through community ties, art, music, food, and the practice of their customs and traditions.
“Perhaps one of the ways we stay connected to our roots is to preserve our language and make sure we pass it on to each passing generation. We have Armenian schools, where the language is taught. We attend our Armenian churches and clubs, where we meet not only on special occasions, but regularly. We make sure to practice our customs and traditions by celebrating Armenian religious and secular holidays, and we keep alive the memory of Armenian tragedies,” Belekdanian stresses.
Although most Armenians living in Egypt today were born in Egypt, they stay together to keep their identity intact, as Belekdanian explains, they also try to visit their homeland every few years.
Given Armenia’s location, many aspects of its culture are closely linked to different countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, and Russia. However, Belekdanian explains that Armenian culture is still unique with its own twist.
“It’s a different fusion of different cultures, and it also has its own unique characteristics. In the kitchen, there is the famous kebab (meat), which we call chorovatsand it is eaten with a special Armenian bread called the cow. This bread is even written on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List for Armenia,” he said.
Conservation the Armenian language is one of the most important pillars for Egyptian Armenians, and Armenian education plays a very important role in maintaining the language. The first Armenian school in Egypt, the Yeghiazarian Religious School, was established in 1828.
Until recently, there were three Armenian schools; however, in 2013, decreases the listing forced the historic Armenian school in downtown Cairo to close and merge with a nearby school in Heliopolis. The Kalusdian-Nubarian Armenian school has a 100% pass rate and an increasing number come from intermarriages between Egyptian and Armenian parents.
The church plays a big role in strengthening community ties for Egyptian Armenains. There are Armenian churches in Cairo and Alexandria, including the Armenian Catholic Cathedral in downtown Cairo and the Armenian Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Cairo. Easily recognizable, Armenian churches have a distinct architectural pattern, including the “khachkar(Cross Stone), and the Egyptian and Armenian flags flutter side by side.
Impacts and contributions in Egypt
Armenians have made their significant contribution to the cultural, political and economic spheres in Egypt.
“Egypt’s first prime minister was Nubar Pashawho served three terms, from 1878 to 1888 [was Armenian]. His statue can be seen at the entrance to the Alexandria Opera House. Before him, Boghos Youssefian became Egypt’s first foreign minister in 1862. The famous statue of Ramses II, now in the Grand Egyptian Museum, was discovered in 1854 by Joseph Hekeyan. Tangerine was first introduced to Egypt in 1832 by Youssef Effendi al-Armanithis is why the fruit is called yusufandi [in Egypt]“Says Belekdanian.
Armenian artists have also contributed to the Egyptian art, music and film industries. Egyptian Armenian Ohan Hagob Justinian was the first camera manufacturer for film production in Cairo and Alexandria. Among the many famous celebrities who have graced our screens, including Mimi Gamal, Lebleba and Anoushka also have Armenian origins.
Egyptian jewelers have also earned a distinguished reputation in Egypt.
“It’s always something special to buy jewelry from Armenians and Egyptians who respect us for our honesty and professionalism,” said Anahid Aroyan of Ervant Jewellers, whose father survived the Armenian Genocide.
Egypt was once a nexus for Armenian life, but Armenian institutions in Egypt now face the challenge of keeping their community together as Armenian youth seek opportunities abroad and increasing intermarriage between Armenians and Egyptians leads to a decrease in the population.
Although their numbers have dwindled over the years, Armenians remain forever etched in Egypt’s history – a home away from home.
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