By Farah Rafik – Egyptian Streets –
Small in number but large in influence is the Armenian population in Egypt. Nestled with Egypt since ancient times, the Armenian population in Egypt has continued to impact a myriad of spheres in Egypt.
Armenia is tucked 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 is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, making Christianity its official religion since 301 A.D.
In 1915, the Armenian Genocide, a campaign of deportation and mass killings of the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire during the first World War, forced the spread of Armenians around the world. Egypt became home to one of the largest communities of the Armenian Diaspora in the beginning of the 20th century. Migrations to Egypt increased in the 1940s, numbering to almost 40,000.
However, following the 1952 revolution in Egypt and president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s new economic and political policies, a massive number of Armenian Egyptians emigrated from Egypt to Europe, Australia, and the United States.
In Exile, but at Home
Most Egyptian-Armenians around today were born in Egypt and now reside primarily in Cairo or Alexandria. Facilities like social clubs, schools, and sports clubs reinforce communications among Armenian Egyptians and revive the heritage of their forefathers.
In Cairo, Armenians used to reside in Haret Kenisset el-Arman (Alleway of the Armenian Church), an alleyway in the Moski neighborhood that was home to hundreds of Armenian families, as well as in downtown Cairo. However, in the 1950s, many Armenian families relocated to Heliopolis, which later became the center for their community and organizations.
“The Armenian community in Egypt isn’t large, it’s quite the opposite. Today, we number around 5000 people,” states Arto Belekdanian, Egyptian Armenian Egyptologist. “In its heyday in the early 20th century, the Armenian population was much larger; however, it might seem that there are more of us because of the impact the Armenian community has had on Egypt.”
Although Belekdanian never had to settle in Egypt from scratch since his family has been around since his great-grandparents first arrived, he explains that Egypt welcomed the community with open arms. A tight-knit community, Armenians in Egypt make sure to stay in touch with their roots away from their home country through communal ties, art, music, food, and practicing their customs and traditions.
“Perhaps one of the ways we stay in touch with our roots is that we preserve our language, and make sure we pass it on to each passing generation. We have Armenian schools, where the language is taught. We frequent our Armenian churches and clubs, where we gather not just on special occasions, but regularly. We make sure to practice our customs and traditions by celebrating Armenian religious and secular holidays, and we keep the memory of Armenian tragedies alive,” Belekdanian highlights.
Although most of the 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 intertwined with different countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, and Russia. However, Belekdanian explains that Armenian culture still stands unique with its own flare.
“It’s a different fusion of different cultures, and has its own unique traits too. In cuisine, there is the famous kebab (meat), which we call khorovats, and we eat it with a special Armenian bread called lavash. This bread is even inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List for Armenia,” he says.
Preserving 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, dwindling enrollment forced downtown Cairo’s historic Armenian school to close and merge with a nearby school in Heliopolis. The Kalousdian-Nubarian Armenian School has a 100 percent graduation rate, and growing numbers come from intermarriages between Egyptian and Armenian parents.
The church plays a big role in strengthening communal 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 central Cairo. Easily recognizable, the Armenian Churches have a distinct architectural pattern, including the Armenian “khachkar” (Cross Stone), and Egyptian and Armenian flags flap side-by-side.
“Egypt’s first Prime Minister was Nubar Pacha, who served three terms, from 1878 unti 1888 [was Armenian]. His statue can be spotted at the entrance of Alexandria’s Opera house. Before him, Boghos Yousefian became Egypt’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1862. The famous statue of Ramses II, which now can be found in the Grand Egyptian Museum, was discovered in 1854 by Joseph Hekeyan. The tangerine was first brought to Egypt in 1832 by Youssef Effendi al-Armani, which is why the fruit is called yusufandi [in Egypt],”’ underscores Belekdanian.
Armenian artists have also contributed to the Egyptian art, music, and film industries. The Egyptian Armenian Ohan Hagob Justinian was the first manufacturer of cameras for cinema production in Cairo and Alexandria. Among the many famous celebrities that adorned our screens, including Mimi Gamal, Lebleba, and Anoushka also have Armenian origins.
Egyptian jewelers have also earned a distinguished reputation in Egypt.
“It’s still something special to buy jewelery from Armenians and Egyptians respect us for our honesty and professionalism,” says Anahid Aroyan of the Yervant jewelers, whose father survived the Armenian Genocide.
Egypt was once a nexus for Armenian life, but Armenian institutions in Egypt are now challenged with keeping their community together, as Armenian youth are seeking opportunities abroad and the increase of intermarriage between Armenians and Egyptians is causing the population to dwindle.
Although their numbers have decreased over the years, Armenians remain forever etched in the history of Egypt – a home away from their home.