A glimpse into Armenian history in Egypt
The relationship between the two nations goes back to the Pharaonic times while strengthening during the Byzantine rule followed by the Fatimid Caliphate times and reaching its culmination in the reign of Mohammed Ali.
For centuries, Armenians have had great input on the development of culture, economy, and science in Egypt.
From Abbasid Era in the 7th century to the Ottoman Era of the early 19th century.
Among the most notable Armenians in Egypt between the Abbasid Era in the 7th century to the Ottoman Era of the early 19th century were:
Vartan the Standard Bearer, or Wardan al-Rumi al-Armani, saved the life of Amr Ibn al-‘As, the commander of the Arab army at the Battle of Alexandria in 641.
Al-Amir Ali Ibn Yahya Abu’l Hassan al-Armani – the governor of Egypt in 841 and 849, appointed by the Abbasid Caliph.
Ibn Khatib Al-Ferghani - the master-builder of the Armenian ancestry who rebuilt the Nilometer on the southern tip of Rawda.
Badr al-Gamali - a manumitted slave of Armenian descent was called by Caliph al-Muntasir in 1073 to assist him during the Fatimid period when Egypt was weakened by the inner strife and ravaged by drought, famine, and epidemics. Badr’s army, composed of mainly Armenian soldiers, is believed to have been formed after the fall of the Bagratuni capital, Ani (1066) when many Armenian refugees sought shelter in other countries. Badr al-Gamali was the first military man to become the Vezir (minister) of the Sword and the Pen, thus setting the trend for a century of mostly Armenian Vezirs with the same monopoly of civilian and military powers. At the height of their power, the Armenian Vezir could count on the personal loyalty of more than 30,000 Armenian soldiers.
Al-Afdal – the son of Badr al-Gamali, who succeeded his father as Vezir. He constructed the Palace of Vezirate, or Dar al Wizarra, besides creating two public parks with exotic gardens, and a recreation area with a man-made lake called Birket al Arman, or Armenian Lake.
Three Armenian brothers – all architects and masons skilled in cutting and dressing stones, constructed the three monumental gates of Cairo: Bab al-Nasr and Bab al-Futuh in 1087 and Bab Zuwayla in 1092. The gates with their flanking towers still stand today.
The ramparts and gates, which have a certain similarity to the fortifications of the Bagratuni Capital Ani, are regarded as masterpieces of military architecture by international standards.
Bahram al-Armani – after restoring order and peace in the country at the request of Caliph al-Hafiz, was appointed by the latter as the Vezir in 1135.
Sinan Pasha - the Ottoman Empire’s chief architect of Armenian descent, who constructed the historic Mosque of Bulaq, as well as Cairo’s grain market, and Bulaq’s public bathroom (Hammam Sha’bi).
Amir Suleyman Bey al-Armani - held the position of the Governor of Munnifeya and Gharbiyya provinces in 1690 and was so wealthy that he had Mamluks at his service.
Ali al-Armani and Ali Bey al-Armani Abul Azab - served as regional commanders.
Muhammad Kehia al-Armani – was an incorruptible leader who in 1798 was sent to negotiate with Napoleon Bonaparte in Alexandria to spare the population of Cairo. Napoleon was so impressed by the conciliatory tone, the political astuteness, and the diplomatic skill of the Mamluk of Armenian descent that he later appointed him the Head of Cairo’s Political Affairs Administration.
Rustam (or Petros) - a native of Karabakh was brought to Egypt as a slave soldier. He accompanied Napoleon to France as his bodyguard, fought with the French army at the famous battle of Austerlitz, and then took part in the conquest of Spain.
Apraham Karakehia - an eminent money changer who supported Muhammed Ali’s projects and plans. Karakehia would become Egypt’s money changer, with the honorary title of Misser Sarrafi. That position and title would belong to the Karakehia family for generations to come.
Mahdesi Yeghiazar Amira Bedrossian – another money changer from Agin who was named the Wali’s, or Governor’s, tax collector, and special counselor. At various times, Armenian money lenders held the sole rights of exploiting the Cairo bathhouses, the salt mines of Matariya, and the fish market of Damietta. The influence of the Armenian money lenders increased even more during the 1830s when due to the Russo-Turkish war and open persecution of Armenians, many merchants and financiers settles in Egypt and even succeeded in launching Egypt’s first bank, which operated from 1837 to 1841.
Notable Armenians Who Contributed To Egypt’s Modern State-Building.
Boghos Bey Yusufian (1768 – 1844)
He was such a successful businessman that he soon became Governor Mohamed Ali’s partner. Boghos Bey was appointed the Wali’s chief dragoman, or translator, first counselor, official spokesman, Minister of Commerce and Foreign Affairs, and for decades Egypt’s leading statesman. The Wali placed such implicit trust in him that he signed documents even before they were drafted by Boghos Bey. As Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, a historian of modern Egypt, testifies, “Boghos has been given several cartes blanches by the Wali and could draw on the treasury for any sum whenever he needed funds for himself. He was never paid a regular salary but the Wali trusted him to do as he pleased in terms of payment. For a man as suspicious as Mohamed Ali was, this was a signal proof of trust and a unique favor allowed to no one else.” In the reign of Mohamed Ali, Boghos was the first Christian to be granted the title of Bey.
Nubar Pasha Nubarian (1825 – 1899) - the first Prime Minister of Egypt
He was a unique gifted statesman, held the highest administrative posts for five decades, achieved international stature, and left his decisive imprint on Egypt’s modernization, especially in the sphere of social justice. Nubar initially served as his uncle's, Boghos Yusufian’s secretary, then after his death, he became dragoman to the Wali and second secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs. In addition to translating, his work entailed acting as a diplomat and counsellor. Later during the reign of Abbas I, Nubar Nubarian was appointed counsellor and delegate for special missions. He established Cairo’s Water Company, which introduced piped water, and led to the creation of the city of Heliopolis in the mid desert. During Sa’id, Abbas I’s successor, Nubar Nubarian was appointed the director of health services, then-Attorney General, policy coordinator between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassies as well as the viceroy, and finally, trade representative in Paris. Afterwards, during Ismail’s rule, Nubar became stationed in Paris handling financial and legal matters concerning the Suez Canal, and then in 1865, he was appointed Minister of Public Works, where he prepared a well-studied irrigation plan. The results of his plan were so excellent that Ismail honoured him with a new canal in the province of Beheira, named after him Nubariyya. Also, as a reward for his encouragement in improving the various types of cotton, Egypt's single most profitable and prized product at the time, a type of long-staple cotton was named Nubari after him. Moreover, Nubar was the first Egyptian statesman to raise humanitarian issues and the principle of social justice in the 19th century. Among his significant achievements were legal reforms and the establishment of Mixed Courts in Egypt. Nubar Nubarian was the first Christian to be granted the title of Pasha and the gift of a large plot of fertile land. He also was appointed the first Prime Minister of Egypt in 1878 and reserved the right to head the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice. In 1895 Nubar Pasha was decorated with the Nile Medal of Honor, Egypt’s highest award. He retired after having served six viceroys and Khedives (hereditary rulers).
Dikran Pasha D’abro (1846 – 1904)
He started his career by becoming a secretary to Nubar Pasha. Within a year Dikran became the recording secretary of the International Conference on the Mixed Courts, and then in 1873–1876, he was appointed the secretary of the Committee for Judicial Reform. Dikran was granted the title of Bey in 1873. In 1881, he was appointed Foreign Minister. After the Urabi revolt of 1882, Dikran was selected by Khedive Taufique, along with another Armenian, Yervant (a counsellor of the Minister of War), to negotiate with the British, and find a formula to satisfy the parties involved. The two negotiators managed to save the lives of Urabi and his aides, in addition to preventing the radical dissolution of the Egyptian army and asserting Egypt’s sovereignty. Pleased with the outcome of the negotiations, the Khedive granted the title of Pasha to his Foreign Minister and lavished gifts on the counsellor of his Minister of War. Refusing to tolerate the constraints imposed by the British Consul-General, Dikran Pasha tendered his resignation, and in 1884 acceded to Nubar Pasha’s request and left to London to observe the proceedings of the International London Conference on Egyptian finances.
Ya’cub Artin Pasha Cherakian (1842-1919)
He was known as al Ustaz al Kabir, or the Great Teacher, for his landmark reforms in Egyptian education. After beginning his longtime service in the Ministry of Education, Ya’cub Artin Pasha was able to complete the work initiated by his father, Artin Bey, and his father’s brother-in-law, Yusuf Bey Hekekian, who stressed the need to adopt progressive ideas and instituted a secular program of public education, which would benefit the children of the elite and the commoners alike. Artin Bey and Yusuf Bey collaborated in establishing the Arts and Crafts School of Alexandria, founded the Engineering School of Bulaq, and played an important role in creating the Department of Antiquities within the Ministry of Education to list the classified monuments. Artin Bey organized the Bookkeeping and Accounting School and in 1835 the School of Administration and Translation in the Citadel. Once in office, Ya’cub Artin Pasha oversaw the establishment of a vast network of schools and encouraged urban and rural parents to send their children to the public schools, where food, clothing, school equipment, and in some instances pocket money were provided for the students. He also founded Cairo’s Teachers’ Training Institute in 1872, to ensure qualified teachers, and tightened the standards of the teaching profession by instituting mandatory entrance examinations for elementary school teachers. Furthermore, in 1873 Ya’cub Pasha established the Siyufiyyah School for Girls. With financial aid from Ya’cub Artin Pasha, the Immaculate Conception School was founded in 1897 to care for orphan girls, to educate and to teach them skills to support themselves. He also encouraged the formation of the Yeghiayan Educational Fund for the higher learning needs of orphans and the poor.
Boghos Nubar Pasha Nubarian (1851-1930)
After completing engineering studies in France, the son of Nubar Pasha, Boghos Nubar Pasha Nubarian, returned to Egypt in 1878 and became director of the Railway Administration. He expanded the railway system and carried out administrative reforms with the collaboration of Takvor Pasha Hagopian. He also participated in the formation of the Agricultural Company and in 1986 organized an association for the development of the Ramle Tramways in Alexandria as well as the Menzele Estates. For the Water Company, he prepared extensive irrigation plans for Cairo and an all-inclusive plan for Sudan, which was then under Egyptian rule. He was awarded many gold medals for his invention of the automated plough, which broke up even the driest soil. He used his high position to employ many Armenian immigrants who escaped the massacres in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century. In 1899 Boghos Nubar Pasha formed the Oasis corporate Enterprise with Belgian businessman Baron Edouard Louis Joseph Empain and others, and transformed 5952 feddans of desert land into the beautiful suburb of Heliopolis, with the help of a mostly Armenian workforce. Boghos Nubar Pasha and his associates built public housing for the disadvantaged, started a train service that linked Heliopolis to Cairo, and provided an ambulance operation. In 1906, Boghos Nubar Pasha prepared the blueprint and supplied most of the funds for the construction of the Kalousdian Community School in the Bulaq district of Cairo, and later on, for a new school to replace the old Shavarshan School. During Boghos Nubar Pasha’s lifetime, crucial events shaped the fate of the Ottoman Armenians: the first periodic massacres and forced deportations culminating in Genocide, and then waves of refugees. The unswerving dedication of Boghos Nubar Pasha and his close collaborators who founded the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) inspired hope in the uprooted masses and strengthened their will to survive and preserve their national identity. Today, AGBU has its centres, schools, chapters, and offices in many countries, including the USA, Canada, Australia, several European countries, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, Uruguay, Egypt, and others. The Organization celebrated its Centennial in 2006.
Engagement OF Egyptian-Armenians In Various Industries
Armenians in Egypt contributed to the development of many industries including shipbuilding, textile production with spinning and weaving, carpentry and blacksmithing, stone masonry, shoemaking, jewellery, agriculture, and Tobacco production.
Egypt’s largest tobacco factory was founded by the Matossian brothers of Tokat. Some 70,000 Armenians worked at the Matossian Tobacco factories. Between 1895-1896, 90% of Egypt’s cigarette production bore the trademark of Armenian-owned factories. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the Armenian tobacco industry expanded to such an extent that it dominated the markets of Egypt and Sudan, becoming the chief supplier of Adis-Ababa and other Ethiopian cities.
Also, Melkonian brothers had been engaged in the tobacco trade in Egypt during World War I and their business was of great volume.
*Read the full story of the Tobacco industry in Egypt: https://link.medium.com/Z7WHSsanDnb
Another area of an industry dominated by the Armenians was shoemaking famous for its state-of-the-art workmanship and designs. Krikor Papazian was the shoemaker serving the royal family and elite circles. The Sukiassian Company specialized in tanning, leather treatment, and shoe manufacturing for the wholesale market.
Tailoring and shirt-making were also common occupations among Armenians. Muhammed Ali’s tailor was Hadji Garabed. During the reign of King Fuad I, Arsen Sarafian served as the palace tailor.
Publishing and Printing
The Egyptian Armenian community established printing presses in Cairo and Alexandria, publishing newspapers, periodicals, different books, as well as textbooks, stimulating its cultural life to new heights. In Cairo, Sarkis Darpinian founded Ararat Press in 1895, and Marie Beylerian started Ardemis Publishing House and a women’s journal of the same name in 1902. The publisher Bakraduni and then Yervant Messerlian operated Vosguedar or Golden Letterpress in 1914. The Nubar Printing Press, a family enterprise founded at the turn of the century, still operates today. In Alexandria, K. Nazaretian established the Nazaretian Press in 1899, S. Tufenguian started Petag or Beehive House, in 1903, and the poet Vahan Tekeyan formed Tekeyan and Company Publishers in 1905.
In the 17th century, Armenians in India held the monopoly of the indigo trade. In the 19th century, the Armenians of India grew the best indigo plants and were the principal merchants of its particular dye in the state of Bihar. In 1824 Boghos Bey Yusufian, Egypt’s Minister of Commerce, brought into the country 40 Armenian families with indigo-producing skills to teach Egyptians. In less than two years, indigo due became the most important Egyptian export.
In 1824 Armenians from Izmir expanded the cultivation of the opium poppy. In 1883 the annual yield ensured one million French Francs for Egypt. However, after 1845, the export of opium was no longer lucrative.
Another profitable development was the cultivation and large-scale export of the mandarin, a fruit introduced by Yusuf al-Armani. Yusuf Effendi al-Armani bought and brought with him mandarin saplings from the Island of Malta, and planted them in Muhammed Ali’s orchard. The fruit became popular and its production was so lucrative that it was named Yusuf Effendi after the enterprising Armenian who introduced it.
Other Armenians who gave impetus to Egyptian trade were the money lenders. One of them is Mahdesi Yeghiazar Amira Bedrossyan, a native of Agin who became Muhammad Ali’s business consultant and the overseer of his accounts. After his death, his nephews were brought from Agin, based on the Wali’s request, and they initiated money lending and commercial enterprises in Musqi, and later were granted the right to develop the salt mines of Matariyya. After 1837, when the Balta Liman Treaty gave foreigners unlimited rights to conduct business in Egypt, money lending became irrelevant.
In 1816, Boghos Bey Yusufian was instrumental in establishing Egypt’s first school at the Citadel for the sons of the ruling family and high-ranking officials. Consequently, a number of the citadel graduates were Armenians.
In 1834, Artin Cherakian, who had studied civil administration, organized the School of Engineering, or Madrasat al-Handasah, at Bulaq, with the help of Yusuf Bey Hekekian, who had studied engineering in England. In September of the same year, he started the Bookkeeping and Accounting School, or Madrasat al-Idara. In 1835, he joined with Sdepan Demirdjian, who had studied diplomacy, in organizing the School of Civil Administration and Translation at the Citadel. In his turn, Yusuf Hekekian organized the School of Mines, which later became a division of the School of Engineering.
Ya’cub Artin Pasha, Egypt’s Education Minister and son of Artin Bey Cherakian, inaugurated Egypt’s first school for girls in 1873. Armenians also took the initiative of opening Egypt’s first kindergarten in 1890.
In 1937, upon the request of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, three Armenian Catholic Sisters came to Egypt to inaugurate a preparatory school for Armenian girls in Cairo. The school was limited to Armenian girls until 1967, however, the school later opened its doors to accept female students from all races.
Community activism of Armenians also flourished giving impetus for the formation of diverse organizations. Among these were the Fund for the Defense of National Interests, the AGBU, the Women’s Red Cross, the Aidzemnig Society; the Social Welfare Association, the Educational Society of Cairo, Armenian Students Association, Hamazkayin Association, the Housaper Cultural Association, Friends of the Promotion of Fine Arts, the Intellectual Service of Cairo, the Armenian Home, and others. Among the community organizations of Alexandria, there were the Bibliophile Group, the Progressive Cultural Association, and the Dikran Yergat Cultural Society.
Migration Of Armenians To and From Egypt
One of the oldest and most prosperous communities of the Armenian Diaspora, the Armenian community in Egypt has gone through major changes and transformations in the last five decades. Before the beginning of the 20th century, the migration of Armenians to Egypt was primarily voluntary. However, forced migration occurred due to the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Empire in 1915. Egypt hosted a large number of refugees and survivors. The migrations increased the number of Armenians in Egypt to reach 40,000 at its peak in the 1940s.
In the 1960s an exodus of Egyptian Armenians occurred due to changes in political and economic conditions. Nasser’s newly introduced “Socialist Laws” and the nationalization of many basic economic firms led to the reverse migration of Armenians primarily to the USA, Canada, and Australia.
Today, there are only about 8,000 Armenians living in Egypt.
The Community Today
Most of the current Egyptian Armenians were born in Egypt and now reside primarily in Cairo or Alexandria. Structures like clubs, schools, and sports facilities reinforce communications among Armenian Egyptians and revive the heritage of their forefathers.
Once every 8 years, the community elects 24 members of the community council. In turn, the 24 legislators elect an executive body of 7 for 2 years to run the institutions of the Armenian Patriarchate, including the schools, churches, cemeteries, and endowments.
Military and Policy
Armenians in Egypt are Egyptian citizens, with Egyptian identity cards, serving in the army, but rarely participating in Egyptian political affairs.
Kabarik Jacobian the Egyptian Armenian Hero
He is an Egyptian Armenian spy, according to the Israeli security authorities, and was given careful training for spying operations inside Israel over years. Security officials said after catching him: “We have a fat fish here.”
Jacobian’s story and his preparation for an espionage career on behalf of the Egyptian intelligence started in Cairo, where he had become a photographer. He attended an Egyptian intelligence school. Given false identity papers, with which he registered as an Arab refugee, he was sent to Brazil. There, an Egyptian agent, Salim Aziz El-Said, sent him to Sao Paulo, where Jacobian presented himself as a Jew by the name of Rzhak Kochuk.
In preparation for his posing as a Jew, he had been circumcised in a hospital in Cairo and had been trained in a certain amount of Jewish tradition. He “proved” his Jewish background in Sao Paulo by showing photographs of the Jewish cemetery in Cairo and claiming that one of the tombs had held the remains of his Jewish grandmother.
From Sao Paulo, he went back to Rio de Janeiro, where he registered with the Jewish Agency as a Jewish emigrant to Israel. Arriving in Israel in 1961, with secret Egyptian orders to join the Israeli army, particularly the armoured corps, he tried to get into the army. However, he was sent first to Kibbutz Negbah to learn Hebrew. Later, he did join the Israeli army and, after a year’s service, asked for a release from the service. An application for release was granted. After uncovering him, he was finally arrested at his home in Ashkelon. The court sentenced him to the maximum penalty, which is eighteen years in prison, and he remained in prison for only two years. On the twenty-ninth day of April 1966, he was exchanged with three Israelis who had crossed the Egyptian border without permission. Egypt requested the extradition of two Palestinian commandos, Kochuk, commando Hussain Hassan Al-Hafani and Saeed Khamis Abd Al-Qader, who were arrested in Israel on their way to carry out a commando operation inside.
The Armenian Church and the apolitical structure of the Armenian community have a very important role in unifying Armenians in Egypt. There are 6 operating churches in Egypt: the Armenian Patriarchate and St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church (Cairo), the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate and the Church of Assumption (Cairo), the St. Therese Armenian Catholic Church (Cairo), the Armenian Patriarchate and St. Peter and Paul Armenian Apostolic Church (Alexandria), the Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary, the Armenian Catholic Church (Alexandria) and the Armenian Evangelical Church of Alexandria. The Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Egypt, which is under the jurisdiction of the Holy Etchmiadzin, is the primary guardian of community assets such as endowments, and real estate in the form of agricultural land, and other property bequeathed by the generations of philanthropists.
Armenian schools play an instrumental role in maintaining the Armenian language among the Armenian community in Egypt. The schools integrated a secondary education program and students who have graduated can immediately enter the Egyptian university system, after passing the official Thanawiya 'Amma exams. There are now three Armenian schools in Egypt: Nubarian-Kalousdian in Heliopolis, Catholic Sisters in Heliopolis, and Boghossian in Alexandria.
In total, the Armenian community has four cultural clubs in Cairo and two in Alexandria where there are activities for young people like dance troupes and choirs. There are three sporting clubs in Cairo and two in Alexandria where the main activity is basketball.
The AGBU is the main benevolent organization that is involved in cultural activities as well. The other benevolent organizations are The Armenian Red Cross, The Orthodox Armenian Charity Committee, and The Catholic Armenian Charity Committee. There is also a home for the elderly "Aidzemnig”.
The first Armenian Newspaper published in 1865 in Egypt was "Armaveni." Many more followed throughout the years reaching 140 in total, although some of them were short-lived.
Today there are two daily newspapers: "Houssaper" founded in 1913 and "Arev" founded in 1915. There is a bi-weekly "Tchahagir" founded in 1948, a monthly supplement of "Arev" in Arabic, a musical quarterly supplement of "Tchahagir"; "Dzidzernag", and "Teghekatu" the quarterly of AGBU.
Community members also get their daily dose of Armenian culture through the one-hour-long Armenian Radio broadcast. Also, a community internet news site Armaveni.
Certainly, those who decided to stay in Egypt, mostly skilled artisans and some visionary industrialists, developed survival techniques, especially after Nasser’s 1952 revolution. The most vigorous ones saw the fruits of their patience under a free-market-oriented by President Anwar Sadat.
Today, Egyptian Armenians are mostly engaged in the private sector as successful businessmen, and skilled handicraftsmen, especially jewellers and dentists. There are also prominent Armenian businessmen involved in the metal industry, furniture making, printing, tourism, and chemical industries.