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Egypt, the other homeland

Egypt, the Other Homeland” witnesses the return, years later, of certain Greeks of Egypt back to the land where they were born and raised. They visit their parents’ home, the family business, their old neighborhood; they search the old Egyptian friends that they left behind. “Egypt, the Other Homeland” will follow them on their journey back in time and space and will trace the old links between the two people, which spread from ancient times until today. Through their personal voyage, as well as through the interviews of eminent Greek and Egyptian specialists, unfolds the story of a numerous community which controlled 80% of Egypt’s financial life at the beginning of the 20th century, founded the first bank, created the first theatres and cinemas and produced the first wines and cigarettes.


Directed by Yorgos Avgeropoulos / Written by Nikolas Zirganos, Yorgos Avgeropoulos / Director of Photography: Alexis Barzos / Produced by Nikolas Zirganos / Scientific Research: Eirini Chrysocheri / Production Manager: Anastasia Skoubri / Original Music by Yiannis Paxevanis / Editing: Yiannis Biliris, Anna Prokou / Small Planet – Al Jazeera © 2011

“It is the biggest community and the one closest to our hearts”, says Egyptian historian Hassan Al Kadi. “They love us and we love them. We have had Italian and French populations here, but the Greek community was the most beloved to us, we have seen nothing but good things come from them”.

Mrs. Popi Deligiorgi, 82 years old today, recalls: “I am very fortunate, everyone has one homeland, while we, the Greeks of Egypt, have two! At times they ask me how I felt in Egypt. I felt at home. I never felt like a stranger, never!”

This relationship of trust, cooperation and solidarity between the Greeks and the Egyptians is not something new. It had already begun in ancient times, when Greek philosophers and scientists, such as Lycurgus, Pythagoras, Solon, Plato, Democritus, Plutarch and others, came to Egypt in pursuit of the wisdom of its ancient civilization. And, with Alexander, the Egyptian civilization is influenced by the Greek culture, as is proven by the unique archaeological findings that Egyptian and Greek archaeologists pull out of the depths of Alexandria’s sea and soil every day.

However, the contemporary presence of Greeks in Egypt is due to one and only person: Egypt’s reformer, Muhammad Ali, who in approximately 1830 invited Greek merchants so as to boost the country’s economy. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1854 brought even more Greeks to Egypt. They were islanders, people with great experience at sea and in working at sea. Mrs. Deligiorgi is a descendant of those pioneers. “These people worked very hard, let’s not forget that it was all rocks and desert. Ten years later, in 1869, the Canal was ready. Then they gradually brought over their families and the first weddings here began” she recounts.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Greek community of Egypt was amongst the most dynamic communities in the country, with over 200,000 members who had managed to get involved in 80% of the country’s financial life! They founded the first banks, the first theatres, the first industries. Bringing in new methods, they were able to cultivate the famous Egyptian cotton on infertile grounds and conquer the global market. They were also the ones to produce the first wine and the first cigarettes!

“Tzanaklis had arrived towards the end of 1880 and began the Egyptian cigarettes”, Mr. Mikis Kaipatzis explains. “The cigarette is an Egyptian invention; it was invented by the army of Ibrahim. His artillerymen were rewarded with tobacco for their good work. However, as they had run out of pipes, they would wrap the tobacco with paper as they wrapped the gunpowder for the canons!” Mr. Kapaitzis descends, himself, from a family of tobacco manufacturers. His factory, amongst Alexandria’s biggest, does not exist any more. However, during the last decades of the 19th century, the tobacco industry was the most important industry in Egypt. The cigarettes, manufactured there by Greeks, conquered the European and American continents. It was the first time the country did not export raw materials, but a completed industrial product!”

“This city, with all its past which is present at every step, with its ruins, inspired great people of letters, starting from the great Kavafis, the greatest poet of the 20th century. Also Tsirkas, E.M. Foster, Lawrence Durrell, Fausta Cialente, Edward Kharrat, and the list goes on… It has a certain culture, Alexandria is something special”, comments archaeologist Charis Tzalas, of Alexandrian descent. “It was a cosmopolitan center. Just as they said Beirut was the small Paris of the Middle East in the postwar period, here it was Paris before the War, maybe even before World War I”, adds Mr. Mimis Kapaitzis.

Of course, not all Greeks of Egypt were prosperous and wealthy. The vast majority were breadwinners, living in harmony with Egyptians in the same popular neighborhoods. Mr. Byron Vafeiadis, a typographer, still practices the art taught to him by his father. He is one of the few Greeks that never left Egypt. He has lived in Alexandria all his life. “Of course, we are much closer to the people”, he comments. “Other ethnic groups were more detached from the Egyptian society. The community, 90% were wage-earners, people owning groceries, bakeries, they were employees, craftsmen, carpenters…”

In 1952, a new wind began to blow through Egypt, when Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the Farouk monarchy and established a democratic regime for the first time. The revolution had the people of Egypt on its side. The Greek community stood by its second country during the 1956 war, which broke out after the western powers and Israel reacted against Nasser’s anti-colonialist policies. Mrs. Popi Deligiorgi recalls how, being a young woman and “following her heart” as she distinctively says, she abandoned her medical studies and joined the Egyptian National Guard!

Despite the special ties uniting the two people, the Greek community was, of course, equally affected by the program of Socialist reforms promoted by Nasser, who nationalized the businesses of national and foreign interest in the entire country. As Alexandrian historian, Efthimios Soulogiannis, explains, “the measures applied, without distinction, to all inhabitants who had acquired illegally a lot of money, even the Arabs, as Nasser used to say.  ‘So I cannot’ he said apologetically ‘make an exception for the Greeks'”.

Within ten years, until 1966, 80% of the Greeks of Egypt had left, and there were approximately 20,000 left. Today, the Greek community has approximately 1000 members. The Greeks of Egypt are not resentful regarding those events, for they considered it was a policy that favored the people of Egypt. “We left with containers filled with everything. We did not feel we left overnight, as the English, French and Italians were forced to”, recalls Popi Deligiorgi. “It was, however, hard. It was as if I was leaving my homeland, and not another land”…

“Egypt, the other homeland” is a voyage of homecoming, but also of projecting towards yesterday and today. Illustrated with respect towards the people and the particular essence of an era, it highlights –through the Greek community– the common cultural, economic and historical bonds uniting the two people of the Mediterranean.

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