Vizirs and artisans, skilled craftsmen of states and cities, Egypt’s Armenians have ensured their community’s survival - and kept its history alive.
There was once a prince called Vatchakan and a peasant girl named Anahid. The prince saw the peasant girl while walking in the forest and fell madly in love with her. He asked for her hand in marriage but, to everyone’s surprise, she rejected him. "Tell him," she urged her father, "that I will marry him only if he learns a trade. He is a prince through no effort of his own. If he really loves me, he has to prove his love by doing something difficult."
Seeing that Anahid would not relent, Vatchakan went away and learned the art of carpet weaving. Soon he became one of the finest craftsmen in the land and began to earn a handsome living with his trade. Now he could claim Anahid’s hand, he thought. On his way to his sweetheart’s village, however, he was kidnapped by bandits and kept captive in a tower in the wilderness. When the bandits discovered his talent, they spared his life and put him to work. He wove the most beautiful tapestries for them and finally they decided to reward him. Vatchakan however wanted neither money nor honors. "Take this carpet to my village and sell it," he told his captors. "I will only accept money that I have earned by my own hard work." The captors did as they were told. Since Vatchakan had woven the directions to his prison and the names of his captors into the carpet, he was soon rescued and reunited with Anahid.
This Armenian legend contains many of the elements that have been woven into the national sentiment of a people who have had no land to call their own for more than 500 years: reliance on one’s talent and ingenuity, the need to survive in often hostile environments, and the importance of such virtues as hard work and proficiency. As the history of the Armenian community in Egypt shows, these are values they have sought to transmit to the younger generations, along with a sense of solidarity and pride in a common identity, culture and language.
Geographically situated at the confluence of warring imperialist tides, Armenia lost its independence in the 14th century. The bulk of its Christian population was divided between Russia, Turkey and Persia. The Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in those days amounted to 2.5 million, half of whom owned land in the empire’s six eastern provinces, in which they formed a religious minority.
"The Armenians were no race of fighters Until the latter part of the 19th century, their peasantry had remained politically quiescent, earning a reputation for sobriety and thrift like their brethren in the business communities of the cities," writes Lord Kinross. "As an Aryan race, loyal to their religion, language and culture, they were a people of great national pride. They considered themselves to be European [as opposed to Ottoman] and, in time, came to benefit from a Western education, dispensed to them in the East, by Armenian Protestant missionaries."
MIGRATION TO EGYPT: Historians trace the migration of Armenians to Egypt to antiquity, with a notable increase under Byzantine rule. Their presence in Egypt is well documented, particularly during and after the Arab conquest, in which Armenian converts to Islam participated. Wardan (Vartan) El-Roumi (the Roum were the Christians of Anatolia) established a market in Fustat known as the Vartan Market. During the Abbasid era, the courage of the Armenian Amir Ali Ibn Yehia, "[who was] versed in the science of war," is praised by the mediaeval Islamic historian Ibn Taghribirdi.
THE FATIMID PERIOD was a prosperous one for the Armenians, whose community in Egypt enjoyed commercial, cultural and religious freedom. Their numbers increased considerably as more migrants arrived from Syria and Palestine, fleeing the advance of the Seljuks westward during the second half of the 11th century.
During this period, Badr Al-Gamali (d.1094), an Armenian by birth, who was governor of Damascus and commander in Acre, was called to Egypt by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muntasir. He was given the military command of the Fatimid state and the task of rebuilding it. He arrived in 1074 to find a situation of complete civil and military anarchy. A severe seven-year famine and a rebellious and divided army had decimated the population and emptied the storehouses and the treasury. With the support of the Caliph, he silenced the military cliques running and ruining the country. He was appointed head of the secular government, commander-in-chief and vizir.
Among Badr’s most notable contributions are the architectural improvements he brought to the defense of the city, protecting it from possible attacks by the Seljuk Turks. The original brick walls of Al-Qahira were replaced in 1087 by the Armenian architect John the Monk and his two brothers, who rebuilt the walls -- often using cut stones wrenched from Pharaonic edifices -- to include a series of internal galleries connected by vaulted rooms with arrow slits and clear openings looking onto the city along the entire length. Guard rooms and living quarters turned the new ramparts into a fortress with towers placed at regular intervals allowing soldiers a full view of potential invaders.
The appointment of Badr Al-Gamali marked the beginning of a new kind of vizir: instead of confining themselves to executive duties, they became part of the decision-making process. This is why the second part of Fatimid rule is sometimes referred to as the "Armenian period". Egypt’s vizirs after Badr Al-Gamali were all Armenians: first Badr’s own son, Shahnashah (1094-1121); then, in succession, Ahmed Ibn El-Afdal, El-Sayed Abul-Fath El-Armani, Bahran El-Armani, Bohran El-Armani, Tali’ Ibn Raziq El-Armani and Raziq Ibn Tali’.
The Armenian golden years came to an end with the conquest of Egypt by Salaheddin, who entertained the belief that they had remained faithful to the Fatimids and consequently began to persecute them.
DURING THE MAMELUKE PERIOD, thousands of young Armenians, captured during invasions of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, which took place between 1266 and 1375, were brought to Egypt as slaves. They were employed in agriculture and as craftsmen. The youngest were educated in army camps following the Mameluke system, and later employed in the army and the palace.
At the beginning of the 14th century, a schism occurred in the Armenian church, which caused Patriarch Sargis of Jerusalem to request and obtain a firman from the Sultan Al-Malik Al-Nasir. This "brought the Armenians residing within the Mameluke realm under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem," writes Armin Kredian. The schismatic Armenians who came to Egypt were given permission to practice their religion freely. Their patriarch’s authority over the Armenian community’s private and public affairs was decisive. The churches and those who served them were supported by the generosity of the faithful and the revenues deriving from charitable foundations.
"Thus," comments Kredian, "for more than six hundred years, from 1311 to the first half of the 19th century, the Armenian community in Egypt was administered from Jerusalem."
AFTER THE OTTOMAN CONQUEST of 1517, alarmed by local conflicts, the Armenians fled Egypt, but "at the beginning of the 17th century, new waves of Armenians started to arrive, running away from the devastation and plunder spread by the Jalali [a group of irregular rebel elements] movement (1598-1628) in Asia Minor, Ottoman Armenia and Syria," recounts Kredian. Upon settling, they resumed practicing the professions for which they were famous: a large number were jewelers, merchants, tailors, furriers or ironsmiths; others were coffee shop owners or grocers. The more literate were employed as sarrafs (bankers) by the government. Some were suppliers accredited to rich households; others were involved in commerce.
They prospered throughout the 18th century, but the development of their community was interrupted once more by the French Expedition and the ensuing few years of chaos. By 1804, the Armenian presence in Egypt had all but disappeared. This sudden decrease in their population was followed by an almost immediate increase when, under Mohamed Ali, a large number of Armenians were either invited to Egypt by the new wali or attracted by his ambitious projects and the wealth they seemed to promise.
THE REIGN OF MOHAMED ALI ushered in a period of prosperity. Acumen and talent were qualities closely associated with the community’s members. The first one to play a decisive role in the future Pasha’s life was a powerful Istanbul banker, Yeghiazar Amira (the title of amira was only bestowed on the most powerful financiers of Istanbul, according to Anne Kazazian), who lent him the money to pay for his trip to Egypt.
Once established as ruler of the country, Mohamed Ali rewarded Yeghiazar (the grandfather of Nubar Pasha’s wife) for his confidence by naming him sarraf bashi in Cairo. Although already quite wealthy in his own right, he accepted the offer and came to settle in Egypt with his extended family, perceiving that, with Mohamed Ali at its helm, the country would prosper and present rich opportunities. He was the first in a long line of Armenian sarrafs -- among whom his own nephews -- who were to thrive in Egypt for half a century, until their good fortune came to an end with Khedive Ismail’s financial debacle.
Boghos Youssufian (1768-1844) was an Armenian banker and businessman whose influence had grown so much that he was often described by European consuls in Egypt as Mohamed Ali’s "minister of foreign affairs", although, as Ghislaine Allaume remarks, Egypt, at the time a simple province of the Ottoman Empire, could have no such minister, since international affairs were dealt with only from Istanbul. She writes, however, that Boghos played a special role in the Egyptian administration. Settled in Egypt at the end of the 18th century, he started his career as the agent of the multazim (tax farmer) of the Egyptian customs. By the time the French had left Egypt, he had personally acquired the iltizam of the customs of Alexandria.
Mohamed Ali chose him to be his official drogman, but more important than his public functions was the personal friendship which developed between the two men. Once, as Boghos had complained about the inordinate raise in the price of his iltizam, Mohamed Ali offered to take on a share of the cost and become his partner. It is not known how long this arrangement lasted, but the friendship endured.
In 1819, Boghos was in charge of the Diwan Al-Tigara (bureau of commerce) besides overseeing other financial affairs for Mohamed Ali, but he was never considered an employee of the wali’s administrative apparatus, and his name never appeared on a payroll. Rather, he was given a generous allowance which he used according to his needs.
His nephew Nubar, who was to distinguish himself more than any of Mohamed Ali’s protégés in the years to come, recounts in his memoirs that, during Mohamed Ali’s absence from the country, Abbas, who had been designated his delegate for the duration of his voyage, decided that Boghos’s status should be normalized and a monthly salary allotted to him. Boghos was so shocked and humiliated to have been stripped of his special status that he stopped eating completely and died a few days later, on 10 January 1844.
"When news of Boghos’s death reached Mohamed Ali and he was told that Boghos had been buried simply and quietly without the honors due to him, the wali was furious and sent a letter to Osman Pasha, the governor of the city, which began ’Donkey, brute’ and went on to rain threats and insults on the man’s head for having failed to give Boghos his due with a state funeral. He ordered him to exhume the coffin and have it buried again with full military honors which was promptly done," writes Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot.
Artin, the son of Soukias effendi Tcherrakian and the wali’s private secretary, took over the Diwan Al-Tigara after Boghos’s death. Soukias Tcherrakian had been the agent of Mohamed Ali’s son Tusun in Istanbul. After Tusun’s death in 1816, he came to Cairo to settle his principal’s accounts, but, having discharged his duties was hired to look after the interests of Tusun’s four-year old son Abbas. Two years later, Tcherrakian’s children, a daughter and two sons -- Banuma, Artin and Khosrow -- joined him in Cairo.
Brought up in the palace with young Abbas, the two boys were with the first contingent of Egyptians sent to study in Paris in 1826, where they were awarded degrees in law and administration. Upon their return in 1830, Artin entered Mohamed Ali’s personal staff, a post he relinquished only in 1844, when he was appointed head of Diwan Al-Tigara. Khosrow was to replace him as Mohamed Ali’s private secretary.
Influenced by the Saint Simonians, with whom he had established good relations as early as 1835, Artin pressed for the creation of the overland road to India as an alternative to the piercing of the Suez Canal. Before any final decision could take shape, however, Abbas came to power in 1850 and Artin, accused of embezzlement by the new viceroy, chose to leave Egypt secretly in September of the same year.
Artin did not cut his ties with Egypt completely, however. While in Istanbul, he was kept informed of Abbas’ news by his brother-in-law Hekekyan, whose private correspondence and diaries provide invaluable information on the intrigues of the period.
Hekekyan had married Banuma. She had been Abbas playmate when they were children "which he must have remembered fondly," writes Ehud Toledano, "when granting her a large estate". Hekekyan had benefited from the influence of his brothers-in-law and the relative wealth of his wife. Furthermore, he was asked at one point to serve as president of the Board of Health.
Of a rather envious nature, however, Hekekyan felt that he was not close enough to the seat of power and seems to have vented his frequent anger in his diaries, which read at times like a gossip column on the high and mighty -- though one can suspect that his prudent nature prevented him from consigning all his thoughts to paper.
"While remaining on the government payroll," adds Toledano, Hekekyan knew that he was being watched by Abbas, that his Istanbul mail was being intercepted (Hekekyan suspected an Armenian in the government, namely Nubar Pasha, explains Anne Kazazian, since his communications, although written in Turkish, were transcribed in Armenian script) and that he was expected to report to Abbas any schemes which Artin may have been hatching against him in Istanbul.
"Understandably, this tight-rope walking caused Hekekyan a great deal of anxiety, and led him to a deep hatred of Abbas. It even made him apply in secret for British protection," writes Toledano. Abbas, however, did not seem to be aware of Hekekyan’s state of mind; nor did he hold any particular grudge against him. After he was eased out of his job on the Board of Health and "put on a quarter pay", Abbas gave him permission to engage in archaeological excavations.
NUBAR PASHA (1825-1899) was destined to rise to more prominence than Boghos or Artin. His influence on Egyptian politics spans much of the 19th century.
Born in Smyrna, Nubar came to Egypt as Boghos’s protégé in the last decade of Mohamed Ali’s rule, and was immediately attached to his household. It is said that, educated in Paris, one of Nubar’s first duties was to read aloud to the aging wali Thiers’ History of the French Revolution Consulate and Empire.
In 1844, he was named Ibrahim Pasha’s private secretary and, as he writes in his memoirs, witnessed his painful death. With Said Pasha, he became involved in the protracted negotiations over the digging of the Suez Canal, then entered the service of Ismail when the latter became viceroy in 1863.
His relationship with Ismail was not entirely smooth and he fell out of favor a number of times, having to leave Egypt on these occasions. Nubar worked for the reform of the Egyptian legal system and was responsible for the introduction of the mixed courts in 1876 -- one of the reasons for his lack of popularity with the Egyptian intelligentsia. Furthermore, his involvement in the negotiations of Egypt’s debt with its European creditors alienated Ismail completely. It was whispered in many quarters that, while Egypt’s coffers remained barren, Nubar was pocketing handsome commissions on the loans he was arranging. Nevertheless, at the insistence of the European managers of the debt, Nubar, who had been dismissed by Ismail, was brought back in 1878 to form a government which included, for the first time, Europeans serving in ministerial posts.
The move was extremely unpopular in Egypt, with both Nubar and the khedive coming under sharp criticism. The army officers, who were already restive over receiving half-pay (a measure taken due to Egypt’s financial difficulties) and the discrepancies in promotions for Egyptian and Turco-Circassian officers, were pushed to the brink of rebellion. Ismail dismissed Nubar once more, an act resulting in his own British-engineered removal by the Ottoman Sultan later that year. Following the establishment of British colonial rule, Nubar was asked to form a ministry early in 1884, to superintend Egypt’s withdrawal from the Sudan, which took place in 1885.
With Cromer’s help, Nubar managed to abolish the corvée and, by 1887, was advocating the reintroduction of a strong Egyptian police force and greater Egyptian control over domestic policy. As president of the Council of Ministers, he had to strike a fine balance between pressures from the British, on one hand, and from the palace and political elite, from the other. If he managed so well for such a long time, it is said that it was due to his very exceptional qualities. The "anonymous" author of Khedives and Pashas, referring to Nubar’s house, states: "In that house resides what little of real statesmanship there exists in Egypt." Opinions on the many-sided character of Nubar Pasha and his influence on Egyptian affairs may differ, he adds, "but [no one] will deny that, in intellect at least, he stands a head and shoulder above all his rivals."
Nubar, however, did not win all his battles against the British and when Khedive Tawfiq realized that he was no longer able to protect him against the occupying forces, he dismissed him. Nubar formed a ministry in 1894 for the new khedive, Abbas II, but he was retired in favor of Fahmi Pasha after a year.
Though a brilliant statesman, historians agree that Nubar’s astuteness did not endear him to the population of a country whom he, according to his memoirs, loved dearly, and whose past and present seem to have been his only lasting passion.
Attempting to explain this lack of popularity, Lord Cromer wrote: "[He] was a minister who was not only a Christian and associated with other European Christians, but who also belonged to a nationality against which the Mohammedan population of the Ottoman Empire is greatly prejudiced. Nubar Pasha carried little weight with the Egyptian population, with whom, moreover, owing to his ignorance of Arabic, he was unable to communicate in their own language. He could only rely on persuasion and on the support of two foreign governments. This support, although heartily accorded, did him in some respects more harm than good. Under these circumstances, his fall from power was almost a foregone conclusion."
Following his retirement from political life, Nubar became involved with the Armenian national delegation to the Porte, a diplomatic and political pressure group that represented Armenia’s interests to the Ottoman Sultan.
It is only toward the end of his life that Nubar became preoccupied with the fate of the Armenian nation. This, however, was not a consequence of a shift in his personal allegiances but rather of important changes taking place at the time within the Armenian community in Egypt.
Anne Kazazian remarks that, while several members of this community were rising to fame and occupying key positions in the Egyptian government during the first half of the 19th century, their affiliation with Armenian organizations remained marginal. Possibly the Armenians who arrived in Egypt to serve Mohamed Ali were more intent on building a new Egyptian state than asserting their own ethnic and/or religious identity. Mohamed Ali’s Egypt could have led one to believe that "the various communal groups would eventually slowly blend into a sort of common denominator represented by the Ottoman nationality," writes Robert Ilbert.
In his memoirs, Nubar Pasha commented that "the true Mohamed Ali is he who has reversed in Egypt all the preconceived ideas of the Orient, all the ways of thinking which differ from Europe’s, who has made the Christian equal to the Muslim, the inferior being equal to the Kurdish Bey."
Although marital - and often business - alliances remained strictly ethnic/religious affairs, the Armenians had little sense of belonging to a particular group in those days. The elite spoke Turkish or French, while the lower classes expressed themselves in Arabic. Kazazian mentions in particular a letter sent from the Patriarchate requesting a priest who spoke Arabic "because our nationals do not speak Armenian", and the comment of an Armenian historian noting the difficulties encountered by teachers at the Armenian school to interest their students in the rudiments of their mother tongue.
During that period, a small charitable institution attached to the church and a parochial school funded by Yeghiazar in 1828 were the only establishments run by the community. The church of Bayn Al-Surayn was only built in 1839, followed by the Prelacy in 1853; in 1854, the school was enlarged and moved to a better location, thanks to Garabed Agha Kaloust’s bequest of revenues from his land.
One should not be overly surprised, however, notes Kazazian, at the Armenians’ apparent lack of interest in the formation of a structured community in Egypt, since it was only during the 1860s, and only in reaction to restrictions on the autonomy of Armenians in Turkey, that the first Armenian "national" awakening took place, resulting in the establishment of the Constitution of the Armenian Nation, granted in 1863 by the Ottoman government to the Sultanate’s Armenians.
This process added for the first time a political dimension to the Ottoman ethnic and religious community (millet) system, and introduced the novel idea of a sacred "duty towards the nation". It was this changing and freshly structured society that had to make room for the first waves of Armenian refugees arriving in 1894 and 1896. The newcomers had a different background and were generally politically active. Since they did not speak Arabic, they tended to congregate, eventually drawing into their circles the Armenians of Egypt, whom they attempted to organize politically while raising their awareness of the problems facing the Armenian people.
During the same period, Khedive Ismail’s Egypt had been changing, too. Egyptians who sought government posts were given preference over their foreign counterparts. Monopolies were no longer granted to wealthy merchants. In short, the economic and administrative hegemony of Mohamed Ali’s Armenians was coming to an end.
It was time for the Armenians to take care of their own. Assistance was needed for the constant arrivals of new refugees. While official institutions provided certain services (mainly education) for free, the creation of associations (charitable organizations, cultural, political, and sporting clubs, musical and theatrical groups...) filled the social vacuum.
By the end of the 19th century, the main traits of the Armenian community in Egypt had been forged. Its various organizations prospered slowly during the following 100 years, allowing the community to welcome and accommodate the even larger numbers of refugees who came in droves after the massacres of 24 April 1915. This was achieved with the help of collective contributions. The Armenians had come to believe that they could only rely on themselves if they wanted to survive, and the members of the community readily fulfilled their duty towards the nation.
A new school was provided for in 1907 and more money raised in 1929 to help the school since "pupils from the working classes could not pay any tuition fees". Notables made it a habit to bequeath properties to the "nation", funding scholarships, establishing trusts and answering the church’s requests for more contributions whenever needed. Life revolved around the church, the family, the school and the clubs. Only hard work brought relative prosperity, which had to be shared with those in need.
For a long time, the community closed in around its members, who were exceptionally capable of blending in with their new environment through professional contacts, but who resisted total assimilation. Even when many ceased to cherish the hope that they would eventually return to Armenia after the establishment of a communist regime there, they still held on to their identity.
"All this is changing now," says Kredian. "Armenians are no longer closed to the world, they travel and incidentally, many have been to Armenia to discover that reality is different from the dream. Even the language is different there. The old generation is completely settled, they have their place in the community, their standing, and are active in the churches, the clubs and the charitable institutions. They will not stand uprooting. And why should they? Most Armenians want to continue living in Egypt. They speak the language fluently and have usually graduated from Egyptian Universities. They belong to an affluent society. We have a strong community life, but now we send our children to foreign schools and they have friends of different nationalities. Once more, in our history there are children who do not speak Armenian. Maybe they will have a problem; who knows?"
Loss of identity may be the most wrenching predicament faced by Armenians living abroad today. Khatchig was born in Egypt, where he spent his youth. In 1965, he went to Armenia with his parents, who wanted to return to the old country. He could not however acquire the Armenian nationality, nor did he really want to. When his parents died, 25 years later, he decided to return to Egypt. To his surprise, he was no longer entitled to the Egyptian nationality. "I am neither Egyptian nor Armenian," he says, still puzzled. "What am I, then?"
Lord Kinross: The Ottoman Centuries, the Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire, New York, 1977
Anne Kazazian: "Les logiques associatives dans la communauté armenienne d’Egypte", Egypte Monde Arabe, vol. 3, CEDEJ, 1990; Yeghiazar Amira, an Armenian Banker at the Service of Mohamed Ali, paper delivered to the Egyptian Historical Society (March, 1999)
Anonymous, Khedives and Pashas (By One who Knew them Well), London, 1884
Ghislaine Alleaume: "Les registres du Diwan Al-Tigara Wal Mabiat (1819-1856)" in Annales Islamologiques, vol. 27, IFAO, 1993
Armin Albert Kredian: The Armenian Community in Egypt During World War I, Master’s thesis submitted to the Department of Arabic Studies, American University in Cairo, April, 1997 (unpublished)
Mohamed Rifaat El-Imam: Al-Arman fi Misr (The Armenians in Egypt in the 19th century), Nubar Printing House, Cairo, 1995
Ehud Toledano: State and society in Mid-nineteenth-century Egypt, Cambridge University Press, 1990
Mirrit Boutros Ghali, ed.: Mémoires de Nubar Pasha, Librairie du Liban, 1983
The Earl of Cromer: Modern Egypt, MacMillan and Co., Ltd., 1911
Robert Ilbert: Alexandrie, 1830-1930, IFAO, 1996