A)According to George Vallas, the head of the Greek Community in Cairo, the Greeks started settling in Egypt almost three centuries ago. At one point, they numbered 250,000, established in the cities and in the provinces. Today, the colony is down to approximately 2,000, but recently, several Greek businessmen, convinced that the privatisation programme is improving market potential, are planning a comeback.
Actively encouraged by Mohamed Ali, who relied on several members of the community to bring his dreams of industrialisation to fruition, larger and larger numbers of Greeks began to establish themselves in Egypt during the 19th century. Their implantation was so successful, indeed, that they soon became an integral part of the economic, social and political life of the country, leading Lord Cromer to remark that “the Greeks are so numerous that they deserve consideration by themselves” and also, more flippantly perhaps: “Wherever you turn over a stone in Egypt, you find a Greek.”
Mohamed Ali, however, was far from being the first ruler to seek Greek expertise: “In 1791, fearing an Ottoman invasion, Murad Bey organised a small war flotilla on the Nile, entrusting its command to a Greek convert, Nicolas Papas Oglou, known as Hajj Niqola or Nicolas Ra’is. The crew was made up of Greeks, who were completely devoted to their leader: they did not hesitate to revolt against Murad himself when he attempted to discipline them after a scuffle with the Cairene population. Murad was forced to backpedal carefully, incurring the contempt of El-Gabarti, who accused him of favouring the Christians to the detriment of the Muslims, writes Henry Laurens in L’Expedition d’Egypte.
Murad, however, was undeterred. He called on the three brothers Gaeta, who had not only converted to Islam but had gone so far as to become Mamelukes, requesting them to supply him with artillery. They established a cannon factory near Murad’s palace in Giza. In 1796, the older Gaeta brother, Ahmed Agha, rendered the same services to the Kingdom of Darfour, becoming the king’s military adviser while secretly organising the conquest of the country by Murad. The French Expedition put paid to his plans.
Meanwhile, Murad was being provided by Ahmed Agha’s younger siblings with light artillery and workers trained to manufacture cannons. Thus, writes Laurens, the Greeks became the intermediaries through which Egypt was introduced to Western technology, a role they had once played in the Ottoman Empire and would continue to play in their adopted country.
This is not to say that the Greeks, who settled in Egypt so readily, were completely absorbed by its culture, nor that they ever aspired to total integration. Rather, united by their own religion and ethnicity, protected for a long time by the Capitulations, they considered Egypt their second home, one in which they were free to form a society within a society.
In a recent interview, George Moustaki, a singer of the ’60s and a former “Egyptian Greek”, commented that during his Alexandrian childhood, unlike other Greek children in Alexandria who frequented the Gymnasium (the Greek secondary school) where they received “a totally Greek education, exactly as if they were living in Greece”, he went to the French Lycée, and that this set him apart from “the real Greeks”.
Another Greek, now established in France, explains: “We were the ‘real Greeks’ because our families settled in Egypt even before 1830 (when the Greek nation was officially founded). We came from Constantinople to live and prosper in the Greek city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Greek.”
BASS’S ALE, SARDINES AND FURS: Regardless of these subtle distinctions, the professional activities of both the “Egyptian-Greeks” and the “real thing” played an essential role in the development of the Egyptian economy for over a century.
Greek aristocrats settled in Alexandria and, to a lesser degree, in Cairo, where they mingled with the cosmopolitan elite, while the poorer members of the Diaspora, many of peasant origin, spread throughout the countryside, in search of deals which seemed unattractive to the rest of the population, Egyptians and foreigners alike. Their pioneering spirit earned them a reputation of rapacity, which still comes up when their former economic supremacy is recalled.
Travelling through Minia in the latter half of the 19th century, Amelia Edwards remarked on the number of “…smart Greek stores where Bass’s ale, claret, curaçao, Cyprus, Vermouth, cheese, pickles, sardines, Worcester sauce, blacking, biscuits, preserved meats, candles, cigars, matches, sugar, salt, stationary, fireworks, jams and patent medicine can all be bought at one fell swoop…” In Lord Cromer’s words: “Still the fact remains that a portion of the Greek colony in Egypt consists of low class Greeks exercising the profession of usurer, drink-seller, etc. The Greek of this class has an extraordinary talent for retail trade. He will risk his life in pursuit of petty gain. It is not only that a Greek usurer or a bakal (general dealer) is established in almost every village in Egypt; the Greek pushes his way into the most remote parts of Sudan and Abyssinia. Wherever in fact there is the smallest prospect of buying in a cheap and selling in a dear market, there will be the petty Greek to be found.”
An elderly Greek lady, who preferred not to be named, recalls: “Our father sent us to foreign schools. He wanted us to learn languages. We spoke French and English at home, like the children of the Egyptian aristocracy, and were kept firmly away from the Greek community. My father did not want me to marry a Greek and neither did I, because the Greeks of Egypt were either grocers or waiters.”
The lady, now in her late eighties, married a French-educated Lebanese man. The same portrayal of Egyptian Greeks runs through the discourse of different members of the community: “Remember Cairo of the early ’50s?” asks Chris Themelis, a Greek born in Egypt, who now works for the Egyptian Broadcasting Organisation: “Most of the immigrants originally came from the islands; they had a farming background; they established themselves in commerce rather than in blue-collar professions, though, to be fair, we also had a few intellectuals and many bank employees; the majority, however, were grocers (Pekhlivanos in the city, Zanos on Champollion Street, and Vasilakis in Zamalek), bakers and pastry makers: Maginot, on the corner across from the American University, his brother-in-law in the Bab Al-Louq souq, Pappas at the entrance to the same market, and Crystal on Qasr Al-Aini Street…”
The food industry seemed firmly ensconced in Greek hands and, if Swiss-owned Groppi was serious competition for Greek patisseries and survived better the changes in the political and social climate of Cairo, its Greek competitor, the Lemonia, with its charming garden extending from Midan Mustafa Kamel to Qasr Al-Nil Street, is still fondly remembered as the haven of an exclusive clientele for over half a century.
Besides being grocers, waiters and café owners, adds Themelis, “the Greeks were good hairdressers: the famous George, from whom Socrate learned his trade; Socrate himself, who later opened an elegant hairdresser’s salon patronised by the Cairene aristocracy; Costi, who left Egypt to open a salon at the Hilton in Athens, and Taki of Rumeurs.”
Qasr Al-Nil Street was also dotted with shops belonging to Greeks who had ventured into the world of fashion: Pierre Clouvas was one of the few “authentic” grands couturiers of Cairo, while Sistovaris and Pascalis kept Cairo’s chic women covered in furs in winter and stored their animal skins in well-appointed refrigerators in summer. “Climatianos had an elegant boutique on the corner of Shawarbi and Qasr Al-Nil streets. He sold men’s hats, scarves and ties,” reminisces Mary Periclidou, a Greek housewife who dared to break with tradition and married an Egyptian Muslim.
Climatianos had started out as a small employee of Rosati, the famous Italian importer of silk and plumes for ladies’ hats. With time and hard work, he managed to open his own business. He became so successful that he was able to indulge most of his eccentric tendencies, recounts Periclidou: “He had a beautiful villa in Heliopolis where he kept Great Danes. One of them, Ghyftos, did not like staying in the garden; when he was not immediately let into the house, the dog would bark forever and wag his tail hard, hitting it against a tree that grew near the front door. When Climatianos noticed that the dog’s tail had been injured, he ordered that the tree be covered with a soft mattress.” With a chuckle, Periclidou also remembers Climatianos proudly walking the streets with friends or acquaintances. “Every time a traffic agent would greet him respectfully, as was the custom then, he would nudge his companion: ‘See?’ he would boast in his strong Greek accent, ‘he knows who I am’.”
If the traffic policeman did not know — or care — who Climatianos was, he must have gawked in awe when another Greek, dressed to kill, walked briskly past him on her way to one of the exclusive boutiques of Qasr Al-Nil Street: everyone used to stop and stare at the ravishing Antigone, who, having started her career as Egypt’s top fashion model, went on to become Miss World in 1949.
Another field where members of the Greek colony featured prominently was cigarette manufacturing, writes Kitroef. Nestor Gianaclis was the first important tobacco merchant to move from Constantinople to Cairo in 1869, before the Turkish monopoly on tobacco was introduced. In 1884, his factory was producing 80 million cigarettes, 90 per cent of which were exported. The absence of government protection on Egyptian cigarette exports made them less competitive in the long run, however, especially as Egyptian-blend cigarettes were being manufactured in European countries, where entrepreneurs were offered better conditions.
Around 1920, Nestor Gianaclis Ltd. established a factory in Frankfurt and another in Geneva. Kiriazi Frères moved to Amsterdam and Hamburg. At the same time, other Greeks, such as Patheologos Bros and Coutarelli, began concentrating on the domestic market, which, they discovered, had enormous potential. Lagoudakis, and later his son, owned and operated a plant where the brand names were printed on cigarette paper, cigarette holders were manufactured, and cardboard for cigarette boxes was processed. Lagoudakis, who had manufactured paper for hand-rolled cigarettes, was the first to introduce the large-scale production of cigarette paper and cigarette-making machines in 1903.
Food and beverages also attracted many Greek entrepreneurs from the middle of the 19th century onwards. The large foreign communities were a ready market for consumer goods such as sweets, spirits, soft drinks, pasta and breads. The first chocolate factory in Cairo, The Royal Chocolate Works of Egypt, was established in Ismailia, in 1908, by a Greek. Nicholas Spathis opened the first aerated water factory in 1884. Volanakis exported his Bolanachi’s Egyptian Brandy to England from 1884 on, and produced champagne, rum and whisky. Andreas Zottos imported grapes and raisins from Greece and Cyprus and produced ouzo, zibib, brandy and liqueurs.
Cigarette manufacturer Nestor Gianaclis rose to an even more grandiose challenge: in 1903 he brought over vines from Greece to be planted on the 3,000 hectares of desert land he had bought along the Nubariya Canal. He invited Greek experts to supervise the experiment. There had been no vineyards in Egypt since antiquity, when wine had been produced in the Lake Mariout area, but in 1933, just before Gianaclis died, the first modern Egyptian wine worthy of the name was produced.
Among the numerous contributions of Greek entrepreneurs to the consumer market, one should note the establishment of the first poultry farm by the Capaitzis, who were soon to join other Greeks in the manufacture of macaroni. They entered into direct competition with the Italian manufacturers when they opened one of the country’s largest pasta factories in order to dispose of their surplus eggs, which could not compete in price with the free-range eggs offered by Egyptian producers.
Greeks were also active in the building sector: They were responsible for the founding of a ceramic factory in 1895, the largest cement tile factory in Alexandria, three wood-processing plants established between 1904 and 1914, and marble-cutting works that supplied “marble for numerous public buildings, including Zaghloul’s mausoleum and the Allied cemetery at Al-Alamein,” writes Kitroef.
Despite the difficulties encountered by industry in the 1930s, the Greeks survived and many fared rather well. Among the success stories, Kitroef cites that of Theocharis Kotsikas (later Cozzika), a merchant from Alexandria who became the main supplier to Kitchner’s expeditionary force to the Sudan and to British forces in Egypt. One of the commodities he imported for the armies was alcohol, and he soon decided that it would be more profitable to manufacture the product locally.
He set up the Torah plant to distill alcohol from molasses. In time, Cozzika’s enterprise became a monopoly of sorts, as improved machinery began to produce 1.5 million kg of 95 to 96 per cent proof alcohol and by 1949, the Torah plant was responsible for three quarters of all alcohol production in Egypt.
In the early ’40s, Cozzika consolidated his alliance with the Benachis by marrying one of their daughters.
A NATION DIVIDED: The influential Greek families that belonged to the aristocracy, like the Choremis and Benakis, had become a key factor in Egypt’s agricultural, export-oriented economy around the middle of the 19th century. Until the middle of the 20th, they remained crucial elements in the cotton business. “There were Greeks involved in every stage of the production and export of cotton, from the small middlemen in the provinces to the important exporters in Alexandria,” writes Alexander Kitroef.
In this connection, the Greeks also established themselves as moneylenders, a trade which was rapidly associated with their habit of rapidly foreclosing on the small peasants who made up the bulk of their debtors. Impoverished by a bad crop, many peasants lost their land to these “cunning usurers”, who are stock figures of Egyptian folklore and are still remembered by older generations today, especially in the Delta, notes Sayed Ashmawi.
Yanni Costa Manganes, a priest at St George Orthodox Church in Old Cairo and the owner of a small printing shop in the centre of Cairo, however, denies that usury was ever common practice among the Greeks.
After 1930, Greek industrialists, according to Kitroef, began to abandon their isolated activities and merge “into the foreign group of industrialists that had organised itself into a Federation”, thus becoming “institutionally and economically part of the new industrial bourgeoisie which included foreigners, Egyptians and representatives of foreign capital.” By 1952, the 52-man council of the Federation contained five Greeks.
The class divide, however, opposed these powerful entrepreneurs to other, less privileged members of their community. The first strike Greek workers organised in Egypt took place from December 1899 to February 1900. In this period, according to Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, cigarette manufacturing was the industry with the largest concentration of workers engaged in the production of commodities. Most of the industry’s skilled workers were Greeks. They were the ones who led the strike, and, deprived of the crucial elements of the production process, many factories were forced to shut down.
This first strike gained great public support and ended in a victory for the workers. A more violent second strike, organised in 1903, was broken ruthlessly. After this disastrous incident, factory owners were able to impose their own terms on cigarette workers for years to come.
The role of the Egyptian workers — if any — during these strikes has never been well researched. Presumably less politicised than the Greeks, and employed as unskilled labourers, they remained outside the skilled workers’ organisations. Besides, unlike the foreigners, who were protected by the Capitulations, they had far more to fear from the consequences of an open rebellion.
“In general, it would seem that this [first] strike was largely a struggle between Greek craft workers and Greek capitalists, an instance of class conflict within the Greek community in Egypt,” write Beinin and Lockman. “The stratification of the labour force along ethnic lines and the superior status enjoyed by the foreign workers, as well as the inexperience of many Egyptian workers, new to industry and industrial conflict… [also] hindered cooperation between indigenous and foreign workers.”
In Stratis Tsirkas’s Cités à la Dérive, Dionyssis, a retired waiter, relates to his guest Caloyannis, a Greek communist hiding in Egypt, the details of the waiters’ strike, which, he claims, he personally instigated in 1918: “It is I who organised the strike. It was approximately a year after the other war. I was working for a Swiss — in a pastry shop and bar, with two branches. During the war he had been making money by the bucket. When the armies started to leave, he had the idea of curtailing his expenses. Slowly, almost unnoticeably, he gave us each a native, to help us. They, you understand, are real dunces: whatever you give them, they say thank you. In two words, I told him what was what: ‘Monsieur Jacquet’, I said, ‘we are not joking here, it is our children’s bread we are talking about. If by Saturday you don’t get rid of the Arabs, we go on strike.’ On Sunday, we all gathered in front of the main shop, waiters, garçons, maîtres d’hôtel, barmen, all of us Greeks and Italians. The scoundrel had alerted the police who surrounded the shop… We went to the syndicate to see what we could do. Three days went by. The Swiss visited the Sudanese coffee shops one by one and hired blacks. ‘What now?’ we asked ourselves. We organised a new gathering in front of the main shop. We were yelling: ‘Traitor, starver, circumcised’. An Italian had brought along a huge Calabrian dagger: ‘Avanti, fratelli cristiani’, he hollered and marched towards the gendarmes.” Dionyssis was eventually shot in the thigh before the strike was broken.
The guest asks: “Didn’t you try to incite the Sudanese to join in the strike?” “Why?,” wonders Dionyssis: “to open their eyes? What was the use of the strike then?” Dionyssis’s son, Stamatis, comments: “It is obvious that you come from abroad… We are not in Greece here. The native needs the whip to keep him in his place, otherwise we are done for.”
CARE IN THE COMMUNITY: The Greeks who settled in Egypt retained their clannish character over the centuries due in large part to differences in language and religion which set them apart culturally from other ethnic groups, while their privileged status under the Capitulations gave them an edge over the local population. Moreover, custom, and especially religion, forbade interfaith marriages, while strong ties to their homeland induced many Greek men to seek brides from their home towns and villages.
Historians, however, agree that these factors alone cannot guarantee the perpetuation of ethnic identity over a long period. According to Kitroef, the preservation of ethnicity was the work of the several religious and secular Greek institutions functioning in Egypt at the time, the most influential of which were the schools, the Orthodox Patriarchate and the Hellenic Community of Alexandria.
Like all the communities established abroad by Diaspora Greeks, the Hellenic Community of Alexandria was involved in the administration of the charitable institutions and the schools established by the Greeks of Egypt and was governed by the notables. Its aims were to develop and preserve all religious, philanthropic and educational institutions belonging to it and which catered to the moral, intellectual and social needs of Greek nationals. The Greek consul-general in Alexandria was the permanent honorary president of the Community, and membership was restricted to persons of Greek citizenship. The 28 other communities throughout Egypt were modeled on that of Alexandria. While membership was restricted to Greek citizens, any person of Greek origin was entitled to use the services of the community.
At present, the Greek Community in Cairo controls the Greek school, the hospital, the retirement home, several social clubs and many charities, including a foundation that grants scholarships to needy students. Its revenues are mainly derived from private donations and from the income accruing from the rent of apartment and office buildings bequeathed to the community by wealthy donors.
The Greek schools set up by the community followed the Greek school system and were an important factor in the promotion of ethnic consciousness. Interestingly, many Greeks who did not frequent these schools ended up distancing themselves from the colony. Themelis recounts that, influenced by her Jewish playmates, who spoke French, she pleaded with her family to go to the French Lycée. She eventually transferred to an English school and then to the American University in Cairo. Later, and against her parents’ wishes, she broke completely with her ethnic background and married an Italian. Most Greeks who married outside the community are those who did not attend the schools, she says.
FROM GARDEN CITY TO BALAQSA STREET: The Salvagos, Benachis, Rodochanakis and Zervoudachis had come to Egypt in the latter half of the 19th century and lived mainly in Alexandria, while other families of the Greek aristocracy ruled over the social life of cosmopolitan Cairo, mixing with the families of the British high command in particular and with prominent Jewish, Syrian, Lebanese and — sometimes — Egyptian families.
The Mosseris were Greek Jews. Elie Mosseri had played a crucial role in the creation of the suburb of Maadi and his wife, Hélène, became famous for entertaining royalty in the sumptuous Mosseri villa downtown. In the latter part of the second world war, Prince Peter and Princess Irene of Greece were frequent visitors to the Mosseri mansion. In Cairo in the War, 1939-1945, Artemis Cooper writes: “Hélène Mosseri was also a close friend of King Farouk’s. It was said that the king had installed a private telephone line on which he would ring her up, at any hour of the day or night.”
Families like the Mosseris belonged first and foremost to an international elite. They were as remote from the poor Egyptians as they were from the petty Greeks. They may have shared in the ethnicity and prejudices of the latter, but aristocratic prejudice was so well clothed in good manners as to be hardly recognisable. They gave generously to their communities, but did not partake in any of the popular social events. They spoke foreign languages at home and enrolled their children — who were not always taught their mother tongue properly — in French and English schools. They lived in elegant villas and well-appointed apartments in the best parts of the city, moving toward the suburbs as soon as it became fashionable to do so. Their old quarters and dwellings were often taken over by their poorer cousins. Quarters like Shubra, Ezbekiya, Faggala and Daher, which were favourite Greek settlements at the turn of the century, are all cases in point.
While the Greek elite inhabited the fashionable side of the Ezbekiya Gardens, Qasr Al-Nil and Soliman Pasha streets before moving to Garden City and Zamalek, the petty bourgeoisie made their home on the more populous side of Al-Ezbekiya, settling in the back streets around Al-Kenissa Al-Murqusiya (the Church of Mark) in Clot Bey, Al-Bahr Street further north, around the area of the Bab Al-Louq market (near the Greek elementary school), and in the alleys off Abdin Palace.
The older inhabitants of Al-Balaqsa Street, for instance, can still remember their presence. Here, the Greeks were forced to mix with the indigenous population, though they often found the contact distasteful. Convinced as they may have been of their superior origins, however, they remained more united by poverty to their Egyptian neighbours than they were socially to the richer members of their community.
In Cités à la Dérive, Tsirkas describes the life of Ariane, a housewife of Greek descent, who occupies a rundown apartment situated in the “labyrinth”, the back alleys off Balaqsa Street, where her family moved after a sharp decline in their fortunes at the beginning of World War II. Ariane liked Balaqsa Street and its environs. She also liked the indigenous population of the area. She had disobeyed her husband’s strict instructions and, unbeknownst to him, made friends with her Egyptian neighbours, helping them or appealing to them in times of need. She sometimes shared gossip with the native women. Her four children had grown up on the same street, playing with their children. Ariane had learned to respect the Egyptian people. She felt a bond stronger than the accidents of birth and nationality. In 1919, she had witnessed, from her window, a nationalist demonstration which found its way to Balaqsa Street, and had been surprised, then terrified by the ferocious repression of the students by the British soldiers:
“The British were coming in a tank from behind the palace and were chasing the crowds. But the demonstrators were coming out of Boustani Street and, in small groups, were slipping into the side alleys. Every time the tank reached Dawawin [now Maglis El-Shaab] Street, it would stop…the demonstrators would then come down from the high quarters, emerging in front of the palace. The tank would come down Boustani Street once more, as the crowd vanished miraculously. The British had not yet started to shoot. The youngsters suddenly began throwing stones and empty lemonade bottles. The others immediately opened fire on the students, aiming at their feet. Unexpectedly, the tank stopped in front of Balaqsa Street, which was full of demonstrators. ‘No, it will not be able to proceed, the street is too dark and narrow, how could they come forward,’ the most courageous were telling each other. But the British driver managed to push the tank forward and greengrocers, café owners, tinsmiths, tinkers, tailors, pickle-sellers, grocers, pastry-makers and cobblers had to shove merchandise, utensils, benches and stalls inside the minuscule shops, any way they could. They kept silent in the dark, huddled against the protesters…In cold blood, the tank was releasing its bullets upon the doors and windows… the caterpillars of the tank sank in the eternal mud of the bazaar, the engine snarled and the machine proceeded on its way…”
After the tank disappeared, Ariane saw Younes, an Egyptian employed in one of the shops, lying on the street wounded. She dragged him into her house and tended his wounds. The man never forgot. Years later, he was able to repay her by saving her little girl.
“Ariane could never understand the sweeping contempt of the Greeks for the Egyptians, but she sensed the end of her people’s presence, which she attributed to their attitude: ‘Why do you dig this trench which sets you apart,’ she asked her husband silently. ‘Where is your stubbornness going to lead you? I tremble. I wish I were not alive. I wish my eyes could not see. The day will come. I see people crowding the pier with mountains of suitcases and bundles of mattresses surrounding them. And behind them, the tombs of parents, relatives and ancestors, the tombs of little children abandoned to God’s mercy, without a night-light, without a pot of water to quench the thirst of their bones. And you will think that you are taking with you all the sorrows, the happiness, the feasts and the anxieties of fifty, eighty or a hundred years, because you managed to gather the furniture, the clothes, the kitchen utensils and a few knickknacks to help you remember, and lock them up in a couple of wooden trunks, roughly nailed shut with a few planks. And you will think that by taking these things with you, you will have saved the joys and the love, the hopes and the celebrations… Don’t stray. Believe me… A life that one has lived is gone forever: we will never have it back somewhere else…'”
OUT OF EGYPT: The Greeks’ exodus began right after the 1952 Revolution. By the beginning of the following decade, most of those who had made their home in Egypt for over a century had dwindled from several thousands to a handful. Many chose to return to Greece, while others rebuilt their lives in Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia.
According to Vallas, those who stayed could not imagine living anywhere else. “We made our home here long ago. We have become attached to our adopted country. We have a comfortable life. No one bothers us. Why should we leave? Many of us have thriving businesses. On the contrary, Greeks are opening new factories now because the economic conditions are very favourable.” According to him, many of the Greeks who have stayed have applied for Egyptian nationality and several have already become Egyptian citizens.
There are no more waiters, hairdressers or pastry-makers. Every now and then, a fading name on a shop window reminds one of a once popular, now forgotten coffee shop; a friend remembers that Vasilakis’s famous grocery was situated at the corner of 26 July and Hassan Sabri streets in Zamalek — “you know, there is a shoe shop there now” — simply because it remained a little longer than the others… and sometimes someone tunes in to the Greek programme on the radio: “Don’t you like bouzoukia? Ah! Where are the good old days of the taverns where we drank ouzo, smashed plates with gusto and danced like Zorba!”
By Fayza Hassan
B)Cairo has recently seen conflicts between some Muslims and Coptic Christians. But who exactly are the Copts and how did they come to be in Egypt? Part of the answer lies in Coptic art.
The sands of Egypt make it an archaeological wonderland. Ancient Egyptian statues and buildings rise above those sands, and these stony sepulchres made the wonders of the pharaohs famous down the millennia. But in the 19th and 20th centuries excavators such as William Flinders Petrie developed truly scientific archaeological techniques and looked beyond the tombs of the kings into the buried worlds of Egypt’s past. Petrie, who excavated at Fayoum, looked not just for treasures but pottery and cloth.
Egypt’s climate preserves materials that usually perish, including wood, papyrus, and cloth. Even shoes from ancient Egypt‘s later period under Roman rule have survived. Another stunning type of material discovered by early 20th-century archaeologists was Coptic woven art. Early Christians in Egypt buried their dead with finely woven clothes and shrouds that have survived along with Biblical papyri, paintings and sculpture. In 1910, the Coptic Museum in old Coptic Cairo opened to show such relics released from the earth.
The attraction of Coptic art is that it is full of Mediterranean, Greek and Roman echoes, such as border decorations of embroidered grapes that recall the god Bacchus, while being anti-classical and popular because of its raw portrayal of all-too-human faces. Another fascination is the possible connection between early Christian portrayals of Mary and Jesus, and ancient Egyptian statues of Isis and Horus.
So to return to that question I asked above, exactly who are the Copts? The answer is clear from this connection. Coptic Christianity dates back to the first couple of hundred years after the lifetime of Christ. The people who converted to Christianity were the ancient Egyptians, as well as Jewish, Greek and Roman inhabitants of Egypt. This is even clearer when alongside the art of Coptic Egypt you consider the Coptic language preserved in ancient papyri and manuscripts and still used in the Coptic liturgy today.
In the British Museum in London is the Rosetta Stone, a black inscribed slab that has been central to world history ever since the French scholarJean-François Champollion used its specimens of the same text in different ancient languages to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Champollion studied Coptic as part of his quest, because he rightly saw that it was descended from ancient Egyptian. That is, the language of the Coptic liturgy is the language of ancient Egypt.
So who are the Copts? They are the ancient Egyptians. Their art, language and religion are directly descended from the art, language and religion of the land of the pharaohs.
Their survival is a tribute to the religious tolerance of Islam. How many Islamic communities survived in medieval Christian Europe? As for modern times, a Europe that murdered six million Jews less than a century ago is in no position to vaunt its tolerance. But, the Coptic minority is no side issue. This culture has the right to respect, protection and a political voice in the new Egypt. It can claim to be the most Egyptian culture of all.
SOURCE THE GUARDIAN/ 2011