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Greeks in the Middle East


Greek communities in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, once played a vital economic role.

Once significant, the Greek presence in the Middle East is currently limited to about 6,000 persons in Egypt (primarily in Cairo and Alexandria), and it is much smaller in the Sudan, the Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere in the region. (No official statistics are available to provide reliable figures.)

The geographical proximity of the Middle East to the Greek islands and mainland, the development of Greek maritime trade in the seventeenth century, and the existence of Greek Orthodox patriarchates in Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem ensured that there would be small numbers of Greek merchants and clerics in the Middle East around 1800. Their numbers began increasing substantially in the nineteenth century, after Muhammad Ali, Egypt's ruler, invited foreign entrepreneurs, including Greeks, to Alexandria to help modernize Egypt. The greatest number of resident Greeks in Egypt's history99,793 persons, of whom 76,264 were Greek citizenswas recorded in Egypt's annual census of 1927. Constituting the largest of the numerous foreign communities inhabiting Egypt from the mid-nineteenth
through the mid-twentieth century, the Greeks were a socially diverse group that ranged in occupation from wealthy bankers and exporters to employees in the service sector and even factory workers. Smaller Greek communities of a few thousand also could be found in Sudan, Palestine, and in cities along the North African coast. The end of the capitulations in Egypt (1937) signaled the onset of the decline in numbers of Greeks in Egypt, and the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 accelerated this decrease. The Suez Crisis of 1956 reinforced the trend, although a large part of the Greek community supported Egypt in its claim on the canal. The nationalization measures taken by the Egyptian government in 1963 caused the numbers of Greeks remaining in Egypt to fall to a few thousand.

Spread out across the country, the Greeks in Egypt were formerly to be found even in small towns in the Nile delta and in upper Egypt, and they formed the largest foreign communities in Alexandria, Cairo, Port Saʿid, and Suez. In 1927, out of 99,605 foreign citizens residing in Alexandria, over a third (37,106) were Greek citizens, and the same proportion held for the other major cities. As they had been in Greece, the Greeks in Egypt were Greek Orthodox, and they continued to use their native tongue. With a number of important Greek journals and literary societies based there, Alexandria became a very important Greek literary center in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (18631933) gained an international reputation and Alexandrian writer Stratis Tsirkas (d. 1979) enjoys a good reputation in Greece. Like most of the foreigners in Egypt, the Greeks were noted for their cosmopolitanism. Many Greeks were fluent in either French or English, and the wealthier strata of Greek society in Egypt had very close ties with Europe. Several Greeks sat on company boards whose members came from mixed European backgrounds. In the 1930s, more and more Greeks began to acquire a knowledge of Arabic.

As did all the foreign residents, the Greeks benefited from the broad-ranging privileges Egypt provided to the citizens of other countries. Capitulation rights were extended to the Greeks the year after Greece signed a capitulations treaty with the Ottoman Empire (1855); previously, some Greeks had been under the protection of European consuls. Greece agreed to participate in the mixed courts system in 1876. The Egyptian uprising and the British occupation of 1882 that followed it did not affect the status of the Greeks, nor did the outbreak signaling the beginning of the Egyptian nationalist movement (1919), with which many Greeks sympathized. The Greek government was unable to offer the Greeks in Egypt any help in the diplomatic negotiations preceding the end of the capitulations (1937) or the abolition of the mixed courts (1949); the Greeks had hoped that in regard to these arrangements their traditionally close relationship with the Egyptians would have earned them more favorable treatment than they received.

The Greeks made their greatest impact in Egypt via their role in the banking and cotton sectors. The first group of Greeks brought to Alexandria by Muhammad Ali in the early 1800s were merchants, shipbuilders, and sailors whose activities helped increase commerce and building of the merchant marine in Egypt. The Greek community in Alexandria was unaffected by Egypt's involvement on the side of the Ottomans during the Greek War of Independence (18211830), and the number of Greeks in Egypt gradually increased in the following decades, as did their economic strength. The boom in Egyptian cotton production and export in the 1860s, which catapulted the Egyptian economy to new levels and integrated it into the world economy, also further increased the role and economic power of the Greek merchants and financiers, who remained central to the financing, production, and exporting of cotton in Egypt until the eve of World War II. In the 1920s, Greek exporting houses were responsible for 25 percent of all Egyptian cotton exports. The largest of the Greek exporting companies of that period was Choremi, Benachi & Co.; in the banking sector, Greeks such as the Salvago family were well known and influential.

The Greeks in Egypt remained closely identified with issues of Greek nationalism and with Greek party politics. The early settlers had supported the Greek War of Independence and subsequent efforts to incorporate Greek-populated areas within the Greek state. With time, increasing numbers of Greeks returned to Greece to fight as volunteers in the Greek army, especially during the 19121913 Balkan War. The wealthiest financed the building of schools or philanthropical institutions in their hometowns or villages, and others made contributions that went toward developing the Greek state. For example, the donations of George Averoff helped complete the marble stadium in Athens where the first Olympic games were held in 1896 and made it possible to purchase the battleship Averoff, which proved a factor in Greece's victories in the Balkan War.

The Greeks in Egypt created a broad network of communal institutions: schools, hospitals, churches, orphanages, nursing homes, and a variety of leisure and athletic societies, most of them run by the city-based Greek community organizations, which were themselves administered by prominent Greeks in the community. A small and weak institution in the 1800s, the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Alexandria gradually grew in stature and importance as the numbers of Greeks in Egypt increased.

See also balkan wars (19121913); capitulations; greek war of independence; levantine; mixed courts; muhammad ali; suez crisis (19561957).


Kitroeff, Alexander. The Greeks in Egypt, 19191937: Ethnicity and Class. St. Anthony's Middle East Monographs no. 20. London: Ithaca Press, 1989.

Politis, A. Hellenism and Modern Egypt. 2 vols. Alexandria, 1931. In Greek.

alexander kitroeff

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