Alexandria, there is no place like it. A Hellenic city, still influenced by its Greek roots and a passionate Greek Community, this Mediterranean delight has had a profound effect on history and Hellenism.
As I sat by the 1920’s style Greek owned cafe opposite the harbour, I reflected on 2 simple questions I had asked locals earlier in the day.
Image credit: Wikipedia
The first was in relation to a great poet. “Do you know where I can find the House of Cavafy?” I asked. “You mean the Greek poet, the museum!” came the reply.
The second, “do you know where I can find the Greek Community Club?” I asked another Egyptian later that day. With a heavy accent he replied with a smile, “Ah you are a Greek man, you will see the Alexander the Great Statue on the main road, he too is Greek.”
It was a fair indication that the people of Alexandria are comfortable with recognising the Hellenic past of this city.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s the once vibrant Greek community of Alexandria was emptied out, in many respects driven out due to the nationalism of Egypt under President Nasser. Numbers vary but it is likely that there were close to 400,000 around that time. Another figure that is given is 750,000. I myself have bumped in to numerous people who were either born there or have parents from the city of Alexander. From Rotterdam to Melbourne, I have met them just about everywhere. And they all have a story to tell, a story that is powerful, sad, enlightening and proud.
Recently, I was in Alexandria and was able to meet the remainder of the Greek Community, those who chose to stay. There are over 4,000 people of Greek origin in Alexandria and perhaps 10,000 in Egypt all up. They too have a story to tell.
Every day in Alexandria I would play a game of spot the Greek shop hoping to meet Greek speakers. Excitedly, I would enter a shop such as ‘Atheneos’ requesting to meet the owner or if there was a Greek speaker available. Sadly, just about all of them were no longer owned by Greek people. What was interesting is that out of respect to the previous Greek ownership, they keep the name of the shop. On a quiet business day, they were all bewildered by my queries but happy to note that someone would take such an interest in the Greek name.
Before I provide a snapshot of the Greek community, a history lesson to place the context of the Greek presence. It will also allow me to make the bold statement that Hellenes have been here, unbroken, since the seventh century BC.
Cleopatra the Queen to break all hearts
Cleopatra was the last Hellenic queen of Egypt. How can this be true I hear you ask?
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 334 BC, he established an amazing new city called Alexandria. When Alexander died in 323 BC, one of his favourite generals Ptolemy took control of Egypt and the surrounding lands, establishing the Ptolemaic kingdom. The Hellenic city of Alexandria was the capital.
This Kingdom was unique. Royalty only spoke Greek and intermarried (we now call that incest) to protect the blood line. Conversely, they also called themselves successors to the Pharoes. Ptolemy adopted many local customs to keep the local population on side but like all his successors, he never learnt the local language. Cleopatra was the first to speak a language other than Greek! Actually, if you were Greek living in Egypt, you were subject only to Hellenic law.
The Ptolemaic Kingdom ended in 30 BC when Cleopatra, having chosen to side with Marc Antony, was defeated by Rome. She was only 39 years old and had been a benign ruler.
At its peak, the Kingdom included Libya, Cyprus, Egypt and a significant area of the Middle East. They also encouraged the migration of tens of thousands of Greek speakers who formed the elite ruling class.
Cleopatra is one of the most famous women of all time, perhaps the most famous. Pity though that the Ptolemaic Kingdom is not as well known.
Prior to the arrival of the all conquering Alexandros, a city called Naucratis had existed. The proximity of Egypt to Greece ensured that there was a continuous presence of commercial traders, with archaeological evidence suggesting this extends as far back as Minoan times. The small settlement of circa 570 BC is not too far inland from where Alexandria was built, on the Nile. Naucratis was built for the Greek merchants and supporters of the Egyptian rulers, becoming one of the most important ancient Hellenic cities until the establishment of Alexandria. Based on available evidence, it was the first permanent Greek city in Egypt.
However, Herodotus tells us of a story whereby shipwrecked Greek renegades land in Egypt. The ousted Pharaoh Psammetichus had been foretold of their arrival via an Oracle and employed the men to regain power. As a reward they may have been given land on the Nile, which could be the ancient city of Daphnae, creating their own colony.
Greek language remained in civic and bureaucratic circles under the Romans. When the Byzantine Greek forces reconquered Egypt in 534 AD under Belisarios, they inherited a country with a strong Greek upper class and institutions. The Greek Orthodox Church had a strong presence, though this would ultimately broke away to form the Coptic Orthodox Church. Today, over 10% of the population belong to that faith.
In 641 AD, the Byzantine Empire which had control of most of Egypt was defeated by the Arab forces that had made their way to the region. However, a counter attack was launched with initial success until a total collapse by 646 to a reinvigorated Arab military. Within no time, Cairo was made the capital, ending the long and glorious reign of the Greek city as the capital of Egypt.
Around 1517 until 1798, Alexandria was nominally under the Ottoman Empire. Considering that Muslim people were traditionally reluctant to undertake trade, especially during the Ottoman reign, there is enough evidence to suggest that Greek people remained in the city from the end of Byzantine times to conduct business.
The close proximity to Greece and Cyprus are key indicators that Hellenism remained unbroken as the Greek Church continued to operate and Greek merchants made money. There was also cooperation between Arab scholars and Greek educators during medieval times, whilst under the Turks, Greek people across the empire generally had important bureaucratic roles.
Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria
It is worth highlighting that the Church in Alexandria split in 451 AD into two groups, Miaphysites and Melkites. The former became the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, whilst the Melkites constitute the Greek Orthodox Church. After the Arab conquest they continued to use the Greek language for liturgy and remained part of the Byzantine sphere of influence.
I met with a number of priests on my visit to the Holy Patriarchal Monastery of St Savvas the Sanctified. A Greek church has stood on these grounds since 310 AD. I was given a tour of a most fascinating museum of church relics, the museum was located underground. In 2010, Patriach Theodoros II inaugurated the new museum in memory of his predecessor Nicholas VI. The museum serves as repository of Church treasures including icons and vestments.
During the course of its history, the monastery has provided hospital and clinic services, a hostel for the poor and a meeting point for Greek Orthodox people in Africa. The Church by the way has close to 350,000 adherents in Africa who look to it for leadership.
The Church has been a bastion of Greek in a sea of differing influences. They have had to deal with the coming of the Muslim Caliphate, the rivalry of the Coptic Church, the Ottoman presence and the Christian missionaries of the 1800’s who went out of their way to target Greek Orthodox adherents for conversion to Catholicism and the Protestant way.
Meeting with George Eleftheriou in a coffee shop near the harbour helped me to understand the magnitude of the Greek community, small as it may now be. George is a businessman who operates Eleftheriou Associates Consultants and his first comment to me came from the heart. “Billy, I love this city, we are in the best place in the world. I am just as happy that I am Greek who lives here.” Over the next hour George talked up Alexandria. “I believe that Egypt and this city will be an economic powerhouse again” he told me with pride.
Admittedly, having arrived here earlier I had been disappointed by the constant traffic, ageing infrastructure and buildings and a harbour which was not as Ptolemy had described it. Where was the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, where was the magnificent and grand library which was the most remarkable in ancient times? Both have since disappeared, though in its place, you will find one of the most incredible bibliotecas you will ever come across; the modern Library of Alexandria near the harbour. Words cannot describe its jaw dropping architectural features. George had warned me that it would be remarkable; he may have underplayed this statement.
George is a throwback to the days when Hellenes were the big drivers of commercial industries with his own expanding company providing business development consultancy services covering North Africa and the Mediterranean and other regions with a focus on trade and exports.
George pointed out that Alexander the Great was not the only architect of this city, it was Dinocrates his designer. In 332 BC the architect and his team which included Cleomenes of Naucratis and Crates from Greece proper, with input from the King, feverishly set about developing the city based on a grid system consistent with Hellenic planning.
I was told how the Greek community was once vibrant and the most numerous in the city. George and his family have heritage here that goes back four generations and in his opinion, Hellenism is unbroken here since it was founded.
Over the next few days, I was given an insight in to the city by George and his parea; and gradually I became fond of Alexandria, understanding the charm and its old school style that enables a traveler to return to a distant past. Just do not expect quiet moments as the city rarely stops from being a constant hive of activity.
I even ended up at a plush presentation day that George and his brother Constantine organised for students learning Greek. What made this unique was that most of the kids were of mixed heritage, not necessarily having 2 Greek parents. It was heart warming to hear each kid, from the age of 5 to teenage years praising the work of their teacher. Hearing it in Greek was like listening to the sounds of classical music, perfect. ‘Efharisto Kurio Constantine pou mas emathes Ellinka (thank you Mr Constantine for teaching us Greek).” This was echoed by just about every student.
Averoff School and the Greek Office
I was given a tour of what can only be described as a school of serenity. Set amongst a few acres, boasting a gymnasium and gardens, the Greek School is impressive. I was informed that at its height during the mid 20th Century there would be 5000 students enrolled here annually, most of them Greek. You could feel their presence in what is now a more quiet setting; today there are 150students at what was one of the most prestigious places to receive an education in the Greek world. The school currently implements the curriculum from Athens. It should be noted that only a number of school institutions in Germany, New York, Constantinople (Istanbul), Brussels and Cairo have a similar set up.
Better described as a university campus, the school attracts quality Greek teachers to help implement the curriculum. I met a few passionate staff members including Alexandros Galanopoulos, the Principal. He quickly pointed out that school is named after Georgios Averoff, the wealthy Greek businessman whose generous donations helped develop the school. Averoff created the first all Greek school in the world. Alexandros who ominously shares the name of the founder of the city, arrived in 1998 and fell in love with Alexandria and the people, who have embraced him in return.
The office of the Greek Community is in the same building as the School which it oversees. I met the President at the time, John Siokas in his office on what was meant to be a quiet day. The smartly dressed man told me about how proud they are that the Greek Community provides as many services as they do, from the school to the club, a football team and stadium and the ability to maintain the Greek language in Alexandria. Throughout my discussions with him, I was pleasantly amused at how many times people would drop in to say kalimera or to ask for advice. Not bad for a quiet day…
Mr Siokas told me that “we have a 9 member Board whose task is to keep the community healthy; we are financially sound. Our job is to make sure the Greek Community is even stronger than when we found it.”
You could sense the wealth of the past members of Greek Community. Many were in business, a long time tradition of Greek people in Alexandria. When the Hellenes were here in their tens of thousands, they congregated at the Greek Community Club. Overall, a massive setting with a football pitch, a club house, the previously mentioned school, a gymnasium, health services and recreational activities.
I was invited by George and representatives of the Greek Community to dine with about 200 other Greek people in an outdoor setting to watch the Greek national team play (and win) on the big screen. Eating a souvlaki, watching the Ethniki, discussing Greece in Greek…what more could a traveller to Egypt want!
A poet to rival Homer
One afternoon, I bumped in to a lady of the street and immediately I could tell she was a Greek speaker. I asked in Greek if she could point me in the direction of the House of Constantine Cavafy. She was stunned that I picked her nationality. Fortunately she told me that it was closed and that there was an easy route to take in the morning. Next day, I made my way to the House.
One of the most surreal moments in the life of any writer. To enter the home of a poet who wrote such luminaries as Ithaca. His career in the 20th Century was remarkable, published on every continent. He is one of the greatest Hellenic intellectuals and a poet that the whole world admired.
I toured his house which has been turned in to a museum and chatted with the Greek speaking Egyptian curator. It was here that Cavafy became inspired and wrote and wrote until he could no more. As I turned in to the bedroom of the house, who did I see on the floor diligently tapping away on her lap top? The person who gave me instructions the previous day. Turns out she is a Greek author and her parents are from Alexandria. As it transpired, she told me she was staying in my hotel. A small world brought about by the magic of
In Sydney in 2015, I was lucky to meet the leader of the internationally renowned Cavafy group. This group is led by Babis Koulouras and they tour the world playing music from Syros and reciting the poetry of Cavafy. Their performance at Enmore Theatre as part of the Greek Festival of Sydney was inspiring. I was transported back to the house of Cavafy and the power he seemingly has over me.
Other important names of Alexandria
How does anyone provide justice to the great people that have come through this once mighty Greek city? I certainly cannot and find it reluctant to pay tribute to them. However, for the purpose of fairness I will mention another great name. A man who encapsulated the 1970’s and who sold almost 80 million records around the world. Demis Roussos was a voice and a musician who was born in Alexandria and made his way to Athens. In memory of his passing, I dedicate this article to someone who touched the lives of everyone he met. No ego, just talent was his way.
Film Director Alex Proyas who lives in Australia was born here. People in Alexandria had no shortage of people to speak about and in the end I could compile a list of a 1000 which inevitably includes philosophers, theologians, astronomers, actors, mathematicians, leaders. I will give you a starting point and then challenge you, the reader, to find the rest. You will be amazed at what you uncover. Conon, Eudarus, Catherine, Hesyahus, Theon, Hyapatia, Constantine Vardalahos. On a quiet day, sit down and have a look at the list of Hellenic individuals that have contributed to the history of Alexandria.
What to see in Alexandria
A visit to the Greek Community Club, the House of Cavafy and the Greek Church are obviously a must. Due to the density of the modern city, it is difficult to excavate. Beneath modern Alexandria exists numerous ancient masterpieces waiting to be found. Until then one must be content with say a visit to the Temple of Taposiris Magna which was built in the Ptolemy period located in the suburb of Abusir. Here you will also find a Byzantine church, the baths of Byzantine emperor Justinian. Near the beach of Alexandria you will find a tower constructed by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Just outside the main hub of the city you will find the statue of Alexander the Great. One look at the statue and you know whose city this was and still is. Alexander will always reign over the city of Hellenes and Egyptians.
George Eleftheriou also recommended a visit to the Graeco-Roman Museum, which we drove past (time was unfortunately limited) which contains many Greek era artefacts. Further, worth finding the Palais d’Antoniadis which is named after Sir John Antoniadis of the 19th Century. Although he was born in Lemnos and became wealthy and a French citizen from his years in Marseilles, he moved to Alexandria and became president of the Greek Community. To make this man even more fascinating, he became the Consul General of Belgium and received a knighthood from Queen Victoria. Talk about a Jack or John of all trades.
When Crete fell to the NAZI invaders in 1941, the Greek government in exile was firmly based in Alexandria. An interesting point is that 7,000 Greek people of Egypt fought for the British in WWII in the Middle East.
Traditionally, the community resided around the Church and monastery of Agios Savvas. A visitor from Greece and Cyprus could stay at a guest house in the neighbourhood, which also contained the Greek hospital and a Greek school. I understand that the first Greek community in Cairo which is 2 and half hours away was established in 1856 in the areas of Tzouonia, Haret el Roum (Street of the Greeks), Hamzaoui and old Cairo. Across Egypt communities could be found in El Mansurah, established in 1860, Minia (1862), Port Said (1870), and Zagazig (1870), Tanta (1880).
Hellenes also established the Bank of Alexandria and Anglo-Egyptian Bank. Ironic when you consider the situation in Greece at the moment.
To understand the historical importance of Alexandria, the city is comparable to say modern London, a hub for writers, artists, merchants and religious types. It remained important for Africa and the Mediterranean until the exodus of Greek people and other Europeans a few decades ago. Alexandria is what it is; a Hellenic built and developed city that has stood the test of time. Whilst the Greek Community may have dwindled, the imposing spirit of Alexander and Cleopatra on a quiet day will always loom large. If you don’t believe me, just ask one of the locals.