The Greeks in Egypt functioned in a modernizing mode either on the scale of Egypt or on the scale of Hellenism. How is this view justified?

by Emmanuel Thomaidis, student of Political Science and History (Spring Semester paper)

Introduction: Within the framework of the activation of the colonial system of France, Great Britain and Italy and the attempt of the above countries to descent to Egypt, we observe the movement the Greek people made to that country during the 19th century AD. However, the Greeks that moved to Egypt altered the constitutional colonial concept: the Greeks descended as poor to establish a community in Egypt ; actually as sojourners rather than settlers. Thus, reference is made in this paper to a specific time spread between the years 1843-1956 AD and within a particular group of Greek population that involves on the one hand impoverished Greek people originating from the Greek mainland and on the other the wealthy ones coming from the Hellenes abroad .In both cases the place of transition was Egypt (Alexandria, Cairo).

On the scale of Egypt: At that time the country even though it possessed the fertile lands of the river Nile, left them unexploited since there was no upper class to attempt this kind of exploitation according to the capitalist standards of the time but the locals (the fellahs) cultivated in this land wheat or rice, not being aware either of the needs of the global market or modern farming methods. In fact, Mohamed Ali’s Egypt was generally a poor Ottoman province. However, this visionary governor wanted to achieve the independence of Egypt from the Ottomans releasing them from the Ottomans so as to be attached to the West. His vision included the Greek factor as well because he knew that the uneducated fellahs were unable to financially develop either themselves or their country in general. The global implications of the American civil war put forward special global financial interest to cotton as a main raw material. The Greeks in Egypt pioneered at all stages of the economic exploitation of the Egyptian cotton: cultivation, processing, distribution and trading: “Overall the Greeks within the general context of their economic activity at all stages (cultivation- processing- distribution- trading) serve in an intensive and in the course of time exclusive mode of a special function that has a decisive strategic importance.: they operate as a think tank and intelligence pool that promote the development and the innovation in the cotton sector”.(1).
The Egyptians are declared as a strategic factor of innovation framing ethically the research on cotton cultivation and strengthening it also regarding material. “The research is framed morally through its recognition by the Greeks and the Egyptians and it is reinforced regarding material by the cotton traders of the community themselves”.(2) The Greeks create new cotton varieties and the orders from the foreign markets began to show their preference to the new ones ( Pelion, Cassavetes, Zagora, Makrynitsa etc.). Zerbinis extracts cotton seed oil from cotton that is used as lamp oil as well. Kartalis invents the lifting machine and creates automatic watering wells. It was the Greeks who first blocked the Nile and exploited the mud of the river for agriculture purposes – water was not lost due to overflow. Dams were created so double harvest became a reality. In 1901 the first Greek Chamber of Commerce was established in Alexandria and in 1923 the Greek Chamber of Commerce was established in Cairo with Dimitri Martinis as its first chairman. Both Greek Chambers are in cooperation as well as with the Chamber of Barges (riverboats on the Nile belonged to the Greek community) and the Greek Chamber of Commerce. In fact, when Zerbinis established Kafr El Zayart Cotton Company, Egypt only exported cotton.

Overall, the whole financial function of the Greeks in the field of cotton is registered in the model identity-innovation –redefinition of identity: ‘’ After their initial involvement with the cultivation of cotton according to traditional methods (identity), the Greeks got involved to the production process by introducing new methods of processing and particularly steam-driven engines that replaced the manual ones (innovation). Later, they intervened by broadening the scope of producers which resulted in the production of cotton seed oil, soap, cotton seeds which were used as animal feed and fertilizers (innovation). Their intervention in the creation of new cotton varieties followed. (…) A final stage followed from 1926 onwards, where no one now …neither looks for nor finds new varieties (redefinition of identity)» (3). In brief, the function of the Greeks-Egyptians delineates how «historical development through suboptimal arrangements» worked: ‘’ When a system assumes that within a certain field the answers have been exhausted as well as the questions and the quests, it is led to a historically defined sense of structural stability and adequacy of the moment (…) yet without explicit knowledge of historical transience. Thus, a particular situation is established which can be characterized as suboptimal arrangement.’’ (4).
But also within the social and political framework, the Greeks in Egypt modernized Egypt. The Greek family networks created the urban class in Egypt. ’’The Egyptian Greeks dominated in all civil and petty occupations that emerged after the penetration of Western capitalism’’, states Constandinos Tsoukalas’’.(5) The Greek rich bourgeoisie were the first who took over government positions and set the example to the Egyptians to get educated as well. The first Greek community in Egypt was established in 1843 in Alexandria, while the second was established in 1856 in Cairo (it was recreated in 1904). Initially, while around Mohammed Ali there were a few local landowners and the rest of the population were uneducated fellahs, the example of the Greeks acted as a catalyst. The Greeks created family networks: the most prominent was Cassavetes who married some of his daughters with the sons of other cotton producers and thus we have the families of Sakellarides, Ionides etc. However, even though the country was promoted due to the Greeks, got released from the Ottoman Empire and the urban middle class was established from scratch, the Egyptians wanted some time to be released from the ‘’foreigners’’, as well. The local bourgeoisie passed laws that ‘’slowed down’’ the Greeks occupations with cotton and although the first Ministry of Agriculture was established in 1914 under the recommendation of the Greeks, finally the abolition of capitulations also abolished the immunity of the Greeks from taxation. The Egyptian urban class promoted Nasser with the slogan ‘’ Foreigners out’’ and while the Greeks believed that they would be exempt from the political approach towards colonists finally they themselves could not spare their removal from the economic activation in Egypt.
On the scale of Hellenism: Additionally to the financial soundness of the Greeks in Egypt, the notion of Beneficence was created (a distinctive characteristic of the Greeks living there and not of the colonizers), in other words the concept of beneficence was established. ‘The road of cotton united the industrially dominating Europe with the rural colonized Middle East through networks and mechanisms where the Greeks in Egypt constituted a crucial link in the chain of dependencies, interactions, contradictions, conflicts, compositions and tragedies that characterized the global financial, political and ideological scene within the historical development: here the dimension of charity is spotted. At the same time, in a particular way that characterizes the leading social classes and the people of the local community, the goods, the ideas and the cultures that framed the orbits and the meetings in the roads of cotton, they shaped and supported an element crucial for the cultural, social and institutional setting of modern Hellenism.: ‘The ideology and practice of benefaction, where exactly the dimension of charity lies’. (6). The Greek tycoons construct schools, churches, hospitals, acting according to the ideology of benefaction: The ‘’money subjects‘’ of the urban class initially produced money and then they sought to maintain this ‘’elitist’ social class through charity actions in order to benefit the wider community. ‘’ As wealthy traders, successful industry men or eminent bankers, they gave a large part of their wealth so as to cover the deficits in the communities there in the land of Egypt. They paid securities that were worth a lot of Egyptian pounds or British pounds in order to create significant institutions of their family networks ‘(7).
The benefactors themselves made their presence felt in their hometowns and reinforced their national center: The Greeks in Egypt constituted the primary nursery community and cradle of the benefaction within the Hellenes’ community. (8) Amalieion orphanage was constructed in Athens with donations as well as the School of Polytechnics (1859), the archaeological museum (1866), the complex of the Hellenic Military Academy (1896), Averopheion Ephebeum (1896), and the battleship ‘Georgios Averof’ (1899). Through donations we have the statues of Rigas Fereos and Patriarch Grigorios V in the entrance of the University of Athens (1896), the total placement of new marbles in the Panathenaic stadium for the Olympic Games of 1896, the Naval Academy (1904), the Sivitanidios school of Arts and Crafts (1927), two war planes to reinforce Greece during combat operations, Athens College (1925, Benakeios Library (1928), the Phytopathological Institute (1931), the National Gallery, Benaki Museum (1930) (9). « The Greeks in Egypt primarily constituted as the nursery and cradle of Hellenes abroad benefaction. The presence of the benefactors is exemplarily illustrated through the successful economic and social paths taken, as well as the distinctive performance they showed while serving the community with a great sense of responsibility and community awareness, their hometown with an obvious feeling of homesickness, without neglecting, however, the national center and their sense of dept to the national scene». (10)
The route of the Egyptian Hellenism is characterized by the role cotton production and cotton trade played within the framework of a historic formation and development of the Hellenic Egyptian financial and social elite. (11)

1.Ματούλα Τομαρά-Σιδέρη, Ο Αιγυπτιώτης Ελληνισμός. Στους δρόμους του βαμβακιού, Εκδόσεις Κέρκυρα, Αθήνα 2011, σελ.122
2.οπ.π., σελ.123
4.οπ.π., σελ.126
5. Κωνσταντίνος Τσουκαλάς, Εξάρτηση και αναπαραγωγή, Εκδόσεις Θεμέλιο, Αθήνα 1979, σελ. 320.
6. Ματούλα Τομαρά-Σιδέρη, οπ.π., σελ.11
7. Ματούλα Τομαρά-Σιδέρη, Αλεξανδρινές Οικογένειες. Χωρέμη-Μπενάκη-Σαλβάγου, Εκδόσεις Κέρκυρα, Αθήνα 2004 και
8.Παλαιολόγος Τάσος, Ο Αιγυπτιώτης Ελληνισμός: ιστορία και δράσις, 753π.Χ.-1953μ.Χ, Αλεξάνδρεια, 1953
9. Ματούλα Τομαρά-Σιδέρη, Ευεργετισμός και προσωπικότητα. Ευεργέτες Έλληνες του Καΐρου, Εκδόσεις Παπαζήση, Αθήνα 2002
10. Ματούλα Τομαρά-Σιδέρη, Οι Έλληνες του Καΐρου, Εκδόσεις Κέρκυρα, Αθήνα 2007
11.Ματούλα Τομαρά-Σιδέρη, Ο Αιγυπτιώτης Ελληνισμός, οπ.π., σελ.128