The cotton roads of the Egyptian Greeks – Business File

Vanessa Alexakis

With no family or other obvious ties to the subject, Matoula Tomara-Sideri chose to study and research the Greeks of Egypt – a vibrant, prosperous and philanthropic community, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands until Nasser’s Egyptian Revolution – out of a special spiritual kinship, she tells Business File.

Her fascination and admiration for the Egyptiot Greeks has led her to research them extensively through hard to come by primary and secondary sources. This has led to a series of articles published in international and Greek historical journals, as well as authoritative books, which also include the study of Diaspora women and other topics. The Academy of Athens awarded her for her book Alexandrian Families – Choremis, Benakis and Salvagos, which showcases some of the better known families from the Greek community of Alexandria.

Tomara-Sideri is also busy at protecting the works of others as president of the Hellenic Diaspora Research Group, while also leading the research facility at the Historical Archive of the Greek Community of Cairo, and that of the Egyptiot Hellenism’s Research Club. She is also part of the editorial board of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora.

Tomara-Sideri can also be found teaching historical demography and related subjects, such as “Community Hellenism and Benefaction” regularly at Panteion University in Athens, where she earned her bachelor’s degree before pursuing a postgrad in historical demography – in addition to history and sociology – at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Portraits of the past: Professor Matoula Tomara-Sideri has done extensive research on the once flourishing Greek community of Egypt

Can you tell us about your involvement with the study of Diaspora Greeks in Egypt; what triggered it?

The Hellenic Diaspora represents a prominent chapter of modern Greek History that was always of interest to me. My references to the Egyptiot Diaspora cover a period of almost two centuries – the 19th to the 20th centuries. It is a time when the eastern Mediterranean receives the western world’s expansion and influences, and takes part in the process of the contemporary world’s reshaping through national and liberation movements.

This journey from the Greek mainland to the Middle East’s communities and the large centres of Europe, and their return to Greece always keeps my interest alive. There are times that spiritual bonds are stronger than family ones. This is what happened to me, since I am studying for over a decade now Egyptiot Hellenism, respecting the memory of historical past and properly pointing out its importance, without a family connection or descent.

You’ve written extensively on the subject. How difficult has it been to gather information from primary sources for your work on the Greeks of Egypt?

A great part of my writing on Egyptiot Hellenism is about economic, social and political history. It is also about human history, that is, collective entities and eminent people of the time. As it always happens with the methodical work of historians when systemically inquiring forgotten testimonies, I was also led to dusty archives in Greece as well as in Egypt. I had to travel time and again to Alexandria and Cairo where the tracing of the Egyptiot Hellenism’s demographic development first became possible through the registries of the Alexandria Patriarchate and the Commissioner’s House in Cairo. Then I had to collect data from Greek Consulates, the Greek communities, the Alexandria and Cairo Chambers of Commerce. I also had to use personal and family archives as well as oral testimonies by descendants of the families I refer to.

Can you tell us about the flourishing community and how it changed over time, as well as of the prominent role Greeks played in Egypt’s famous cotton industry?

The Greeks’ settlement in modern Egypt took place at the beginning of the 19th century, during the Muhammad Ali period. The Greek community’s formation and course, its economic function mostly based on commerce, banking and exchange activities, river navigation, industry, as well as its privileged dealing with cotton reflect the era of its great flourishing in Egypt.

The Greeks were pioneers in cotton production, whether by introducing new methods of processing -Theodoros Rallis’ steam machines for instance, or by expanding production, such as Ioannis Zerbinis, who was the first to produce cotton oil and then soap, fertilizer and forage, or by creating new varieties of cotton, like N. Paracheimonas “Pelion”, Voltos Brothers’ “Voltos”, I. Sakellaridis’ “Sakel”, and others.

Greeks were also distinguished in commerce. It is worth noting that when, at the beginning of the 20th century, cotton represented 80 per cent of the total Egypt export, a quarter of this export was accomplished by five Greeks – Choremis, Benakis, Kazoulis, Salvagos, and Rodokanakis, along with their staff.

The total of Egyptiot Hellenism’s economic function and the powerful weapon of its continuous, tenacious, productive endeavour to invent new means, cotton varieties and innovations undoubtedly secured the high economic prosperity of the community as well as of the whole country. Thus epopeia [epopee] and eupeia [beautiful speech] are precisely the two emblematic signifiers summarising the historical trace of the Greek presence in the country of Nile in the context of Egyptiot Hellenism’s formation, growth and flourishing.

Professor Matoula Tomara-Sideri’s trilogy on the subject of Hellenism in Egypt is published by Kerkyra Publications- Economia Publishing house. Her first book, currently in its 4th edition is titled Alexandrian Families: Choremis, Benakis and Salvagos – and was winner of the Academy of Athens’ Kordela prize. Her second book, in its 2nd edition, it titled Greeks Of Cairo. Her latest book which was recently published is Egyptiot Hellenism: on the cotton roads.

Egypt was ablaze with Greeks before they were forced to leave during Nasser. What is the most interesting part of the history of Greeks in Egypt for you?

There were two features of Egyptiot Greeks up to Nasser’s nationalistic revolution which forced them to leave Egypt, many of them returning to the national centre and becoming a part of the Greek state’s development and modernisation processes; Others either returned to Cyprus or continued their Diaspora journey to central and south Africa, Australia, Canada.

These features were the stability of their demographic development, as well as their tight community bonds that further promoted the spirit of solidarity and overall intellectual development of the community, an area where the intelligentsia, the Cairians G. Skliros and Stratis Tsirkas, as well as the uniquely idiosyncratic, charming Alexandrian Costantine. P. Cavafis, an intellectual figure of universal radiance, hold a special place.

You’ve also focused a lot on benefactors. Can you tell us about the Greek families you’ve researched in Egypt? Who were the biggest benefactors?

Besides Greek economic activity, the Greeks’ social contribution and the function of Egyptiot Euergetism [Benefaction] were indeed demonstrated. The latter significantly promoted the formation of national consciousness and identity, as well as the reconstruction of national state.

Among these Greeks, the names of Georgios Averof, Michael and Theodoros Tositsas, Nikolaos Stournaris, Pantazis Vassanis, Dimitrios and Alexandros Kassavetis, Theodoros Rallis were eminent. Indeed, some of them are among the distinguished personalities – Efstathios Glymenopoulos, Theodoros P. Kotsikas, I. D. Anastasi, Antonios Antoniadis, Nestoras Tsanaklis and others who contributed by expanding their benefaction activity to the host country and its people, to the strengthening and development of relations of wide recognition and reciprocation by the Egyptians. In fact, their names survived despite history’s turbulence and the complete turnover of the historical context through the Nasserian revolution, implying that the Egyptian society recognises the contribution of Greek benefactors to the realisation of its own historical scopes: For example, as Cozzika Station on the El Marg – Helwan railroad line, as Gianaclis Region at the 68th km of the Alexandria – Cairo Road, as Glymanopoulos Gallery in the Roman Museum of Alexandria, or as Antoniadis Garden included in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina complex, and so on, show.

The part Greek women played in Egypt covers a great part of the social contribution and the humanistic function. These exemplarily women developed remarkable activity at all levels of community life. They formed benevolent societies and charitable organisations serving the needs of the orphanages and the nursing homes in Alexandria and Cairo, thereby securing care and nursing of the community’s orphans, poor and aged persons.

Can you tell us about the role of Greek women in Egypt?

They also founded Egypt’s National Organisation of Greek Women that developed a rare social activity, among others, through international unions, such as the National Vigilance Association, the Traveller’s Aid Society, and others.

During the Balkan Wars and later, during the first and second World Wars, along with the Scientific Society “Ptolemy I”, they helped cover the needs of Greece as volunteers.

Athina Roussaki-Germanou, a teacher, talked at Port Said in 1912 about women’s compulsory education, while her colleague Kaiti Malandri proclaimed “make way for women” in April 1931 at Alexandria’s first Teacher’s Convention.

Overall, I would describe the role of women’s contribution to the community as a social intervention of enormous significance, as well as a kind of human ‘complementarity’ necessarily leading to individual functions.

What is your next research project or book going to be about?

I will keep researching the Hellenic Diaspora, studying more closely the history of Egyptiot Hellenism and extending my research to include other countries. I will once again focus on Euergetism – that is Benefaction – in the past and today.

I also teach the course “Community Hellenism and Euergetism” to the students of Panteion University, Athens, and some of their writings on the subject are published in the site of the Society for the Study of Hellenic Diaspora (E.Μ.Ε.ΔΙΑ) under my direction.