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Brass Rubbings

Torn From Love

On Egypt’s Catholic cemeteries.


Cairo has always seemed to me a city of ghosts. This is odd, considering that it now has twenty million people in it, the largest city in Africa, the largest Middle Eastern city, and one of the largest in the world. But entering her, as I have done many times over the past thirty-five years, you see them as you are driven along the elevated Sixth of October Bridge into the heart of the city. These specters are the dusty, polluted architectural remnants of Belle Epoque Cairo, the city built by mostly French, Italian, and Levantine architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for an ambitious cosmopolitan ruling dynasty of Albanian origin.

Underneath the grime generated from the exhaust of Cairo’s four million vehicles, you glimpse the elegant arch or balcony of an apartment building or commercial establishment, and also the spires and crosses of Catholic churches and schools. Most Egyptians are Muslims, with a large Coptic Orthodox Christian minority, but an essential part of this faded old Cairo is the story of a minority within a minority, the lively communities that were neither Copts nor Muslims: Levantine Christians (Syro-Lebanese or Shawam) coming from what is now modern Lebanon and Syria, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Maltese, French, and Italians. Under the cosmopolitan rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha and his descendants (1805-1953) a benign Egypt welcomed tens of thousands of these workers—rich and poor—and for decades they flourished.

Every nationality seemed to have a specialty. Two of nineteenth-century Egypt’s most influential bureaucrats were Armenians from Izmir, Boghos Bey and Nubar Pasha. Albanian bodyguards were popular for an Egyptian royal family that came from the Balkans. Circassians would be concubines or wives. In those days palace dancing girls were mostly Greeks and Armenians; cooks were often Nubians or Sudanese. Italians and Armenians would be found working in the garages. Arabic-speaking Levantines were pioneers in the newspaper industry, establishing Egypt’s iconic Al-Ahram daily in 1875. The great restorer of Cairo’s Islamic monuments was the Hungarian Catholic Max Herz whose life work would be continued by the English architectural historian K.A.C. Creswell. Greek tycoons founded the Egyptian cigarette industry (the American Camel brand began as a counterfeit of Egyptian-made Turkish cigarettes). The same Greco-Egyptian magnates, the Gianaclis family, also restarted Egyptian wine production in the late nineteenth century. Nationalized by the state in 1963, wine quality of Cru des Ptolémées and other labels steadily deteriorated under Arab socialism but improved once the company was privatized.

But it wasn’t just labor and commerce. These expatriate communities established charities, built schools, orphanages, churches, cultural, political and literary societies. In the early twentieth century, there were local Egyptian newspapers in Armenian, French, English, Greek, and Italian. The first anarchist publication in Egypt was in Italian, in 1877.

Habib Ayrout (1876-1956) was a French-educated Levantine Catholic who worked on the creation of Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb constructed by the Belgian financier Baron Eduard Empain. Two of his sons would also become architects contributing materially to Cairo’s physical landscape. A third son, the Jesuit priest Henry Habib Ayrout, wrote a much celebrated (though later excoriated by leftist academics) study of The Egyptian Peasant, published in 1938. Ayrout would establish the Association of Catholic Schools in Egypt in 1940 which expanded Catholic education to impoverished and rural populations. He was also rector until his death in 1969 of the elite Collège de la Sainte Famille boy’s school in Cairo, first founded in 1879 as a seminary. 

The Egypt ruled by the House of Muhammad Ali during that century and a half was much larger than that of today. At times it stretched to Central Africa and down the Red Sea Coast to Ethiopia. Egyptian armies fought in Greece and Arabia, at one point coming close to overthrowing their supposed Ottoman overlords. When Farouk was crowned in 1937, it was as “king of Egypt and the Sudan, Sovereign of Nubia, Kordofan, and Darfur.” He even toyed with the idea of making himself Caliph. Egypt’s rulers saw their domains as Mediterranean rather than Turkish or Arab, and found France and Italy more attractive than any Arab neighbors. The Kiswah, or silk covering, of the Ka’aba in Mecca was manufactured in Cairo until 1927, but two Egyptian rulers also donated precious alabaster columns and windows for the rebuilding of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome after it was destroyed by fire in 1823.

By 1927, a fifth of Cairo’s population were minorities. The city shared this mosaic quality with cosmopolitan societies throughout the southern and eastern Mediterranean. These communities are mostly gone now, victims, like the royal dynasty that protected them, of revolution and nationalism. What remains are buildings, churches, and cemeteries from a bygone era. It is a great and easily forgotten irony that Egypt’s corrupt royal autocrats were largely far more tolerant, especially of these foreign-born minorities, than the earnest young reformers who replaced them.

It was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic revolutionary initially welcomed by both Americans and Soviets, who destroyed the cosmopolitan Mediterranean society with his popular “Egyptianization” and nationalization policies in the 1950s and early 1960s. Italians declined from almost sixty thousand in 1940 to a few thousand fifteen years later and a few hundred today. The large and ancient Greek community was among the last to leave. Two-hundred thousand Greeks in 1940 had been reduced to seventeen thousand in 1967, and their numbers continued to decline. Most of the old Arabic-speaking Levantine Catholics—Maronites, Melkites, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Latin—left as well, for Canada, France, America, or a Lebanon that had not existed when they first emigrated to Egypt. Those who remained, after their families’ businesses had been nationalized, faced discrimination under the secular Nasser and the supposedly “pro-American” Sadat.

While Nasser was the ultimate destroyer of this world, change was already on its way earlier. Egypt’s royal rulers had granted minority populations legal protections, but the much-hated “capitulations” expired in 1937; the adjudication of foreign disputes by mixed courts of Egyptian and foreign officials ended in 1949. During the last decades of the monarchy, the pressure to “Egyptianize” the economy and the civil service was intense. Gone were the days when Ismail Pasha, “the Magnificent,” would hire veterans of the American Civil War while Egypt’s Antiquities Service was a sinecure for learned Frenchmen such as Mariette and Maspero. There is a telling incident in the 1870s when the Italian adventurer Romolo Gessi planted the flag of Khedive Ismail in Central Africa and told his superior, the famed Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who then informed the chief of staff of the Egyptian Army in Cairo, the American Charles Pomeroy Stone, the general unfairly blamed for losing the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in 1861.

Nasser’s hard line in the 1950s against foreign influence and privileged minorities was popular in a country with vast disparities of wealth. The stage was set for him by the extravagant lifestyle of Egypt’s penultimate monarch, Farouk (whose infant son would be king only briefly). Farouk’s closest advisers were Levantine Christians and Italians. One of the most notorious, Antonio Pulli, was a former palace electrician who had befriended the lonely prince, and became his confidante, social secretary, and, it was said, his procurer. Born in 1908 in a Milanese slum, Pulli, like his fellow Italians migrating to America, had left his impoverished European homeland for the riches and security of Egypt. Pulli reminds us that some of these minority communities were also involved in cabarets, theaters, music, bars, gambling, and cinema.

Even more hated was the Levantine Karim Thabet, Farouk’s hunchbacked propagandist who not only slavishly lionized the king but conjured imaginary victories when Egypt was defeated by Israel in 1948. When Farouk was overthrown, Thabet would be sentenced to life imprisonment. Pulli, dubbed a “lumpen lackey” or “evil factotum” by one historian of Cairo, would be jailed and tortured, but he was eventually released and ended his days in a Heliopolis pastry shop. This is proof perhaps that sins of the flesh were once judged less harshly in Egypt than bearing false witness was, at least in the early days of the revolution.

One can get a sense of the Egypt of Farouk, of Pulli Bey and Thabet, in Cairo’s Abdeen Palace Museum (also built by Frenchmen and decorated by Italians) with its European furniture and its collections of antique weapons and silver. Belle Epoque Cairo conjures up a vision of decadence out of the pages of Lawrence Durrell, but it also reminds us of Egypt’s Christian past. Churches from that era are still open, even if there are police guards and metal detectors to protect against suicide bombers. All of the Eastern Catholic Rites have splendid churches built during that era that now dwarf much diminished communities. The Syriac Catholic Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary was built in 1904 and expanded in the 1940s, years before the great departure would begin.

One downtown Cairo Catholic church was founded by a modern saint. Cordi Jesu is one of the oldest Catholic churches in the city (Coptic Orthodox churches are, of course, the oldest and most numerous) and its foundation stone was laid by the energetic Daniel Comboni in December 1880, the first church in Africa dedicated to the Heart of Jesus. Comboni, who had been made a bishop in 1877, had asked for and been given two plots of land by Ismail the Magnificent for the education of young Sudanese Christians. Comboni never saw the church’s completion in 1884, dying of cholera in Khartoum in 1881 after decades of heroic service fighting the slave trade and bringing the Gospel to Sudan. It is fitting that this church first founded by Saint Daniel Comboni still exists and that today it serves a largely African migrant community drawn from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan.

While finding a surviving art deco building or open church can be heartening, it is in Cairo’s Catholic cemeteries that one comes closest to these lost generations. Cairo is famously filled with cities of the dead, mostly Muslim and Coptic. But the cemeteries serving these vanished communities of Maronites, Armenians, and Latins and clustered in the oldest part of Cairo are relatively small. They are on no tourist maps and not meant for gawkers. There is an air of gentle and natural decay about them, serene under a cerulean Cairo sky, guarded by humble people who clean the walkways and trim the oleanders.

“Burial ground of the Maronite Sect/Forbidden for Cars to Block Cemetery Entrance” written in a spidery Arabic hand is the only public notice. Inside broken pediments do not detract from the quiet beauty of these mausoleums and graves. Some were once lavish, Corinthian columns and a façade like a miniature cathedral, a yellow dome like a faux pyramid, angels, stone crosses, metal crucifixes, flowers plastic and real, framed photographs, rosaries, mosaics of Christ and Our Lady, with inscriptions in French or Arabic: “Famille Alexandre de Chedid.” “Ici repose le regrette feu Alfred Amin Gemayel, decede le Samedi 3 de Julliet 1944, Priez pour lui.” “Arrache a l’amour de ses enfants”.

The Latin cemetery near the old Mameluke aqueduct is somewhat larger and more bombastic than that of the solid bourgeois Eastern Rite Catholics. Incongruously, it includes not one but two relatively modern war memorials, an unmistakably Mussolini-era obelisk (“Year XII of the Fascist Era”) commemorates Italians who fought and died in Egypt in the First World War as part of the Allied effort, and a modern French war monument marking the dead from the First and Second World Wars and “Aux Francais Morts Pour la Patrie/Expedition d’Egypte, 1798-1801.”

Sweet to think of a memorial to Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt on hallowed ground. An additional plaque lists the names of the fallen Napoleonic generals and admirals, Brueys (blown up at the Battle of the Nile) and Kléber (assassinated in Egypt, he distinguished himself in the repression of Catholics in the Vendée). While no admirer of republican France before the Concordat with the Vatican in 1801, I have a soft spot for the name of the gallant Louis-Marie-Joseph Caffarelli, who lost his left leg in France in 1795 and his right arm at Acre in 1799.

Not surprisingly, the Latin burial ground is as much Italian as Francophone, but here too is that mixing of cultures that was a hallmark of Mediterranean society: Cleopatre et Roger Paschalis, Famiglia Schmatz e Cerenzi, “notre cher papa” Georges Assaf, Victoria Zaki Suleiman, the mausoleum of Tareq Abd al-Malak Iskander under a golden mosaic of Mater Dolorosa. Here too rises a tomb for many twentieth-century Franciscans of the Custodia Terrae Sanctae (Custody of the Holy Land) who died in Egypt, the very land Saint Francis of Assisi himself walked when he encountered the Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil in September 1219 during the Fifth Crusade.

Aside from the random foreign general or honorific bey, these cemeteries are the resting places of clerks and merchants, working class and business people, some of the latter quite wealthy, but in the end ordinary families who lived—some were born in Egypt—and loved and died in this land during those welcoming decades. With a few notable exceptions, fashionable scholarship tends to look down on these people, and if they are Christians or merchants or foreign-born the temptation by academics to denigrate them as imperialists or colonialists is all but overwhelming. The same chattering classes who welcome the latest uniformed demagogue riding on a tank would brand these Levantine wholesalers or Armenian factory owners or Italian craftsmen as part of the “Comprador-Bourgeoisie” category used by Marxists. The term is not a compliment.

Being no sort of academic, I see these Cairo buildings, churches, and tombs in a kindlier light as the hardy remnants of a physical culture from a tolerant Mediterranean environment with roots in Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, and, yes, Egypt; a world that encompassed Saint Francis and Saint Daniel Comboni, the heroic Gessi and Caffarelli, Ismail the Magnificent and his munificent relatives, Henry Habib Ayrout, S.J., architects, anarchists, and buffoons. There is, in the end, a lingering sweetness in these sites and memories. It is not so surprising that in Egypt today there has been something of a boomlet for the days of the monarchy, even for the libidinous King Farouk. In the end, one recalls the great twentieth-century Egyptian liberal scholar Taha Hussein who challenged what he saw as a narrow and intolerant resentful Arab nationalism—and politicized Islam—at war with itself and the other. Hussein saw the Mediterranean as a point of convergence and dialogue, a bridge rather than a barrier for Egypt. He was able to flourish, to write and to think in bold and original ways, in a bygone polychrome Egypt that was much more tolerant and diverse than what we see today.

Alberto Miguel Fernandez is vice president of the Middle East Research Institute.

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