CAIRO: The Greek Club, near Alexandria’s Qaitbay Citadel, is a marriage of two cultures. It opened in 1909 and quickly became a playground for visitors from across the Mediterranean and the city’s residents, as much for its glorious views as for the food that brought together the culinary heritage of two major civilizations. While it is no longer a sports venue, it remains an important symbol of the Greeks’ presence in Alexandria.
“The Greeks lived everywhere in Egypt, but the largest number were in Alexandria, then Cairo, Port Said, Assiut and Aswan,” the head of the Greek community in Alexandria, Edmund Nicola Acasimatis, told Arab News. “There were about 400,000 before the 1950s.”
The Greek community was founded in Alexandria in 1843 by economists who lived in Egypt, with diasporas later popping up in other cities. The Greeks had two aims. The first, unsurprisingly, was to promote their own interests. The second was more unusual. The Greeks wanted to serve Egypt through their professional and philanthropic efforts.
“When the Greeks arrived in Egypt they did not care to be like the British, Italians or any other population who wanted to work as senior diplomats,” said Acasimatis. “The Greeks worked as tailors, carpenters, taxi drivers and chefs. They excelled at their jobs and passed on these trades to the Egyptians.”
The Greeks set up churches, hospitals, health centers, orphanages and schools. Such buildings bear the hallmarks of classical Greek architecture and contribute to Egypt’s already-rich history.
But the Egyptian revolution of 1952, together with the rise of nationalism and nationalization under Gamel Abdel Nasser, had a dramatic impact on the country’s Greek population and its commercial activities. Greeks were either asked, encouraged or even forced to leave the land they had come to consider home. Their exit also had consequences for industries and trades that were not yet fully fledged in Egypt.
“There are only around 5,000 Greeks in Alexandria now,” said Acasimatis, “but generally speaking, the community remains one of the most integrated and influential in Egyptian society. The Greeks have been the most similar to the Egyptians throughout history and the Greek Club reflects the Greeks’ kiss on Alexandria.”
Acasimatis said there were differences between the club’s past and present and that these were an indication of Alexandria’s current situation. The city used to be clean. Its population was smaller and life was simpler. Transport was better and someone could go to the club and eat and drink to his heart’s content. “Now a young man would only be able to sample what he could afford,” he added.
Writer and journalist Nancy Habib frequents the club to learn more about the Greeks in Egypt.
“My mother used to tell me about her Greek friends, how she learned some of their national recipes, in addition to some traditions about etiquette and clothes,” she told Arab News. “The club is a place to encounter different cultures, which is very important. Cairo is one of the most important cities for making more friends and getting closer to cultures that lived alongside the Egyptians in the past.”
History researcher Abdul Majeed Abdul Aziz said the club was an important meeting place for the Greeks who lived in Egypt. By the 1930s and 1940s the venue also attracted many Egyptians amid rising liberalism, creating a blend of traditions from both sides.
“Many of the habits of the people in Alexandria are now similar to what was once done by the Greeks,” he told Arab News.
Egyptian media reported last year that President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts inaugurated a Hellenism revival week in Alexandria, with the aim of recalling the memories and heritage of the cultures.
Egypt’s Minister of Immigration Nabila Makram was quoted as saying that the program paid tribute to everyone who once lived in Egypt and left a positive impact. “Everyone was always welcomed to come and live in Egypt and they still are,” Makram said in a statement to media outlets.