Greeks in Egypt

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Greeks in Egypt
Ptolemy I SoterCleopatra VIIDemis Roussos in Kiev.pngAntigonecostanda1954.jpg
Total population
1.000 (Number higher when counting those who have taken Egyptian citizenship)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Greek · Egyptian Arabic
Greek Orthodox Church
minorities of Sunni Islam · Judaism

The Greeks of Egypt or Egyptiotes (Greek: Αιγυπτιώτες) have had a thriving presence in the country from the Hellenistic period until the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, when most left. Indeed the special and unique relationship of these two ancient civilizations dates back thousands of years and continues to some capacity to this day. The cultural and academic contributions of Greek Civilizations in Egypt is well documented and agreed upon by historians, academics and scholars.


Greco-Egyptian Aryballos from the 6th century BC, Walters Art Museum.

Greeks have been living in Egypt since ancient times, Herodotus visited Egypt in the 4th century BC and claimed that the Greeks were one of the first groups of foreigners that ever lived in Egypt.[2] Diodorus Siculus attested that Rhodian Actis, one of the Heliadae, built the city of Heliopolis before the cataclysm; likewise the Athenians built Sais. While all Greek cities were destroyed during the cataclysm, the Egyptian cities including Heliopolis and Sais survived.[3]

First historical colonies[edit]

According to Herodotus (ii. 154), king Psammetichus I (664–610 BC) established a garrison of foreign mercenaries at Daphnae, mostly Carians and Ionian Greeks.

In 7th century BC, the city of Naucratis was founded in Ancient Egypt. It was located on the Canopic branch of the Nile river, 45 mi (72 km) from the open sea. It was the first and, for much of its early history, the only permanent Greek colony in Egypt; acting as a symbiotic nexus for the interchange of Greek and Egyptian art and culture.

At about the same time, the city of Heracleion, the closest to the sea, became an important port for Greek trade. It had a famous temple of Heracles. The city later sank into the sea, only to be rediscovered recently.

From the time of Psammetichus I onwards, Greek mercenary armies played an important role in some of the Egyptian wars. One of such armies was led by Mentor of Rhodes. Another such personage was Phanes of Halicarnassus.

Hellenistic times[edit]

Rule of Alexander the Great (332–323 BC)[edit]

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt at an early stage of his great journey of conquests. He respected the pharaonic religions and customs and he was declared by the priest, Pharaoh of Egypt. He established the city of Alexandria. After his death, in 323 BC, his enormous empire was divided among his generals. Egypt was given to Ptolemy I Soter, whose descendants would give Egypt her final royal dynasty - a glittering one, albeit largely Greek in flavor. Its capital was the city of Alexandria. Ptolemy added legitimacy to his rule in Egypt by acquiring Alexander's body. He intercepted the embalmed corpse on its way to burial, brought it to Egypt and placed it in a golden coffin in Alexandria. It would remain one of the famous sights of the town for many years, until probably destroyed in riots in the 3rd century AD.[4]

The Ptolemaic dynasty (323–330 BC)[edit]

Reverse of a tetradrachm featuring the Lighthouse of Alexandria from 189 BC

The initial objective of Ptolemy's reign was to establish firm and broad boundaries to his newly acquired kingdom. That led to almost continuous warfare against other leading members of Alexander's circle. At times he held Cyprus and even parts of mainland Greece. When these conflicts were over, he was firmly in control of Egypt and had strong claims (disputed by the Seleucid dynasty) to Palestine. He called himself king of Egypt from 306 BC. By the time he abdicated in 285 BC, in favour of one of his sons, the Ptolemaic dynasty was secure. Ptolemy and his descendants showed respect to Egypt's most cherished traditions - those of religion - and turned them to their own advantage. Alexandria became the centre of the Greek and Hellenistic world and the centre of international commerce, art and sciences. The Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World while during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Library of Alexandria was the biggest library in the world until it was destroyed. The last Pharaoh was a Greek princess, Cleopatra VII, who took her own life in 30 BC, a year after the battle of Actium. With her defeat, the Roman Empire achieved a new completeness - encompassing the entire Mediterranean. Egypt remained under Roman control for the next six centuries.[4]

Ottoman Caliphate[edit]

Raghib Pasha (ca. 1819–1884) was a Greek convert to Islam who served as Prime Minister of Egypt.

Greek culture and political influence continued and perhaps reached its most influential times during the Ottoman Caliphate, which witnessed many Ottoman Sultans and Pashas from Greek ancestry rule over the Ottoman Empire in general, and Egypt in particular. Some of the more notable Greeks during Ottoman times were Mimar Sinan, the world-renowned and historically respected architect, although it must be noted that he may have been of Armenian descent. Other notable Greeks in Egypt during the Ottoman period included Damat Hasan Pasha who was the Grand Vizier to the Sultan, from Morea, Greece. Another interesting and influential Greek during this period is Misac Palaeologos Pasha, a member of the Byzantine Palaiologos dynasty and the Ottoman commander in the first Siege of Rhodes (1480). He was an Ottoman statesman and Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire from 1499-1501. One of the most noteworthy Greeks of Egypt is Raghib Pasha who served as Prime Minister of Egypt. Raghib Pasha was born in Greece to Greek parents. Although there is a long list of Greeks who were quite influential during the Ottoman Caliphate, Ibrahim Pasha perhaps is the most well known, who served as the Grand Vizier to Sultan Suleyman from 1520-1566. Many Greek Muslims fled their native Greece for Libya, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hameed II shortly before the collapse of the Caliphate out of fear of violence from the Patriarch.

Modern times[edit]

Greek communities[edit]

In 1907 the official census showed 62,973 Greeks living in Egypt. By 1940 Greeks were numbered at about 250,000. The Greek community in Alexandria lived around the Church and monastery of Agios Savvas. In the same area there was a guest house for Greek travellers, a Greek hospital and later a Greek school. The Orthodox bishop was based in Damietta in the church of Agios Nikolaos.

In Cairo, the Greek community was founded in 1856, with the community based in three main neighbourhoods: Tzouonia, Haret el Roum (Street of the Greeks), and in Hamzaoui. The patriarchate was based in Haret el Roum, near the church of Saint Marcus. The monastery of Saint George, in Old Cairo still survives. The monastery is surrounded by a huge wall and topped by a stone tower. Within its walls there is a Greek hospital, a school and housing for the elderly and poor.

In addition to the Greek communities of Alexandria and Cairo there were the Greek communities of El Mansurah, founded in 1860, the Port Said founded in 1870, Tanta in 1880, and the community of Zagazig in 1870. There were fifteen smaller communities across Egypt and mainly around Cairo and Alexandria. In Upper Egypt the oldest ancient Greek community is the one of Minia which was founded in 1862.

The contribution of the Greek population in the financial life of Egypt was very important. It was the Greek agriculturists and farmers that first systematically and with scientific planning, have cultivated cotton and tobacco. They improved the quantity and quality of the production and have dominated the cotton and tobacco commerce doing large exports. Notable families that dominated the commerce of tobacco were the Salvagos, Benakis, Rodochanakis and Zervoudachis.[5] The tobacco breeds used for the cigarettes manufacturing was purely of Greek origin such as Kyriazi freres. A thriving commerce between Greece and Egypt was thus established. Other areas of interest for the Greeks in Egypt were, foods, wine, soap, wood crafts, printing industries. In the food industry, the macaroni industries of Melachrinou, Antoniadis were well known. Another example was the cheese and butter production of Archyriou, Roussoglou and Paleoroutas. Chocolate-Biscuits and Toffee producers were: Daloghlou, Roussos, Repapis; Oil-soaps- vegetable fats (Salt & Soda) producers like Zerbinis were based in Kafr Al-Zayat. The first banks in Egypt were created by Greeks like the Bank of Alexandria, the Anglo-Egyptian bank (Sunadinos family) and the General Bank of Alexandria. There were many Greek theatres and cinemas. Major Greek newspapers were Ta grammata (Γράμματα)"Tahidromos"(Ταχυδρομος)and Nea Zoi (Νέα Ζωή).[6] The Greek community in Egypt has produced numerous artists, writers, diplomats and politicians. The most famous of them was the poet Konstantinos Kavafis, also the painter Konstantinos Parthenis. During the Balkan wars, the Greek communities of Egypt sent volunteers, funded hospitals, and accommodated families of the soldiers. During World War II (1940–1945), more than 7,000 Greeks fought for the Allies in the Middle East. 142 men died. Their financial contribution reached 2,500 million Egyptian pounds.[7] After the Suez Crisis the British and French laborers left while the Greeks stayed.[8]

Patriarchate of Alexandria[edit]

Greek-Egyptian benefactors[edit]

Dionysios Kasdaglis, ethnic Greek Egyptian tennis player at the Athens Olympics in 1896

The emergence of a Greek aristocracy that consisted of rich industrialists, commercants and bankers has led to the great legacy of Greek-Egyptian philanthropism. These benefactors have donated large amounts for the building of schools, academies, hospitals and institutions in both Egypt and their mother land Greece. Mihail Tositsas has donated large amounts for the building of the Athens University, the Amalio Orphanage and the Athens Polytechnic. His wife Eleni Tositsa has donated the land for the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. George Averoff has also helped for the building of the National Technical University of Athens, the Evelpidon Military Academy and the donation of the Greek battleship Georgios Averoff to the Hellenic Navy. Emmanouél Benakis has helped for the building of the National Gallery of Athens while his son Antonis Benakis was the founder of the Benaki Museum. Other major benefactors include Nikolaos Stournaras, Theodoros Kotsikas, Nestoras Tsanaklis, Konstantinos Horemis, Stefanos Delta, Penelope Delta, Pantazis Vassanis and Vassilis Sivitanidis.[5]


The exodus of Greeks from Egypt started during and after the revolution of 1952. With the establishment of the new sovereign regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, rise of Pan-Arab nationalism and the subsequent nationalisation of many industries from 1957 and afterwards, thousands Greeks were forced to abandon the country. Many of them immigrated to Australia, the United States, Canada,South Africa, Western Europe, and Greece. Many Greek schools, churches, small communities and institutions subsequently closed. The Nasser regime was a major disaster for the Greek diaspora which afterwards has dwindled from many thousands to a handful. The dangerous situation in the Middle East has also deteriorated the conditions for the Greeks that stayed back in Egypt. It is estimated that between 1957 - 1962 most of the Egyptiot Greeks have left the country.


Today the Greek community numbers officially about 1,000 people[1] although the real number is much higher since many Greeks have changed their nationality to Egyptian; In Alexandria, apart from the Patriarchate, there is a Patriarchal theology school that opened recently after 480 years being closed. Saint Nicholas church in Cairo and several other buildings in Alexandria have been recently renovated by the Greek Government and the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation. Saint George's church in Old Cairo is undergoing restoration to end in 2014. During the last decade, there has been a new interest from the Egyptian government for a diplomatic rapprochement with Greece and this has positively affected the Greek Diaspora. The Diaspora has received official visits of many Greek politicians. Economic relationships have been blossoming between Greece and Egypt. Egypt has been recently[when?] the centre of major Greek investments in banking, tourism, paper, the oil industry, & many others. In 2009, a five year cooperation-memorandum was signed among the NCSR Demokritos Institute in Agia Paraskevi, Athens and the University of Alexandria, regarding Archeometry research and contextual sectors.[9]

Notable Greeks from Egypt[edit]


See also[edit]


External links[edit]