Syro-Lebanese in Egypt

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Syro-Lebanese in Egypt
Omar Sharif, prominent Egyptian actor of Syro-Lebanese ancestry.
Regions with significant populations
Mostly Cairo and Alexandria. Formerly also Mansoura, Port Said, Tanta, Suez
Arabic, French, English
Related ethnic groups
Greeks in Egypt, Armenians in Egypt, Italians in Egypt, Maltese in Egypt

The Syro-Lebanese of Egypt (Arabic: شوام مصر‎, transliterated: Shawam Masr) (French: Syro-Libanais d'Egypte), also known as the Levantines of Egypt, or Levantine-Egyptians, are an ethnic minority group in Egypt. They are non-native Egyptians who have ancestry originating from the Levant, mostly what is now Syria and Lebanon. The majority of the historic Levantine community of Egypt is Christian (Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Maronite Catholic), although some families were also Muslim (Shia/Sunni) and Jewish.

Since antiquity, there has always been a Levantine presence in Egypt, however, they started becoming a distinctive minority in Egypt around the early 18th century. By the dawn of the 20th century, the Levantines of Egypt were considered a powerful and cosmopolitan community that played an important role in both Egypt's economy and culture. They played a pioneering role in modernizing Egyptian society by, for example, establishing the newspaper and printing industry, as well as a modern banking system, bringing western and European influence to Egypt.[1]

Due to the rise in nationalism along with the loss of economic freedoms during the 1950s, most of Egypt's Syro-Lebanese community left the country immigrating to the Americas, Europe, and Australia, as well as many returning to their native Lebanon and Syria.


The relations between Egypt and the Levant go back to ancient times. However, the earliest instance of modern Levantine migration to Egypt happened after the year 1724, when a schism in the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch resulted in a separate branch of Levantine Christians attached to Rome known as the Melkite Greek Catholics. Once the Syrian and Lebanese Greek Orthodox community was split, a migratory flow resulted in which Melkite Greek Catholics began leaving cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Zahle, and Sidon to move to Egypt. Regarding an early Maronite presence in Egypt dating from the 18th century, it is said that the Holy See of Rome appointed two Maronite priests to serve as advisers to the Franciscans who came from the Custody of the Holy Land to evangelize Egypt because "no one knows the land and mentality of the Copts like the Maronites".[2]

Later during the mid-1800s, due to the political conflict that existed in Lebanon and Syria between the Christian and Druze religious sects, many Syrian and Lebanese Christians, as well as Palestinian and Jordanian Christians to some extent, migrated to Egypt under the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha. These Syro-Lebanese or Levantine Christians, known in Egyptian Arabic as the "Shawam", were either of Greek Orthodox (Antiochian) or Catholic (Melkite or Maronite) extraction. The reason immigrants from Lebanon and Syria were considered one ethnic group was because during the mid-1800s, Lebanon was not yet an independent state and was still part of Ottoman Syria, or "Bilad al-Sham" in Arabic, hence the their label as "Shawam" or "Shami". Muhammad Ali Pasha endorsed various ethnic and religious groups, including Syro-Lebanese, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Italians, and Maltese to settle in Egypt.[3][4] From the building of the Suez Canal to the creation of modern Downtown Cairo, Egypt’s rulers went on a spending spree that attracted migrants from across the world. The Syro-Lebanese, who were French-speaking and well-educated (largely due to European and American missionaries), had a mindset in the British-run economy of Egypt at the time. As a result, they were especially able to flourish as an energetic and cosmopolitan community until the Nasser era of the mid-1900s. Most of the Syro-Lebanese were self-employed businessmen or craftsmen and had more of a "westernized" education than the Egyptian average. Robert Solé, a French author of Levantine-Egyptian descent, describes all of these aspects of the Syro-Lebanese community in Egypt in his book, "Birds of Passage", as well as in his other publications.[5][6]

The Syro-Lebanese established Melkite Greek-Catholic and Maronite Catholic churches throughout many areas of Egypt such as Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, Suez, Port Said, and Tanta. The Greek Orthodox Syro-Lebanese experienced conflict trying to establish their own churches under their native Antiochian denomination, and became under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria, which was mainly run by an ethnic Greek clergy.

Iconostasis of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Sabbas, Alexandria, Egypt

In Egypt, many families of Syro-Lebanese origin became successful in Egypt's business sector along with the established Armenian and Greek communities. Many were involved in Egypt's booming cotton industry. The famous Egyptian newspaper, "Al-Ahram", was created by the Syro-Lebanese Takla family in Egypt.[7]

The logo of the famous Egyptian newspaper, "Al-Ahram", which was founded by the Lebanese Takla brothers.

Syro-Lebanese families dominated the publishing industry, owning major printing houses like Dar al-Hilal (est. 1892), which gave them enormous influence on the country’s cultural life. Even Rose al-Youssef, the quintessential Egyptian cultural figure from the first half of the twentieth century, was originally Levantine. The (then) irreverent political and literary magazine she founded and named after herself continues to this day, albeit in state hands like Al-Ahram. Even the material culture of Cairo has been suffused by Syro-Lebanese influence. The most prolific architect in Central Cairo between the 1930s and 1960s was Antoine Selim Nahhas, who is seen as the first modernist architect in Egypt. Nahhas, who built among other important buildings the Beirut National Museum, established a wildly successful practice in Cairo, where he designed buildings for the rich and famous, often Levantine-Egyptians like himself, such as the actor Farid al-Atrash. Even though the number of Levantine-Egyptians still in Egypt is drastically low today, the Syro-Lebanese community retains its strength in some aspects of the cultural and entertainment industries. Cairo’s most famous restaurant entrepreneur, Nisha Sursock, comes from a prominent Beirut Greek Orthodox family.[8]

The Levantine community in Egypt counted more than 100,000 members at the turn of the 20th century : civil servants, hairdressers, cobblers, drivers, engineers, dentists, doctors, shopkeepers, painters. Their aggregate wealth was reckoned at one and a half billion francs, that is 10% of the Egyptian GDP. Those who had capital invested it in small businesses (oil, soaps, tobacco, patisserie...). Others created more important companies trading or producing salt, sodium, textiles, perfume, wood, silk. This economic success lead to the foundation of schools, clubs, charities, generally linked to a place of worship which was most of the time a church. A minority returned to their home village but the majority remained “semi-detached”, settling for several generations in Egypt without for all that involving themselves fully in the host society.[9]

Levantine families that lived in Egypt include: Absi, Abyad, Ackad, Ackaoui, Adba, Allouche, Anhoury, Antaki, Aouade, Arcache, Arida, Asmar, Assaf, Assouad, Ayrout, Ayoub, Azouz, Azzam, Abou Daoud, Bachkangi, Barakat, Baramki, Behna, Bichara, Bittar, Boulad, Bouri, Boutari, Bustany, Bahri, Cassis, Chahine, Chalhoub, Chamaa, Chamandy, Chedid, Chiniara, Cordahi, Cossery, Costandi, Dabbous, Dagher, Daher, Debbané, Deeb, Doche, Doumani, Doummar, Dahan, Eid, El Sebae, Fakahany, Fakhoury, Farkouh, Fattal, Gargoura, Gehchan, Ghadban, Ghaleb, Ghalioungui, Ghoche, Ghosn, Godressi, Gorra, Greiche, Habib, Haddad, Haggar, Halbouni, Hariri, Hassan, Hawawini, Hazzi, Hobeika, Jalkh, Jaouich, Kanaan, Kanawati, Kassab, Kahil, Kahla, Katba, Keldany, Kheir, Khoury, Kfouri, Klat, Karam, Karame, Lahham, Louli, Loutfi, Maalouf, Mabardi, Malhamé, Mallouk, Manadily, Masabni, Médawar, Michaca, Mirshak, Mirza, Mitri, Mutran, Naaman, Nabki, Naccache, Nachaty, Naggiar, Naoum, Nahas, Naim, Nasser, Nimr, Noory, Noujaim, Pharaon, Rabbath, Rathle, Sarkis, Sednaoui, Saad, Saada, Sabat, Sabet, Sabbagh, Saleh, Samman, Sarkis, Sarrouf, Sassine, Sayegh, Sakakini, Sabounghi, Shemayel, Solé, Sursock, Taraboulsi, Toutonghi, Takla, Tawil, Tagher, Tawa, Yansouni, Yazbeck, Zahar, Zalka, Zaloum, Zayat, Zananiri, Zaidan, Ziade, Zoghby and Zogheb.[10][11]

Youssef Chahine (1926 - 2008), prominent Egyptian filmmaker and director of Lebanese descent.
Albert Cossery (1913 - 2008), a Cairo-born French writer who came from a Greek Orthodox Syrian and Lebanese family.


The number of Syro-Lebanese in Egypt has decreased drastically due to the nationalization policies of the Nasser government after the 1952 revolution.[citation needed] As a result, there has been extensive migrations to other countries such as Canada, the United States, France, and Australia. The remaining Syro-Lebanese in Egypt began integrating into the rest of Egyptian society, including extensive intermarriage with Copts and Muslims. Today, most Egyptians of Levantine roots tend to identify more as Egyptian rather than Syrian or Lebanese, even though they traditionally belong to Christian denominations other than Egypt's native Coptic Orthodox, Coptic Catholic, or native Protestant churches.

A large number of Egyptians and their descendants who are of Syro-Lebanese ancestry now reside in Montreal; The communities of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Saint-Sauveur Melkite Greek-Catholic Cathedral, and St. Maron Church (Maronite Catholic), all in Montreal, have many parishioners that are Egyptian-Canadians of Syro-Lebanese descent. Records from 1987 show that up to 250 families out of the total 1,300 registered families of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church of Montreal were originally from Egypt. In that same year, the Melkite Saint Sauveur Cathedral of Montreal reported to have approximately two-thirds of its 3,000 registered families originating from Egypt. Records from the St. Maron Church in Montreal show that out of its total 1,284 registered families in 1987, 600 of them were Maronites from Egypt.[12]


Notable Syro-Lebanese who were born/lived in Egypt or people of Levantine-Egyptian descent include: George Abyad, Anthea Anka, Paul Antaki, George Antonius, Farah Antun, Michael Atiyah, Habib Ayrout, Henry Habib Ayrout, Charles Ayrout, Asma el Bakri, Henry Barakat, Henri Boulad, Marcel Boulad, Youssef Chahine, Chantal Chamandy, Albert Cossery, Andrée Chedid, Louis Chedid, Assia Dagher, Raymond Eddé, Antoine Fattal, Louis Fattal, Adel El-Ghadban, Marcel Fakhoury, Paul Ghalioungui, Michel Geday, Marie Ghadban, Maximos V Hakim, Naguib Kanawati, Bahiya Karam, Orestes Karame, Raymond Lakah, Amin Maalouf, Yousef Maalouf, Aziz Georges Mabardi, Henri Aziz Mabardi, Badia Masabni, Khalil Mutran, Farid El-Mazawi, Gabriel G. Nahas, Fatouh Nashaty, George Noory, Jehane Noujaim, Henri Philippe Pharaoun, Mary Queeny, Angele Ratl, Khalil Sabat, Patrick Sabongui, Edward Said, Count Gabriel Habib Sakakini Pasha, Simone Saleh, Joseph Sarkis, Christine Solomon, Samir Khalil Samir, Yacoub Sarrouf, Lara Scandar, Elisa Sednaoui, Stéphane Sednaoui, Sam Sednaoui, selim Sednaoui and Semaan Sednawi, Naoum Shabib, Georges Schehadé, Saleem Takla, Joseph Tawil, Omar Sharif, Robert Solé, the Takla brothers, Pauls Toutonghi, Anwar Wagdi, Bechara Wakim, Gregory II Youssef, Fouad El-Zahery, Jurji Zaydan, May Ziade, Elias Zoghby, Bernard de Zogheb, Anne de Zogheb, Count Charles de Zogheb[13]


  1. ^ Abdul Hameed, Suhair. "Shawwam in Egypt - Their Distinct Existence during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries". 
  2. ^ "CATHOLICS IN EGYPT REFLECT CHURCH'S RICH AND VARIED TRADITIONS". L'Osservatore Romano. Weekly Edition in English: 6, 7. 1 March 2000. 
  3. ^ Solé, Robert (2000). Birds of Passage. London, England: Harvill Press. ISBN 1860466974. 
  4. ^ Solé, Robert (1992). Le Tarbouche. Paris: Seuil. ISBN 978-2020205108. 
  5. ^ Solé, Robert (2000). Birds of Passage. London, England: Harvill Press. ISBN 1860466974. 
  6. ^ Solé, Robert (1992). Le Tarbouche. Paris: Seuil. ISBN 978-2020205108. 
  7. ^ Khoury, Gérard D. (2004). Sélim Takla 1895-1945: Une Contribution à L'indépendance Du Liban. Karthala Editions. p. 556. ISBN 284586549X. 
  8. ^ El Amrani, Issandr (2004-02-27). "Lebanese Played a Crucial Role in Shaping Modern Egyptian Culture". The Daily Star. 
  9. ^ Fadel, Marwan Abi. "Syro-Lebanese Migration Towards Egypt". 
  10. ^ Manzoni, Sandro. "Alexandrie Info". Retrieved June 2006. 
  11. ^ Naaman, Abdallah (2004). Histoire des Orientaux de France du Ier au XXe siècle. Paris: Ellipses. ISBN 978-2729814052. 
  12. ^ Magocsi, Paul Robert (1999). Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 460. ISBN 0802029388. 
  13. ^ Boutros, Fr. Peter (Jan–Feb 2001). "A Brief History of the Patriarchal See of Alexandria". Sophia 31 (1).