With such a strong history of friendly relations between the two countries and their peoples, Armenian President Robert Kocharian's first visit to Egypt last month was expected to further enhance the cooperation between the two countries, in areas economic, political, educational and cultural.
“The visit of the president is the best proof of the existing cooperation between Armenia and Egypt,” Armenian Ambassador to Egypt Dr. Rouben Karapetian tells Egypt Today. “This is the current president's first visit to Egypt and it is an official visit for negotiations and talks starting with President Mubarak and then Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, the speakers of the Parliament and Sheikh Al-Azhar. It's a dialogue of civilizations.”
Karapetian adds that the president's meeting with Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa and the Arab ambassadors “reflects the level [of cooperation] between [Armenia and] not only Egypt, but also the Arab world.”
The visit also saw the signing of eight agreements in different fields including tourism, economy and education, with an agreement inked between Cairo University and a medical university in Armenia, according to Karapetian. The two nations also agreed to increase cooperation between their respective ministries of interior in terms of exchange of criminal suspects and other matters of justice.
The agreements signed are only a few of many pacts and treaties between the two countries since the beginning of diplomatic relations in 1992, a year after Armenia was declared a free state. Egypt was one of the first countries to recognize its independence and since then the two countries have been initiating mutual cooperation in several fields.
“During these 15 years, we succeeded in establishing excellent levels of political relationships and close cooperation in practically all fields,” notes Karapetian. And when it comes to “assisting each other in international organizations, we can claim to be exemplary for others.”
A Marriage of Civilizations
But the history between the two countries goes back significantly further than 1991, with the Armenian heyday in Egypt peaking during the Byzantine and Fatimid times, when Armenian politicians reached prominent positions during the reign of Mohammed Ali.
Armenians have thus always been part of the Egyptian community, influencing it as much as being influenced by it. “There is a [long] history between Armenians and Egyptians and as citizens of Egypt, [we contributed to the history and society of Egypt],” notes Karapetian.
Ahmed Ibn Tulun, who built the Ibn Tulun Mosque, and the three architect brothers who erected Bab El-Nasr, Bab El-Fath and Bab Zuwayla, all important historical Egyptian monuments, are examples of Armenians who came to Egypt and left imprints on its culture and history.
But Armenian influence goes far beyond building monuments. Armenians have had a particular impact on Egypt's educational system, with Ya'cub Artin Pasha Cherakian, known as El-Ustaz El-Kabir (the Great Teacher), developing education and establishing the first school for girls in Egypt as well as the first kindergarten.
The first school in Egypt was established with the help of an Armenian called Boghos Bey Yusufian. Under the rule of Armenians including Badr Al-Gamali, a prominent military leader commanding an all-Armenian army, and his son Al-Afdal, Egypt saw the creation of the Dar El-Wizarra Palace as well as two public parks boasting exotic gardens. Armenian-born Shagaret Al-Durr also became the first woman to sit on Egypt's throne in the Islamic era.
And what few people know is that Armenian Nubar Pasha, Egypt's first prime minister, had a vision of creating Heliopolis. He managed Cairo's Water Company, which introduced piped water – this led to the creation of Heliopolis later on by his son, who invited Baron Empain to build the district. Nubar Pasha also designed an irrigation plan and is the only Armenian to have both a lake and a type of long-staple cotton named after him. Despite his valuable contributions to agriculture, it was Nubar Pasha's shrewd legal reforms and his decision to establish mixed courts that were considered his greatest achievements in Egypt.
With such deep historical roots, it's no surprise that the relationship between the countries only grew stronger after Armenia declared its independence. “When Armenia became independent, we had a good base for developing relations and it was much easier because for years Armenia was a part of the Middle East region,” says Karapetian. “Although in 301 AD, Armenia became the first country in the world to officially adopt Christianity and [while] it is a European country, it is also part of the Middle East. Thus it has a historical mission of [interpreting], of creating the link in different areas with its knowledge of the East and European background. Our relationship with Egypt and the Arab world is based on other historical experiences too.”
A Stronger Future
Today the Armenian community in Egypt remains one of the oldest in the world, comprising some 8,000 nationals living mainly in Cairo and Alexandria. Although the number was much higher in 1915 when a forced migration followed the Armenian genocide in Turkey and Egypt opened its arms to Armenian refugees, it drastically decreased with the Nasserite movement and the nationalization of their businesses.
“Armenians have been welcomed in Egypt and were given an opportunity to contribute while in other countries they were forced to leave,” notes Karapetian.
At present the community has consolidated ties with the social and religious organizations nationwide. The Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church serves to guard the community's assets, and many other organizations provide support to the Armenian community in Egypt. There are several Armenian schools still functioning and although once restricted to just Armenians, they have, for financial reasons, been forced to accept students from other nationalities. There are also four cultural clubs in Cairo and two in Alexandria, providing activities for youth, such as dancing and choirs, three sporting clubs in Cairo and two in Alexandria. The ambassador notes that over the years, Armenians have smoothly integrated into the Egyptian culture and there has been a noticeable harmony between the two cultures.
“I always say if you want to give an example of exact and real dialogue between Christians and Muslims, you can give the example of Armenia and Egypt.”
Source: “Egypt Today”, May 2007 edition.
Photo: Dr. Rouben Karapetian, Armenian ambassador to Egypt.