Alexandria: A Breath of Fresh Air from the Mediterranean

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David Zenian

A dynamic diplomat, a creative music teacher and an elderly priest are energizing the Armenian community of this Egyptian coastal city, giving it a new lease on life and strength to break out of its routine.

The diplomat is a businessman, the music teacher is on loan from Armenia and the priest is well past retirement age but still going strong. Between them they have given the community a new raison d’être.

Often detached from the mainstream of community life in Cairo where 80 percent of Egypt’s estimated 5,000 Armenians live, the Alexandria Armenians are vibrant and active.

Tracing their roots to several generations, they remind visitors of the heyday of their community when a string of Armenian Pashas made Alexandria their home. They point to people like Nubar Pasha (1825-1899), Kevork Topalian (1850-1923) and others who consolidated the foundations of this small community.

The Armenian Boghossian Elementary School and Melkonian Kindergarten were built in 1862, the Gothic-style Armenian Apostolic Church was built in 1884, followed by the Armenian Catholic Church in 1890 and the Armenian Protestant chapel in 1949 — infrastructures which have kept the community together.

For more than a century the church-school combination has provided the necessary manpower to sustain a number of cultural and social clubs and their parallel political organizations.

The Armenian infrastructure of Alexandria today is intact despite the small size of the community. But numbers are misleading.

With only 86 students, the Boghossian-Melkonian school maintains a standard of education superior to institutions ten times its size, sending its graduates to local and foreign universities with flying colors.

“The student body is down from 800 in the late 1950’s to 86 today, but this has not destroyed the quality of education,” Ms. Shushan Ganimian, the school’s principal, said.

“Education is not just teaching set academic materials, but building a well rounded individual,” she added.

Thanks to Hrant Aghajanian, its new music and arts teacher from Armenia, the school now boasts two brilliant choirs composed of students from the lower and upper classes, and an operatic troupe whose production of Hagop Baronian’s Baghdasar Akhpar will soon go on tour in Egypt and possibly other Middle Eastern cities.

“Alexandria’s Armenian artistic life is in a renaissance, and we hope to spread this spark to other Armenian communities,” said Aghajanian, who has also rejuvenated the church choir.

The cultural revival coincides with significant awakening in other sectors of community life.

The Armenian Catholic Church, once without an Armenian spiritual leader for seven years, now has a resident priest, 78-year-old Father Stepan Telalian, a veteran of community service across the Middle East.

“Of the close to 300 Armenian Catholics in this city, only 50 to 60 are Armenian speakers, and without an Armenian spiritual leader, existing structures were on a slippery slope,” Fr. Telalian said.

His concerns are also shared by the city’s other Armenian spiritual leaders like Father Krikor Ohanian, Pastor of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Reverend Vahram Khounganian of the Armenian Protestant Church.

Today, traditionalists like Father Telalian and new-generation Armenian Catholics like businessman Antoine Ashba, are giving the community a new boost.

“I don’t speak Armenian, but my young boy has just told me he wants to learn Armenian. There is a new spark which we need to cultivate,” Ashba said.

But the spark is not confined to the traditional institutions. It is also seen in the diplomatic life of this second largest Egyptian city along the Mediterranean.

Showing the Armenian face and character is Vahan Alexanian, the Honorary Consul General of Austria and Dean of the local Consular Corps.

Alexanian, a long-time AGBU activist who has recently been named Chairman of the Board of the Armenian Community Council of Alexandria, is the most visible of the Armenian leaders of the city.

A no-nonsense industrialist and businessman, Alexanian is busy working on plans to improve the tobacco and clothing industry in Armenia.

“I’ve already presented a detailed business plan, and will follow it up. I don’t give up easily,” he said.

In his new community role, Alexanian has already put together a computer “data base” for all community-owned property like bequeathed real estate, office buildings and agricultural lands.

“We need to be better organized, and we can’t afford to waste time,” he said.

The combined efforts of a businessman-diplomat, a schoolteacher, an elderly clergyman and a long list of community activists are doing just that.