September 17, 2018 / 11:45 PM / a month ago

Renovated cemetery shows Armenians' history in Cairo

CAIRO (Reuters) - Renovation work is nearly complete on an Armenian cemetery in Cairo whose graves reflect a 100 years of the community’s history in the Egyptian capital.

A general view of the Armenian cemetery in Cairo, Egypt, September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Workers have fixed and cleaned up tombstones, statues and busts that sit on top of graves. 

The site dates back to 1924, when the Armenian community was granted a piece of land adjacent to an older one. It fused Egyptian, Armenian and European architectural designs.

“There was a period when this place was neglected, and the renovation project was a great initiative because the area was restored to what it once was,” said Nairy Hampikian, an archaeologist and conservation specialist who has overseen the renovation project.

“The first thing we did was remove the dust from all the pathways inside the cemetery. After that the signs that you see over there that were mostly scattered on the ground and covered in dust appeared when we cleaned up.”

Armenians began settling in Egypt in the Fatimid era from the 10th to 12th Centuries and were given a piece of land by Mohamed Ali Pasha in 1844 in an area now known as old Islamic Cairo.

The size of the Armenian community in Egypt would fluctuate, driven by the country’s political and economic situation.

A general view of the Armenian cemetery in Cairo, Egypt, September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

But it was not until after the events of World War One - when Ottoman forces killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 - that a large number of Armenians fled to Egypt and other countries.

Turkey says many Christian Armenians who lived under the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Turkish soldiers but contests the figures and denies that a genocide took place.

The Armenians in Egypt thrived in cosmopolitan cities such as Cairo and Alexandria, which were also home to Italian and Greek communities. 

Today, the Armenian community in Egypt has shrunk to about 3,000 people, and according to the president of Goganian Armenian cultural club in Cairo, Kevork Erzingatzian.

But the burial ground serves as a reminder of the Armenians’ cultural and religious heritage.

“We found tombstones that date back to the 1830s, 40s, and 50s,” Hampikian said.

Restoration work began in 2014 and is scheduled for completion at the end of 2018. The Armenian Patriarchate of Cairo, with help from donations from the Armenian community, funded the project.

(This story has been refilled to correct number of Armenians in Egypt in paragraph 11 to 3,000 from 300,000; rewrites paragraphs on 1915 killings)

Reporting by Mohamed Zaki, Writing by Seham Eloraby; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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