Egypt moves towards 'reviving roots' with Greece amid Turkish history rethink

Egypt takes active action to revive its Greek roots.
Sunday 13/05/2018
A statue of Alexander the Great, founder of Alexandria, stands in a square in one end of the Fouad street in Alexandria. (Reuters)
Back to roots. A statue of Alexander the Great, founder of Alexandria, stands in a square in one end of the Fouad street in Alexandria. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Having secured long-term economic relations, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus are taking steps to forge closer cultural ties.

The three countries organised a cultural week with the aim of reviving Greek and Cypriot legacies in the ancient Egyptian city, Alexandria, which was founded by Alexander the Great.

Called “Reviving Roots,” the event included visits to Greek landmarks in Alexandria and musical concerts by Greek artists.

Egypt invited dozens of Greek nationals whose parents and grandparents once lived in Alexandria to the event. They visited houses where their parents and grandparents lived, ancient Greek monuments such as the Greek Quarter, which was a gathering place for the Greeks in Alexandria hundreds of years ago; the house of Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, who lived in Alexandria until his death in 1993; and the Alexandria Library.

“The event sought to send a message of love to the Greeks and the Cypriots, one that shows that Egypt is proud of its shared history with their countries and civilisations,” said Nabila Makram, Egypt's minister for immigration and expatriates' affairs.

“The Greeks and the Cypriots are an integral part of our history and the event was a good occasion for each of us to revive this history.”

Alexandria, founded in 332BC, was a centre of enlightenment for centuries. It was a meeting point for all Mediterranean cultures and an important centre during the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

Alexandria functioned as the capital of Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt for a millennium before the Muslims invaded it in 641. It was only then that Alexandria stopped serving as Egypt’s de facto capital.

Despite this, ancient landmarks bear witness to the city’s greatness as well as that of the cultures and civilisations that made it.

The Alexandria Lighthouse is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Great Library of Alexandria was the largest in the ancient world. The Bibliotheca Alexandra, constructed in 2002, serves as a commemoration of the ancient library and an attempt to rekindle its legacy.

“There is an extended shared history between the Egyptians and the Greeks, almost the longest standing relations between two peoples,” said Egyptian historian Bassam al-Shamaa. “The Greek civilisation occupies an important space in Egypt's history and Alexandria was at the centre of this history.”

The coming together of Egyptian, Greek and Cypriot cultures and civilisations enjoyed sponsorship from the governments of the three countries at the highest level.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades attended the inauguration of the cultural week and spoke of the bonds that tied the three countries.

The discovery of huge gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, off the coasts of Egypt and Cyprus, brought the three countries together now. Cyprus and Greece plan to send their gas for liquefaction in Egypt and then to markets in Europe.

The three countries also plan to move ahead with cooperation in fields including trade, tourism and transport.

Egypt, Makram said, wanted to use the cultural week to attract international attention to it as a tourist destination.

“There was a cultural message in the event but we also wanted the world to know that our country is safe to visit,” Makram said.

At the time Egypt takes active action to revive its Greek roots, it has been equally active to obliterate its Turkish and Ottoman roots amid a dispute between Cairo and Ankara.

In what amounts to a clash of Mediterranean cultures over Egypt, the Egyptian government is changing Ottoman street names across Egypt. Egyptian historians say some of the Ottoman figures that streets are named after do not deserve the honour.

On the surface, this appears to be a national rethink of history but behind the scenes, observers said, it was motivated by political disputes.

“Politics is having its toll on the way our country moves culturally but history is history,” said Ayman Fouad Sayed, a professor of history at al-Azhar University. “Egypt used to be and continues to be a melting pot of cultures and civilisations but politics is apparently causing these cultures and civilisations to clash.”