In 1928, the papal representative at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria and the Majlis al-Milli (lay council) bought a plot of land for 5,000 Egyptian pounds in Muharram Bey. The land was designated to be the site of St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox church, the second Coptic house of worship in the city. Following a royal decree issued in September 1929 approving the project, the architect Khawaja (foreigner) Kumas was hired to draw the plans and the contractor Abu Youssef supervised the laying of the foundations. Soon after, the work stopped, and the project lay idle for years. Although little is known about the pair, stories circulated about their frustrations at governmental delays and the pilfering of supplies by area residents.
In 1933, the lay council issued a new contract to complete the church. Charoubim and Farag Akladios, young brothers from Upper Egypt who had recently opened a contracting firm, won the contract and began work immediately. On the evening of Thursday, January 25, 1934, Pope Yuannes XIX arrived to officiate a grand celebration for the laying of the foundation stone. In attendance were Prince Omar Toussoun and Hussein Sabri Pasha, the governor of Alexandria. Priests and monks led a lively procession through the street and, following prayers, the dignitaries buried a box under the foundation stone. It contained a copy of the bible, a signed declaration of events, coins of the period, and copies of newspapers of the day. The church was completed on Sunday, August 21, 1935, and the first mass was held. Towering steeples rang aloud with the sound of two handmade bells, imported from Greece. The larger of the two bells was donated by Charoubim and Farag and still bears their names etched in the Coptic script.
My grandfather Farag Akladios was reposed to the Lord in 1996. Nearing his final days, he detailed the many triumphs, obstacles, and failures the brothers faced in their long careers as church builders in Alexandria in a private memoir. The story of St. Mary’s is a telling one, particularly when compared to later church-building in the city when churches were built in secret, hidden from the prying eyes of government officials and local inhabitants, and licensed retroactively or never.
The memoir of Farag Akladios sheds light on two important aspects of modern Egyptian history. First, the near erasure of Coptic life from historical and popular accounts of Alexandria’s cosmopolitan past. Second, the historical trajectory of ever more restrictive church-building policies that were part of a broader marginalization of Coptic life in the nation and a contributing factor in Copts’ ever more transnational trajectories.
“CAPITAL OF MEMORY”
The study of modern Egypt has historically made much of the cosmopolitanism of Alexandria, conflating it with the colonial splendor of Durrell’s “capital of memory”. When historians such as Khaled Fahmy and Hala Halim put forward a different view, they did so to restore native Alexandrians from the margins, the Muslim majority absent from “the city we have lost.” However, the cosmopolitan history of Coptic Alexandrians is nowhere to be found, despite being interwoven with the very fabric of the city. This essay decenters common views of Egypt as a highly homogenous and static society by attending to the cosmopolitanism of the streets. How did Coptic Christians help shape this city and establish community while navigating their relations with others?
Though this family story remains largely incomplete, it shows that to understand the Copts is to understand Egypt and its global history. It is a distinct story, but by no means unique. By tracing the stories of four generations of my family, I follow the complex, intricate trajectories of ordinary Copts. In recounting this history, I aim to trace the everyday lives of Alexandrians whose stories reflect the diverse ways people made sense of their surroundings and attempted to build community. In time, restrictions on church-building and limits on economic mobility for a national minority affected a pattern of emigration illustrated by my family’s dispersion across Egypt’s many diasporas. As I sit writing in a Toronto suburb, a part of me remains fixed in that gleaming Mediterranean city, a captivated child listening to stories of towering giants.
A COPTIC HEARTLAND
Every story has a beginning. For us, that beginning was a small village in Upper Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century. The two youngest of twelve children, Charoubim (1901–1991) and Farag (1905–1996) were born to a landowning Coptic family in al-Manshiah al-Kubra, al-Qusiya, Asyut. According to the 1917 census, 76 percent of Orthodox Copts lived in Upper Egypt, dominantly centered in Asyut. The family villa was down the road from Deir al-Muharraq (the Monastery of the Virgin Mary). According to Coptic tradition, Jesus took Mary and his disciples to Mount Koskam after his resurrection and conducted the first Mass there. This is the site of the Monastery of the Virgin Mary. The brothers’ formal education ended in primary school, and thereafter they went daily with my great-grandfather Akladios Bishara al ‘Arif to pray and support the upkeep of the monastery.
After spending their childhood in this setting, Charoubim and Farag moved to Alexandria. I never heard much about this move, and when I spoke to Farag’s sons (my father Maher and his older brother Adel), it soon became clear why not. Neither Charoubim nor Farag spoke much of their lives in the village. That history has been all but excised from the collective memory of the family, the act of forgetting a conscious distancing as their identities were re-formed in a new, urban environment. As a historian I couldn’t let this go; I went digging and found tales of the family that have taken on the mystique of myths.
My great, great grandfather Bishara was a fanciful playboy in his youth, with around 100 feddans of land (a feddan is approximately 4,200 square meters). His poor business acumen and flighty personality led him to oftentimes take the cotton and produce to market in Asyut, only to squander all the profits on drink and gambling. In old age, Bishara turned to the monastery and God for refuge, working tirelessly to copy manuscripts by hand alongside the monks. After Bishara’s passing, the land was divided between Akladios (named after a Greek merchant and drinking buddy) and his many brothers. Akladios inherited only around 12 feddans and chose to follow his elderly father’s example by developing a close relationship with the monastery and the Coptic Orthodox Church. Copts of the village held Akladios in high esteem and came to rely on the family as mediators with the Church. The faithful would gather outside their house and follow Akladios and his sons to attend Sunday services.
My grandfather Farag’s childhood home was a two-story villa designed to emulate classical Roman architecture, with a garden in the center and large receiving rooms for social gatherings. Farag was one of twelve children and the youngest son of Akladios’ second wife, whom Akladios married after his first wife died in childbirth. He was proud of his primary school education and his five-kilometer walk to the next town to attend school. The family was ‘ayla mirtaha (a family living in comfort). Not necessarily well-to-do or affluent, they never reached the level of the “homme du monde” of Mona Abaza’s cotton plantation, who could afford to employ several servants and send their children to private schools and universities in Europe. Rather, the Akladios family could offer their children a modest education locally and open their doors to neighbors and relatives in need. As the wealthiest family in a poor village, their villa became a gathering place, and the head of the family was a leader in communal affairs.
ARRIVAL IN ALEXANDRIA
Rural areas were hit hard by a postwar economic recession and rapid inflation. Finding few opportunities, Charoubim left for Alexandria in 1918 to seek his fortune in a growing metropolis. He rented an apartment in Gheit al ‘Inab, a poor Coptic neighborhood to the south of Muharram Bey, and urged his younger brother to join him. Farag—four years younger than Charoubim—followed two years later, in 1920. On arriving in Alexandria, he found that the small, sparsely furnished apartment had been well prepared. Their building was close to the dominantly affluent neighborhood to the north populated by Jewish, Greek, and Italian professionals but socially quite distant from it. Charoubim was working as a bookkeeper in a local Greek business, and Farag quickly found his entry point into the skilled trades by apprenticing for an Italian contractor.
The Akladios brothers arrived at a time of rapid expansion and urbanization in Alexandria. Where the city was no more than a fishing settlement with about 5,000 inhabitants in the early 1800s, by the end of the nineteenth century it had grown into a thriving port city with a population of around 320,000. Muhammad Ali invested in sweeping modernization programs and invited migrants from across the Mediterranean to settle and invest in Egypt’s development. In the interwar period, Alexandria’s population was concentrated between Karmus to the west and Ibrahimiya to the east. It was a colonial, cosmopolitan space, inhabited by Egyptians of all walks of life, as well as by Greek merchants, Armenian technicians and wholesalers, Italian construction workers and architects, and the city’s growing Syrio-Lebanese community, whose members entered the service industry as laborers, salesmen, and restaurateurs. By the second half of the twentieth century, the expulsion of European and Jewish communities would irrevocably change the character of the city. Until then, the Alexandria of the Akladios brothers was thriving, ever-changing, and fast transitioning from the maritime town of the previous century to the second-largest Egyptian city of today.
Pooling their skills, the brothers established a contracting firm where each played to his strength. Farag was the tradesman, and Charoubim, always the more charismatic of the two, oversaw the finances and maintained successful relations with clients. They first rented a small office on Kinisat al-Aqbat Street (Coptic Church Street) next to the cathedral. They moved a few years later to an office on Sidi al-Mitwali Street in Laban, a dominantly Italian neighborhood. Their largest client was the Coptic Patriarchate, and they communicated directly with the papal representative in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. The pair rapidly gained a reputation as “fixers” of complicated church-building projects and achieved prominence within the Coptic Orthodox Church and among Catholic and Protestant communities. They developed an expansive network of local suppliers and established relations with foreign architects, whom they maintained contact with even after the latter’s emigration in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Over the course of their career, Farag and Charoubim laid the foundations of over 30 churches and even oversaw the construction of St. Mina’s Monastery in King Maryout for Pope Kyrillos VI, yet no achievement matched the public spectacle of the inauguration of St. Mary’s on Abassiya Street in Muharram Bey.
A CLANDESTINE PROFESSION
In 1934, interior minister Muhammad Ezaby Pasha issued the “10 Conditions,” delineating restrictions on church-building and Coptic political participation. These included the decree that churches cannot be built without the combined approval of the government and local Muslim inhabitants; that a church must be a certain distance from Muslim homes and any mosque; and that a church may be built only if no other church already exists in the same town.
As Copts became increasingly marginal in Egyptian social and political affairs during this period, the Akladios brothers turned to covert church-building as the only logical recourse. Throughout the 1940s, Copts demarcated their sacred spaces by building parishes inside schools and hospitals and buying building materials from local British garrisons despite government restrictions. Examples of such a process of church building abound, from the church of Archangel Michael in Shagarit al-Dor Street in Ghorbal (1940) to the church of St. Abakeer and St. John in Abukeer (1947). Copts competed for land with Italians, sought to demarcate space against Greek Orthodox Christians by constructing their own churches nearby, and, with the help of British officials and working-class residents, aligned with middle-class professionals in benevolent societies to hurriedly build wooden structures without permits. Hidden from government overseers and the prying eyes of Muslim neighbors who might oppose such construction, it was only after renovation permits were acquired that churches were expanded and made visible.
Well into the Cold War Period, many churches were built first—with the tacit consent of city inspectors—and licensed retroactively through renovation permits. Several examples from Farag’s memoir illustrate this pattern. The church of the Virgin Mary in Fawakih Street, Gheit al-‘Inab was completed in 1955. The Takwa (Piety) Benevolent Society under the direction of Adly ‘Ayad bought a plot of land to build an elementary school and contracted Charoubim and Farag to start building the school with an added church on the second floor. Building without a church permit, the entryway to the church was partially hidden within the school entrance. It was only after a renovation permit was secured five years later that the arches and the dome were made visible from the street and a separate entrance was created, against the wishes of the priest, Father Abdel Messih Makar, but with the support of Pope Kyrillos VI.
The church of St. George and St. Antonious in Muharram Bey similarly began life as a three-story apartment building. The surrounding lands were owned by Francis Bey Ghobrial, who put them up for sale. The executive of a local orphanage in Sidi Bishr sought to buy the property to build dormitories for girls and boys but could not afford the asking price. Father Mina al-Baramousi al-Motawahed (later Pope Kyrillos VI) agreed to pay half, with the condition that a church be built on one-half of the property. Before the purchase was final, however, the land next to it was bought by the Nokali Family, who built a mosque. It immediately became clear that getting a permit to build a church next to the mosque would be impossible. Charoubim and Farag were asked to continue building the orphanage dormitories. They kept the original three-story apartment building, converted the ground floor into a church without a permit, the second floor into a storage area, and the third floor into housing. Completed in 1956, the patriarchate then built shops on the rest of the land, closer to the main street, and sold the shops to local businesses to pay the purchase price. Despite constraints, Alexandrian Copts demarcated sacred space and made a place for themselves in the city.
As their careers thrived, the Akladios family became a part of cosmopolitan Alexandria’s growing Coptic middle class, comprised of government employees, shopkeepers, and skilled craftsmen. They married a pair of Coptic sisters in the 1930s who similarly immigrated with their families from al-Qusiya to Alexandria. My grandmother, Elaine Mikhail Besada, and her sister Victoria left their family home for that of their husbands. Married in the poorer Coptic neighborhood of Gheit al ‘Inab, they later moved together into a large apartment in Muharram Bey in the early 1940s. Farag had six children, Charoubim five. Their children recall with fondness that the house had an immaculate room for the telephone, where communication with Asyut was maintained. This type of room was a mainstay of middle-class homes and offered a point of pride and social status rivaled only by the purchase of a black and white television years later. It was common for relatives from Upper Egypt to come visit, bringing greetings, samna (ghee), and fetir (a type of layered pastry eaten for breakfast with honey or cream).
Part of the cultural shift introduced by Khedive Ismail’s modernization programs in the nineteenth century was the adoption of European lifestyles, home décor, apparel, and the preference for speaking French, English, Italian, and Greek instead of Arabic among the Egyptian bourgeoisie. During early twentieth-century urbanization, an expanding population of middle-class professionals would adopt such cultural habits. Education was important to both Charoubim and Farag Effandi (a Turko-Circassian honorific denoting high social standing), and like other Alexandrians, they sent their male children to the British Boys School or Collège St. Mark and their female children to Institution Sainte Jeanne-Antide.
Social status was an important marker of identity for the Akladios family and a way to escape their rural roots. Both brothers wore a tarboosh to denote their class since this flat-topped, brimless hat similar to the fez was a sign of wealth and privilege for urban professionals such as the katibs (bookkeepers) and the nazirs (overseers). They avoided the traditional gallabiyya and always wore suits, choosing to carry themselves in the manner of effendi ‘gentlemen.’ As historian Lucie Ryzova has argued of the effendi habits and practices, this claim to a modern lifestyle was conflated with class position and defined against two contrastive others: the traditional sheikh in a gallabiyya and the westernized colonial elite. This effendi social category can possess both modernity and authentic roots, like Cairene notables Taha Husayn and Zakariya Ahmed. Farag and Charoubim belong to this category, and as Ryzova says, “destabilize the conventional wisdom in writing the history of modern Egypt, in which the effendi is most commonly defined as the product of modern schooling.”
By mid-century, like most urbanites, the brothers dropped the tarboosh following the investiture of President Gamal Abdul Nasser as a means of showing allegiance with his brand of nationalism (though it is difficult to say if they had any true allegiance to the cause) and maximizing their social empowerment. Farag exchanged his tarboosh for a beret (adopted from the city’s Greek merchants and Italian contractors). Rather than ideological motivations, Farag’s choice underscores his consummate claim to effendi status, which was only matched by his piety. Maher always saw his father as a deeply religious man, an archdeacon preoccupied with his faith, and often found sketching churches, sitting in solitude to work, and listening to recorded taratil (hymns) and sermons.
I was born in Alexandria in 1988. The youngest of Maher’s three children, I was raised in a second-floor apartment on Roushdy Street north of the tramway. You could just make out the Mediterranean Sea from our balcony on a clear day. Farag and Charoubim planned and constructed our apartment building 21 years before I was born. The apartment next door, the only other one on our floor, belonged to my grandfather. My memory of him in those days of my youth is fragmentary at best. I remember the sight of this distinguished, ailing old man lying in bed. When I would visit him with my mother to bring him a meal and check on his health, I recall his ever-present French beret. He wore it so often, I used to think he slept in it.
In 1994, we traveled to Toronto for our landing, and my parents were happy they could relocate freely but still unsure of making the leap permanent. In 1996, I hid underneath the kitchen table in our apartment as my extended family gathered for Grandad’s wake, reminiscing, and sharing stories of his many accomplishments. After his death, sibling rivalries long held in check boiled over, and my parents made the choice to settle permanently in Toronto.
Today, many in my extended family have emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, and a few to Western Europe (England, France, and Germany). This kind of dispersion is common to Egyptian emigration. After the 1960s, labor-seeking countries attracted many young professionals looking for financial stability and security. Despite his popular calls to strengthen the Egyptian national identity, inclusive of both Christians and Muslims, Gamal Abdul Nasser transformed land ownership and public sector employment by setting a ceiling on Christian participation commensurate with their proportion of the population. In response to the lack of social and economic mobility, two of Farag’s daughters emigrated with their husbands to the Gulf. One remained in Dubai, and the other left for London in the mid-1980s before settling in Toronto in the 1990s and sponsoring my father’s immigration bid. Their eldest sister chose to remain with her husband (a mechanical engineer with army contracts) and their two children in Alexandria. Adel Akladios, the middle brother, dodged his military service by secretly flying to Switzerland, then returned as a prominent banker to Egypt for a time, before only recently joining his siblings in Toronto.
The stories of the Akladios family, in Egypt, and across its diasporas, are too numerous to recount here. Yet the precise details of their lives between al-Qusiya and Alexandria remain incomplete. When Farag died, Maher sold most of his properties in Alexandria and its environs and brought his family to Canada. Farag and Charoubim’s children, now scattered across the globe, left the past shuttered. Much like their parents, the children sought new prospects and greater stability for their families, now in emigrant lands. The old house in the village remains, a monument to a murky past. The firm’s offices in Alexandria also remain untouched and unattended, save for the annual visits of Granddad’s now ailing elderly assistant who comes to collect past-due rent when we happen to be in town. These many family stories provide glimpses into the entangled global histories of cosmopolitan Alexandria. Naguib Mahfouz famously said, “The affliction of our alley is forgetting.” Although I know that many details will forever remain myths and figments, just out of reach, I’ve made it my mission to restore the Copts to Egypt’s memory.