Keep Ithaka Always in Your Mind: The Greek Community in Modern Egypt

Alexander Kitroeff’s new book traces over a century of Greek migration to and settlement in Egypt.

Keep Ithaka Always in Your Mind: The Greek Community in Modern Egypt

The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt by Alexander Kitroeff. The American University in Cairo Press. 256 pages.

FOR THE TRAVELER during the coronavirus pandemic, stranded in airports far from home, facing quarantine or other bizarre obstacles, the ancient tale of Homer’s Odyssey may seem astonishingly contemporary. In fact, the poignant myth of Odysseus and his long, torturous journey home resonates for me now, as an older adult, more than it did when I first read it as a high school student. At 18, I was restless and dying to explore the world: I could not imagine the anguish of Odysseus, who just wanted to go home, when my life was so rooted in a small, isolated Texas town. But now, I have lived most of my life abroad, and there have been many occasions when my ship has been blown off course. This summer, because of the pandemic, travel has been severely constrained. My elderly parents are not ill, but I am chilled by the thought that I may never see them again. What if I can never go home?

In his informative, well-researched book The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt (2019), Alexander Kitroeff traces the complicated historical background of the Greeks who came to Egypt and made it their home. Like me, they were temporary guests, except for many who spent their whole lives in the country and often died here. Testimony to this fact are the hundreds of Greek graves in Chatby Cemetery in Alexandria. Greek merchants were originally invited by the Albanian Muhammad Ali, the delegated ruler for the Ottomans from 1805 to 1848, in order to support his plan for modernizing Egypt. The project was mutually beneficial since there was often scant economic opportunity for those inhabiting the Greek mainland or the islands. The second factor that made Muhammad Ali’s initiative attractive for prospective Greek migrants was Ottoman governance, which allowed non-Muslim communities to rule themselves through their own laws. Khedive Sa’id, Muhammad Ali’s fourth son, augmented his father’s modernization plan by encouraging the cultivation of cotton, which generated more trade. In addition to jobs in shipping and manufacturing, the booming economy attracted Greeks who set up small businesses and groceries in rural areas. The openness and tolerance of Egypt’s rulers, combined with political instability in their homeland, were the main reasons for Greek immigration to Egypt.

Despite their new home, Greeks didn’t fully assimilate into Egyptian culture, clinging to their Greek identity. They segregated themselves with their own community associations, schools, churches, and laws. As Kitroeff observes, “Feeling at home in Egypt did not mean that they had close relationships with Egyptians or lost their connection to Greece.” Many adopted the foreign elite’s prejudices against the locals and aligned themselves with the ascendancy of Britain in the region. They were slow to reform the Greek national curriculum and adapt it to their new needs in the host country; for example, they only decided to include Arabic language instruction in their schools during the Nasser period, but by then it was too late. A greater interest in and commitment to mastering the language of their host country might have bolstered their argument that they had helped “in the making of modern Egypt” and therefore deserved Egyptian citizenship, especially when foreigners came under the sovereignty of the national legal system in the 1950s. Ultimately, President Nasser was more interested in the status of Cyprus than in citizenship for Greek residents. The fact remains, however, that Greeks’ allegiance was always to their homeland; living in Egypt was simply a matter of “bread and butter.” With their knowledge of European languages, they had served as a bridge to European markets since the period of Muhammad Ali. But the wind shifted in another direction under Nasser: his socialist, nationalist goals were not aligned with the cosmopolitanism of the Greek minority in Egypt.

Famous Greek poet C. P. Cavafy’s family was part of the Greek diaspora who came to Constantinople in the 1850s to establish a business. Obviously important as a literary figure, Cavafy is also a barometer of the vibrancy of Greek cultural life in Egypt. Kitroeff explains that two new journals made Alexandria a major Greek literary center: Nea Zoe (“New Life”), established in 1904, and Grammata, first published in 1911. In addition to the commitment to the Greek language in schools, community associations, and the church, there were numerous publication houses, newspapers, and journals. Given the few Greeks one encounters in modern-day Egypt, the numbers Kitroeff cites are staggering: “Between 1920 and 1940 there were eight Greek printing houses in Alexandria,” as well as five Greek newspapers in Cairo before World War II. Perhaps there was no incentive to learn classical Arabic because of the voluminous cultural output in Greek: “Between 1914 and 1952 over forty journals and about three thousand Greek-language books were published in Egypt. The journals ranged from literary and religious to economic and sports-oriented.”

Cavafy’s imaginative work mostly draws upon the mythical and historical tradition of Greece, rather than any personal experience. Cavafy’s many relationships with young men are masked in his poetry through reference to historical figures and scenarios. An impoverished homosexual, Cavafy lived on the margins of Alexandrian society. A meeting with the famous English writer E. M. Forster at the Alexandria Sporting Club turned out to be fortunate for his literary career and legacy. Having just reread C. P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, I was particularly struck by his poem “Ithaka”:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Giorgos Seferis, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963, was heavily influenced by Cavafy. A Greek who was born near Smyrna (now İzmir, Turkey), Seferis fled Asia Minor with his parents for mainland Greece in 1914. (Kemal Atatürk had undertaken a campaign to purge all Christian minorities from Asia Minor to create the homogeneous state of Turkey.) Unable to return to İzmir until 1950, Seferis wrote poetry that draws upon Greek myth and folk ballads to describe the plight of the modern-day exile and wanderer. His poem “Upon a Foreign Verse,” translated by Keeley and Sherrard, also refers to the Odyssey:

I ask God to help me say, at some moment of great happiness, what that love is;
sometimes when I sit surrounded by exile I hear its distant murmur like the sound of sea struck by an inexplicable hurricane.

And again and again the shade of Odysseus appears before me, his eyes red from the waves’ salt,
from his ripe longing to see once more the smoke ascending from his warm hearth and the dog grown old waiting by the door.

Though not Greek Egyptian, Seferis worked as a press attaché in the Greek Embassy in Egypt in the 1940s. He was witness to the intrigue in Greek domestic politics that played out on Egyptian soil. In April 1941, the Greek king, George II, was evacuated to Egypt when Crete was overrun by the Axis forces. Considered by the British to be the head of state in exile, George II chose Emmanouil Tsouderos to be prime minister in 1941, after the suicide of Alexandros Koryzis in the face of German invasion and occupation. The king had already lost much of his support from Greeks, both on the mainland and abroad, because of his alliance with Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas, who had led an authoritarian, anticommunist regime from 1936–’41, and because he had deserted the nation. Since the communists led the resistance during World War II and were better organized than traditional parties in Greece, they became a viable alternative to the ruling Liberal Party, attracting both working-class people and patriots who yearned for a free, democratic Greece. The left-wing resistance movement in Greece established a provisional government called the Political Committee of National Liberation (PEEA) to force the hand of the exiled Greek government in Egypt regarding the status of the monarchy in the country’s postwar future. This move found support among many Greek Egyptians, both civilians and soldiers in the Greek Armed Forces of the Middle East.

Stratis Tsirkas’s novel trilogy Drifting Cities (1960–’65) is an engaging, panoramic work that captures the complex fabric of the Greek diaspora and the uprisings in the Greek Armed Forces of the Middle East. Appropriately, the epigraph for Book One, which is set in Jerusalem, is from Seferis: “Jerusalem, drifting city / Jerusalem, city of refugees.” The two books that follow are set in Cairo and Alexandria, other cities adrift amid the tumult of World War II. The story focuses on the adventures of Manos, a leftist hero who navigates his way through a treacherous landscape of double agents, fellow travelers, British officials, and Greek royalists. In the first book, Manos is on the run from the Greek military police, hiding in a pension awash with European refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, as well as with nefarious characters and spies. Tsirkas skillfully uses multiple points of view to give us perspectives from various “drifters,” such as Emmy, the Austrian married to a spy, or Anna, the German woman who runs the pension and who has lost her family fortune. After Emmy’s husband, Hans, is sent on a mission for the Allies, she gets entangled in a series of sadomasochistic love affairs, first with Benny, an Englishman, and then with Adam, a Palestinian-Greek black marketeer who is later murdered. Meanwhile, Manos, who is more smitten with Emmy than with the left-wing cause, receives orders to run an underground newspaper.

Book Two is named for Ariagne, the mother figure who hides communists in Cairo from the Greek military police and the Egyptian authorities. Unlike some of the Greek royalists in the novel who ally themselves with the British, Ariagne is a working-class woman who has integrated into a poor Egyptian neighborhood in Cairo. Her husband is a gambler who, shortly after World War I, organized a strike for higher wages in a confectioner’s shop owned by a Swiss man. Besides Greek civilians, a number of expatriate characters become ensnared in the power plays among the Communist Party, the Greek government in exile, and the consular authorities.

The most harrowing section of Drifting Cities, though, is Book Three, set in Alexandria, which details how the British government, in July 1943 and April 1944, brutally crushed the left-wing rebellions of Greek forces under Allied control. Greek soldiers and sailors supported the PEEA’s demands for a more just, democratic plan for Greece’s postwar future, rather than a continuation of the Greek monarchy. When their efforts to negotiate with the government in exile failed, they moved to take control of the army, navy, and military headquarters. All of the ships in the harbor of Alexandria were seized in the name of the PEEA. Despite the many sacrifices Greeks made for the Allied forces at El Alamein, Churchill sided with the exiled Greek government of George II, a close friend known for his pro-British sympathies, rather than with the left-wing parties. On April 7, 1944, British troops were ordered to suppress the uprising, and the ships were surrounded and seized. Thousands were arrested, interned in camps, and tortured. Tsirkas’s hero, Manos, describes their imprisonment in a smuggled letter:

Dear friends all,

Thousands of Greek fighters, locked up like wild beasts in barbed-wire cages, starving, unwashed, thirsty, scorched by the heat in the daytime and frozen stiff by the cold nights, sit here waiting for the second “purge,” since the first failed so miserably.

Ironically, the PEEA — along with other left-wing parties, including the National Liberation Front and the Communist Party — did not support the soldiers at the Lebanon Conference of May 1944. Instead, they absolved themselves of responsibility for the very rebellion they had inspired, proclaiming the uprising a crime against the homeland. Instead of moving forward on the issues of social change for which they had advocated, they instead capitulated to the unity government under Churchill’s choice, Georgios Papandreou.

The exiled Greek government returned to Greece in 1944. But the end of the war did not signal the beginning of peace or normalcy. Ravaged by famine and a ruined national economy, the same tensions between the communists and royalists that had caused the rebellions in the Greek Armed Forces in Egypt plunged the country into a civil war. Suddenly adrift, unsettled by Nasser’s nationalist aspirations, thousands of Greek Egyptians set sail for a Greece they did not recognize, or for Australia, or for many other destinations, in search of a new home. Like others who had returned from Istanbul, Odessa, and İzmir, Greeks found repatriation difficult because they had few connections. Those who were gifted in languages found employment at Olympic Airlines, Hellenic Shipyards, or other international companies.

As Kitroeff explains in his book’s conclusion, Greek cultural associations that had proved to be a unifying force in Egypt became an important support for repatriated Egyptian Greeks in Athens. In Egypt, however, the Greek associations, which had been so powerful and had funded hospitals and schools, were weakened by the 1970s. By the 1980s, the cultural associations began to undertake initiatives to preserve the memory and history of Greeks in Egypt, mounting numerous exhibitions and conferences. For example, in 1982, under the leadership of Manos Charitatos, the exhibition Greeks in Egypt — A Four Thousand Year Presence was held in Athens. Another important resource for the preservation of heritage is the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive (ELIA), established in the 1980s in Athens, which collects documents and photographs from the Greek community.

Scholarly interest in the subject continued in the 1990s and 2000s with a number of conferences. Under historian Kostis Moskoff’s leadership, an annual conference on Cavafy was established in Egypt, and the Cavafy museum opened in Alexandria in 1992. In the mid-2000s, Irene Chrysocheri, an art historian and visual anthropologist, filmed a number of interviews with Alexandrian Greeks discussing their memories of the city; her research was supported by the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Center of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and her photographs from the project were later displayed in an exhibition at the Greek consulate in Alexandria, entitled Traveling to the Then and Now. In 2011, a documentary about the Greek experience, Egypt, the Other Homeland, directed by the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Avgeropoulos, was produced by Al Jazeera; like Chrysocheri’s work, the film focuses on oral interviews of Greeks who remembered their lives in Egypt before their exodus in the 1960s. In an effort to reach out to former Greek residents of the country, the Egyptian government recently spearheaded a project called the “Nostos initiative,” inviting Cypriots and Greeks to return to Alexandria with their families for a visit — a small step toward recognizing the contribution of Greeks to the history and cultural life of Egypt.

I am reminded of a vestige of that history whenever I visit the tiny beach in front of the Greek Club in Alexandria, overlooking the western harbor, and hear Greek being spoken among the swimmers. According to the Greek ambassador, Nikolaos Garilidis, “There are about 3,000 Greeks currently living in Egypt, divided between Alexandria and Cairo. Many have dual Greek and Egyptian nationality. Around 150 own factories, shops, and companies.” He also commented that many Greeks divide their time between Egypt and Greece. They have adapted to the changed circumstances, but they still have strong ties to their homeland, always keeping Ithaka in their minds.


Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey, and Japan. She earned her MFA from the University of Alabama and was awarded a teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997–’99. Currently, she is a senior lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo. 

LARB Contributor

Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey, and Japan. She earned her MFA from the University of Alabama and was awarded a teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997–’99. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, Storysouth, Guernica, The Common, and The Millions. Translations in English and Arabic have been published in Nizwa, Banipal, inTranslation, World Literature Today, and Washington Square Review. Her bilingual book of short stories, Three Stories From Cairo (trans. with Mohamed Metwalli), was published in 2011. A collection of stories about expatriate life in Cairo, Shahrazad’s Tooth, appeared in 2013. Currently, Gretchen is a senior lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo. Her novel Confessions of Knight Errant: Drifters, Thieves and Ali Babas Treasure is forthcoming from Cune Press, 2022. Her website is at


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