Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 December 2003
Issue No. 670
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (526)

Close to Italy

Dr Yunan Egypt and Italy have always been close. Strong commercial ties, a sizable Italian expatriate community and the country in which the Khedive Ismail elected to spend in exile explains in part why the relationship blossomed over the decades. It was, therefore, no surprise, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* , that a visit by the Italian king to Egypt in 1933 received the attention it did


Click to view caption
Khedive Ismail; Mohamed Ali
Well before Mohamed Ali (1805--1848) created the foundations of the modern state in Egypt, there had existed a special relationship between Egypt and Italy. This relationship can in part be attributed to historical ties. In "Egypt and Italy: between the past and present", appearing in Al- Ahram of 18 February 1933, Abbas Ammar states that relations between the two countries date even further back than ancient Rome's hegemony over the country. Long before that, he claims, Egypt's gods and goddesses were held sacred in Rome. Later, "the beloved goddess Isis continued to be worshipped even in the days of Caesar Augustus and the height of Italy's glory." He continues, "And here is Hadrian, building his palace on the outskirts of Rome and next to it a park dedicated to Osiris and his sister, as a form of sacrifice and way to ingratiate himself to them."

In part, too, the relationship stems from economic links. Trade relations, regardless of their ups and downs, remained a constant between the two countries throughout history. Indeed, even after the Cape of Good Hope replaced the Middle East as Europe's route to the Orient at the end of the 15th century and in spite of the decline in Egypt's fortunes following its absorption into the Ottoman Empire (1517), Italy retained a special place in the commercial life of Alexandria. This reality was observed by no less than the scholars of the French expedition who, in "On the commercial relationship between Egypt and Europe" in the famous Description d'Egypte, noted that most of Egypt's trading relationships at the turn of the 18th century were with Italian cities. Although there was a French presence in the Egyptian markets, it paled next to that of Venice, Trieste and Florence. And beyond France and Italy, no other European nations were represented.

Italy's preeminence in its economic relations with Egypt was reflected in the size of its expatriate community. Writing in Al-Ahram of 19 February 1933, under the headline, "The Italians in Egypt", the Italian historian Angelo San Marco declares, "The Venetians and the people from Trieste, Dalmatia, Genoa, Pisa, Livorno, Naples and Sicily continued to reside in Egypt long after their native cities fell into decay and lost their status as maritime centres with the decline of the Mediterranean as a major thoroughfare for world trade."

Elsewhere in the article, San Marco writes that the Italian community in Egypt held monopolies on the goods that were still popular in the East, which included many imports. In addition, "they engage in many liberal professions, arts and crafts, and many are involved in the teaching of the Italian language, which was the lingua franca of the foreign communities in general." Italians tended to live in exclusively Italian neighbourhoods or in neighbourhoods with other foreigners. Perhaps the most famous of these districts in Cairo was known as the "Venetian Quarter". Nevertheless, San Marco notes that, in order to avoid harassment, the Italians tended to wear Egyptian dress and follow, as much as possible, Egyptian customs.

And so the situation stood until the rise of the modern state. The modernisation enterprise that Mohamed Ali embarked on and the foreign expertise that he would need for this purpose ushered in a new era in the Italian presence in Egypt.

San Marco, in his article, observes that "the Italians had long been familiar with the path to the Orient. At the same time, the political situation of their country compelled them to migrate. Many of these, moreover, were refugees who had ventured to participate in the numerous revolutions that erupted in the Italian peninsula. In addition to the people from the Italian peninsula who sought refuge in Egypt were Italian Jews who had long since placed themselves under the protection of the old Italian city states. It was the great Duchy of Toscana that sought to bolster the influence of Italy by guaranteeing the cooperation of these people who had taken on Italian culture and customs."

The Italian historian continues: "If the Italian community in Egypt consisted primarily of a large array of merchants, artisans, professionals and an increasing number of workers, this was because Italy had remained for a long period of time politically and economically weak, which rendered it incapable of competing with the major industries and capitalist investment coming to Egypt from France. Also because of its economic weakness, Italy fell behind in the transition from sail to steam powered shipping, for which reason it fell behind other industrial powers in commercial relations with Egypt."

There was a reason for Al-Ahram and other Egyptian newspapers exploring the history of Egyptian-Italian relations. King Victor Emmanuel III and Queen Helena were scheduled for a royal visit, which would last more than two weeks, from 20 February to 9 March 1933. Still, historical ties alone did not suffice to explain the importance of this visit.

In the latter half of the 19th century two major events would have an impact on Italy's relations with Egypt. The first was the unification of Italy in 1870 including the remnants of the city state system that had prevailed until then and which ended the Austrian control over northern Italy. On 7 February 1933, Al-Ahram allocated a considerable portion of its front page to an article on the subject, "in honour of the forthcoming visit of His Royal Majesty the King of Italy". The author, Mustafa Sobhi, "licentiate in education and literature", as he signed himself, explained that his reason for writing this article was that knowledge of the history and culture of other nations helped develop the bonds of friendship and affection between different peoples "without the need for official documents and agreements".

The second event occurred almost a decade later when, in 1879, France and Britain interceded with Istanbul to depose the Khedive Ismail, who was then forced to find a place of exile in any but the three countries that had conspired to oust him. The khedive chose Italy.

The choice was not random. Italy at the time, like other European powers, still had political ambitions in Egypt which would have been based on a number of claims and sources of influence. The first educational missions that Egypt had sent to Europe under Mohamed Ali were sent to Italy, in this case to learn the art of printing. Mohamed Ali had also engaged a number of Italian experts to assist in the various tasks of building the modern state: in the exploration of antiquities, the exploration of minerals, in the conquest of Sudan, designing the city of Khartoum and drawing the first survey map of the Delta. In addition, Italians featured prominently in the royal court under Ismail, which is perhaps why Italian architects were chosen to design most of Ismail's palaces, new suburbs of the capital and the royal opera house, which was to be inaugurated with Aida by the Italian composer Verdi. When Verdi declined the invitation to come to Egypt, it instead debuted with the famous composer's Rigoletto.

Ismail lived for 16 years in Italy, mostly in Naples, until his death in 1895. Many of his children were with him in exile, not least of whom was Prince Fouad who would become sultan of Egypt from 1917 to 1922 and then, following the Declaration of 28 February 1922, king, until 1936. Fouad was educated in Italian schools, specifically the military academy in Turin, and it was not surprising, therefore, that the Italian influence would continue to be felt in the Egyptian royal court, if not in the political domain.

It was, in part at least, his fondness for Italy that led King Fouad to undertake, in 1927, that famous royal visit, described by Al-Ahram as "the first absence of his Royal Majesty from his beloved kingdom since assuming the throne of Ismail and Mohamed Ali". During that week-long tour, Fouad called first on his alma mater in Turin and then headed to Rome, where "he was received by King Emmanuel III, Senior Mussolini and all the ministers, members of the royal court and army officials and enthusiastically cheered by the people." While in Rome the king visited the Vatican. Afterwards, he travelled to Venice and then back to Turin, after which he left Italy to France. Following this visit, it was only natural that Fouad would want to return the courtesy to Emmanuel, even if it took six years to do so.

But the Italian king would have had another reason for wanting to visit Egypt. The Italians formed the second largest expatriate community in Egypt, coming only after the Greeks. San Marco's article supplies abundant statistics on the Italian presence in Egypt. The 1882 census, he writes, recorded 18,665 Italians in Egypt. By 1897 the figure rose to 24,454 and 30 years later to 52,462. Thus, he writes, "the Italian community increased by 122 per cent, whereas the Greek community during the same period increased by only 53 per cent and the French by 31 per cent. The British community cannot serve as a standard for comparison. Firstly, the British presence was very small prior to 1882 and secondly the 220 per cent rise in this community by 1928 was primarily due to the many British functionaries who had come to Egypt."

The majority of the Italian community lived in either Cairo or Alexandria, with 18,575 in the former and 24,280 in the latter, according to the 1928 census. The Italian historian adds, "In all events, no other community in Egypt is as large and diverse as ours, which lives in close and constant contact with all classes of Egyptian society." Indeed, the hundreds of Italian words that have been incorporated into the Egyptian colloquial dialect is perhaps the best testimony to the fact that of all the foreign communities, the Italians were the most closely connected to Egyptian society. San Marco ventures that the reason for this was that "our people are noted for their spirit of tolerance, their lack of religious or nationalist chauvinism and, unlike other peoples, their aversion to appearing superior."

Apparently San Marco was one of the Alexandrian Italians, for he dwells in great detail on the manifestations of the Italian community in that famous port city. The Italians there had eight public and six parochial schools. The government schools were supervised by an official committee chaired by the Italian consul and they had a total student enrollment of approximately 1,500. Other schools had student bodies numbering in the hundreds.

The Italians in Alexandria also had 22 philanthropic societies, among which were the National Opera Society, the Society for Disabled War Veterans, the Society of Collectors of Military Insignia, the Italian Club, the Italian Federation for Labour Cooperation, the War Orphans Relief Society, the Mussolini Italian Hospital and the Dante Alighieri Italian Language Association. This was not to mention the many Italian- language newspapers published in Alexandria, the most famous of which were L'Oriente and Il Messaggero Egiziano.

The forthcoming royal visit inspired other Al-Ahram readers to send in their contributions on the lives of Emmanuel III and Queen Helena. One was Mohamed Mohamed El-Ghandour, a student at the Khedival School, who wrote that the Italian king was reputed for his vast erudition and literary interests. He noted, in particular, that the king was one of the foremost experts on ancient Italian numismatics and whose thesis on the subject was recognised by experts as one of the most thorough ever produced. Emmanuel had a collection of some 60,000 coins dating from the most ancient epochs in Italian history. The king was also an expert equestrian. "His Royal Majesty spends long hours on horseback, without growing tired or bored," wrote El-Ghandour.

Helena seemed to epitomise queenly regality. She was tall, slender and attractive, her voice soft and melodious, and her character dignified yet kind and gracious. "Of all the queens in the world, she is the most elegantly dressed in accordance with the latest fashions, of which she prefers the lighter colours. She always carries with her a small mirror with a silver handle, with which she ascertains the countenance she wishes to strike when she smiles. Her Royal Majesty enjoys speaking with children."

One cannot help but observe that the general enthusiasm that occasioned all these articles obviated all reference to any events that had cast a shadow over Egyptian-Italian relations. Notable for its absence was the treaty concluded between the two countries eight years earlier in accordance with which Egypt lost title to the Jaaboub Oasis and the surrounding territory in the Western Desert and which stirred a public outcry in Egypt at the time. Also not mentioned was the Italian military campaign during World War I to oust the Ottomans from Libya. The Egyptian nationalist movement, during what became known as the Battle of Tripoli, had championed Istanbul.

In all events, at 6.55am on Monday, 20 February 1933, the SS Savoy carrying the Italian king and his family arrived in Egyptian territorial waters, upon which the Prince Farouq torpedo boat boomed a 21-gun salute, to which the Italian yacht responded in kind. At 8.30 the Savoy, Egyptian flag fluttering at the bow and the Italian flag at the stern, weighed anchor in Alexandria, after having been escorted into the port by two torpedo ships in front, two destroyers on either flank and two more destroyers at the rear.

At 10.05, the Italian king and queen and their daughters, Princess Matilda and Princess Maria, followed by an entourage from the Italian royal court, disembarked, then took the Faiza, which would transfer them to land. The Al-Ahram correspondent in Alexandria continues, "As soon as they were on board the Faiza, cannons sounded a salute in honour of their arrival, the boats anchored in the port sounded their sirens and the Italian community on shore let out a thunderous cheer and applause. As the boat carrying the royal visitors passed before the maritime clubs, the throngs there cheered as His Royal Majesty waved in response. King Emmanuel III was wearing a grey military uniform and a hat with a long white feather. When the royal train reached the Ras Al-Tin Palace pier, an army regiment issued a military salute as the regimental band struck up the Italian anthem in honour of His Royal Majesty."

In Cairo, the reception of the royal visitors was no less impressive. A regiment of the royal cavalry guard, with their flags and band, was placed at the head of the platform while at the royal gateway stood the speaker of the Senate, members of parliament and senior government officials. At 2.00pm, five automobiles from the Italian Embassy swerved into the station. They were escorted by four riders on motorcycle wearing the black uniforms of the Fascist Party. At 2.15, His Royal Majesty King Fouad, preceded by two masters of ceremony, entered the train station. "His Royal Majesty was in full regalia and wearing the sash bearing the insignia of Mohamed Ali and the highest Italian medal of honour."

At 2.30, the train carrying Emmanuel III and his family arrived. "As the two kings shook hands, the regimental band struck up the Italian anthem and the guns sounded a salute. The royal parties then proceeded to Abdeen Palace in a procession the likes of which Cairo has not seen in years. "The streets and squares swarmed with thousands of spectators who stood in row upon row of either side of the streets, and every balcony and window in the houses and hotels bordering the streets were packed with people. Indeed, some were so moved by their enthusiasm that they climbed up the trees in order to find an advantageous perch, while coffeehouse patrons scrambled to arrange as many chairs as possible on the pavements in front of their establishments, some renting out their chairs for as much as 20 piastres."

The atmosphere of festive reception followed Emmanuel throughout his visit. In Cairo University he was given an honourary doctorate, during which ceremony the minister of education delivered a speech extolling the friendly relations between the two countries. Nor was mention omitted of the ancient relations between the Arabs and Italy, and the service in which the former performed for the latter through the transmission of the knowledge of Arab civilisation in the Middle Ages.

Next on the agenda were visits to the Coptic and Egyptian museums, with regard to which Al-Ahram relates: "King Emmanuel and his company were especially awestruck by the artefacts from the tomb of Tutankhamen. So curious were they and so intense their questions that their visit to the exhibition of jewellery and gilted coffins alone took half an hour."

Given the Italian influence on the Royal Opera House, it was not surprising that the programme would include that venue, in which Fouad offered Emmanuel and his entourage use of the royal box, which is only opened on state occasions. Spectators were treated to two operatic performances that evening.

Finally, the royal family took a brief tour of Upper Egypt. They began in Aswan where they took in the ancient stone quarries which they reached by camel and in which is located a statue of Ramses and the Aswan Dam. In Luxor, they crossed to the west bank and made their way by car to the Ramesseum and the tombs of the kings.

Back north, King Emmanuel and his entourage spent their final days in Alexandria, where they visited the Graeco-Roman Museum, Ptolome's Column and the catacombs and other antiquities. The king also made a point of spending time with the Italian community in Alexandria, which naturally outdid itself in its efforts to host members of the Italian royal family.

The visit, however, did not pass without a cloud or two. Britain, for one, had suspicions about the purpose of this trip and made it a point to air its misgivings. The London Times, known for its close connections to British government circles, featured a long article on Italy's influence in the East and the prominence of the Italian expatriate community in Egypt. It dwelt, in particular, on "Italy's economic ambitions and drive to spread Italian culture", taking the opportunity to remind Egyptians of Rome's policies in Ethiopia and the threat this represented to the source of the Nile.

Meanwhile, in Egypt the lavishness of the Egyptian government in feting the royal guests stirred the ire of some public opinion. In his daily Al-Ahram column, Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed could not contain his surprise at "the trees that have sprouted overnight along Queen Nazli Street". There was also a letter to the editor that criticised the municipality of Alexandria for spending what was then an astoundingly extravagant LE15 per person on the banquet it hosted in honour of King Emmanuel.

But on a lighter note there was that Italian who, decked out in an elegant attire, entered the exclusive jewellery store next to Shepherd's Hotel, claimed that he was a member of the visiting royal court and made over LE1,000 worth of purchases, paying with bank drafts drawn from a Parisian bank. Much to the store's Indian owner's dismay, it transpired that the Parisian bank had no account in the signatory's name. Perhaps the Egyptians who read this story in Al-Ahram laughed, in part, because this time the joke was not on them.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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