by Norbert Schiller
In the beginning, the Greeks acted as middlemen between Egypt and the more established European powers, most notably France and Britain, two countries Mohammed Ali Pasha was seeking to lure for investment. Later, the Greeks played a crucial role in the construction of the Suez Canal and the running of the cotton industry, which flourished in the wake of the American civil war when international demand was at an all-time high.
In the process of modernizing the country, Egypt’s rulers were forced to borrow money from foreign banks, mainly in Europe. By 1876 the country’s debt was so high that the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II declared Egypt bankrupt. Fearful of losing their investments, the banks put pressure on their governments and in no time Egypt’s finances came under European control. It didn’t take long for disgruntled parties in Egypt, namely the military under the command of Ahmed Urabi, to call for a revolt. In June 1882, violent clashes broke out between Egyptians and foreigners in Alexandria, which prompted British and French ships to sail into the Alexandria harbor hoping that their presence would quell the unrest. As the revolt became imminent with Urabi’s forces unwilling to withdraw their cannons, the British fleet opened fire on the city. In the end, Urabi was sent into exile, and the British took over the day-to-day running of the country through their Egyptian proxies.
For Egyptians, the foreign domination was humiliating. However, for the Greeks and other foreigners, the British presence was a welcome relief. Not only did it give the foreign community a sense of security, but it also gave them greater opportunities to expand. In no time, Greek entrepreneurs fanned out across the country opening business that ranged from cotton mills to grocery shops. To this day, there are numerous shops throughout Egypt, some in the most remote locations that still bear their original Greek name.
As the foreign population grew, so did the demand for imported foodstuff and drink. The Greeks built numerous food processing plants, including the first chocolate factory and the first carbonated water plant. Soon, the Greeks dominated the alcoholic beverage industry. Bolanachi began making rum, brandy and whiskey as early as 1884; Klonaridis Bros. opened one of the first brewery in the 1890s, and Andreas Zottos, who is featured in this photography exhibition, opened his distillery in Alexandria in 1918. In 1869, Nestor Gianaclis moved from Constantinople (Istanbul) and opened the largest cigarette factory in Egypt. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, Gianaclis, using foreign grapes, reintroduced Egyptian wine for the first time since the days of the pharaohs. In 1930, shortly before his death, Gianaclis was able to taste his first vintage before it hit the market. One could argue that the heyday for the Greeks and other foreigners living in Egypt lasted between the 1882 British bombardment of Alexandria and 1922, when a popular uprising led by nationalist Saad Zaghloul forced Britain to grant Egypt limited autonomy.
In 1939, with an impending world war about to erupt, Egypt’s beverage industry was about to explode. With war raging across Europe and Rommel’s forces racing across North Africa, over a million Allied troops from as far away as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa descended onto Egypt on their way to the various battle fronts. Nobody could have predicted the impact all these thirsty servicemen would have on the wine, beer and spirits industries. After the war, nationalist fervor once again threatened foreign interests in Egypt. With Britain releasing its grip over the country, it was only a matter of time before Egypt would enter a new era.
The riots of 26 January 1952, known as “Black Saturday,” marked the beginning of the end for Egypt’s expatriate communities. Six months after the riots that left many foreigners dead and foreign-owned business in ruins, the Free Officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the British-backed monarchy. Initially some in the foreign community had hoped that the revolution would be sympathetic to their presence. In the end, however, Nasser made it very clear that from then on Egypt would be for the Egyptians. Over the course of the next decade, the bulk of the foreign community was forced to abandon their livelihoods, their properties, and leave the country. Many who had arrived decades earlier with nothing were once again empty-handed as they waited to board ships at Alexandria harbor.
Sixty years have passed since the foreign exodus began and if you look closely at some of the old buildings you can still see faded signs from this bygone era. Some names, such as Gianaclis or Stella have been rebranded and continue to be sold to this day while others have disappeared. I recently asked a friend who lives in Cairo to inquire at her local liquor store if they carried any Zottos products. The owner told her that the name Zottos had been discontinued “but if you like that same taste try Vat 1865!”
I purchased the Distillerie Zottos photo album from a dealer in Athens, Greece. I don’t know exactly when the Zottos family left Egypt or what their destination was. After WWII, Greece was in an unstable state and, as a result, many Egyptian Greeks chose not to go to their native country, but to emigrate to as far away as Australia, South Africa, and America.
If anyone has additional information they would like to share or photographs that are relevant to this exhibition or any other collection, please do not hesitate to contact me.