Al-Ahram Weekly
April 30 2009

Eva Dadrian looks at the variety of life of Armenians resident in Egypt
today and the multi-faceted nature of the jobs they undertake from
archaeology to Egyptology, and contemporary Armenian studies to history

The Centre for Armenian Studies (CAS) at Cairo University was created
in 2007 to foster the interdisciplinary study of the Armenian language,
literature, civilisation and history through academic research,
workshops and seminars.

Despite the historical ties between the Arab countries and Armenians,
there has been no previous attempt to create such a centre. Housed
in the Faculty of Arts, CAS is indeed the first and only academic
nucleus totally dedicated to Armenian studies in the entire Middle
East region. It took many years for the Armenian community and the
Egyptian authorities to realise the importance of setting up such an
academic institution. "This shortcoming should be shared by both,"
admits Zeinab Abu Senna, the centre's first director and a specialist
in Turkish language and literature. She explains that the Armenians,
who arrived in Egypt and in the rest of the Arab world after World
War I, were mainly concerned with survival, family reunion, educating
their children and building a decent life for their offspring, "so
we cannot blame them for not having envisioned the setting up of such
an institution."

On the other hand, she also admits that the authorities in the region,
who had welcomed them, have only recently come to realise that
"within the context of such sustained Armenian presence in the Arab
world and in view of the expansion of the inter-communal relations,
a centre was an inevitable requirement to know more about the other
civilisation and reinvigorate relations. A journey of one thousand
miles starts with the first step."

In less than two years, CAS has become a hub of intensive academic
activities, organising lectures, seminars and also publishing research
papers and conference proceedings. Three books have already been
published and soon, says Abu Senna, the centre will publish a book
about Nubar Pasha, the Armenian Egyptian statesman who served three
times as prime minister of Egypt, once under Khedive Ismail, and
then twice under Khedive Tawfiq, and who is revered by all Egyptian
intellectuals and academics. For the time being, the centre has only
one room but its director hopes that it will be allocated more space
in the near future, "to expand our academic activities and house a
larger library" she adds. A week ago, a visiting group of librarians
and officials from the US Library of Congress promised to donate a
variety of books and publications to enhance the small but already
growing library.

A core component of the centre's outreach work involves organising
seminars and workshops. These are attended by students, researchers and
lecturers from the faculties of history, arts and various departments
of Oriental languages. Two international conferences organised since
the CAS was established have brought together researchers, scholars
and specialists from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Armenia, all
working in the field of Armenian history, language and literature. The
proceedings of the conference on "Arab-Armenian Relations, Past and
Present" held in April 2008 have just been published, and "this year,"
says Abu Senna, "we had the pleasure of welcoming the former Armenian
ambassador to Syria. He is a highly qualified academic and his modesty
surprised us all because he attended our conference in his capacity
as a researcher and not as a diplomat. His contribution was greatly
appreciated by all present and especially by me."

In line with its interdisciplinary approach, a regular series of
lectures and seminars bring together specialists from different
Egyptian faculties and academic institutions. "Our aim is to hold
these events in conjunction with an academic programme focussing mainly
on Armenian language, civilisation and history," says Abu Senna. The
seminars and lectures are unique in their intensive cultural immersion
and the enlightening educational forays which challenge students
and researchers to reach new levels of intellectual curiosity and

By inviting Professor Nicolai Hovhanissian, director of the Institute
of Oriental Studies of the University of Yerevan, Armenia, to
its first international conference, CAS has given a new impetus
to Armenian-Egyptian relations. There is no doubt that this will
encourage the establishment of official and stronger ties between
the two academic institutions. Wider cooperation will increase
understanding and appreciation on both sides. With the backing of
the Armenian Embassy in Cairo, an official visit to Armenia has
been arranged for the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Abu Senna to
meet their Armenian counterparts next September. The week-long visit
will strengthen ties between the two countries and launch a wave of
exchanges and academic collaboration.

photo: Nubar Pasha, the Armenian Egyptian statesman; one of the three
main gates of the city built by Badreddin Al-Jamali between 1807 and
1902; Bab Zuweila is a treasure of the Islamic Fatimid architecture
in historic Cairo