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Greeks of Sudan: A Tumultuous History

The Greek Church of the Annunciation in Khartum, Sudan. Credit: RomanDeckert, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia

The Greeks of Sudan who are now living through agonizing moments due to the civil strife in Khartoum are small in number (estimated at around 150), but still a very prominent community in the country.

“The Greek heartland in Khartoum is located exactly where the fighting takes place, in the center of the city,”  Antonis Chaldeos, a scholar who has dedicated his professional life to writing and researching the Greek communities of Africa tells Greek Reporter.

“There is a walled building block within which there is the Church of the Annunciation, the offices of the Greek community, the Greek school, and the building of the Greek Embassy which has been defunct for years.

“In this area which is located near the government buildings, rival military forces are fighting for control of the capital.”

Antonis Chaldeos with students of the Greek school during a recent visit to Khartoum. Credit: Antonis Chaldeos

“The Greeks in Khartoum are living a nightmare,” Chaldeos says. “They are blockaded, the airport is closed and the country is isolated from the West as it is considered a pariah state  for the relations it had developed with Osama bin Laden and extreme Islamists.”

Chaldeos’ recent book “The Greek Community in Sudan”, which focuses on the Greek presence in the 19th ad 20th centuries, is a well-documented work and a comprehensive guide.

The book reviews the presence of the Greeks in Sudan. Photo supplied

“It’s not the first time that the Greek community has been caught in the middle of wars and ethnic strife in Sudan. Over the last 200 years, the community suffered on several occasions for protected periods,” he notes.

Today there are only about 150 Greeks living in Khartoum. In the early 1970s, there were more than 10,000 that were living in several areas of Sudan.

“Greeks in Sudan had established more than 10 communities such as in southern Sudan, in the Darfur region, on the border with Ethiopia, and on the banks of the Nile. Now only the community of Khartoum remains,” Chaldeos says.

Historically, this diverse group has played a significant role in the political, economic, cultural, and sporting life of Sudan, as they have been the only European immigrant community of considerable size and economic power.

“The Sudanese are particularly fond of the Greeks,” Chaldeos tells Greek Reporter. “They have offered so much to the country over the last two centuries in every aspect of society, including the economy, culture, and sport.”

The Kontomichaleios High School and Lyceum in Khartoum. Credit: RomanDeckert , CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia

Ancient and Byzantine Greeks in Sudan

Inter-human and cultural exchange between the Hellenic and Nubian civilizations started at least two and a half millennia ago. The Greek presence in the Nile Valley and its considerable impact on ancient Nubia have long been recognized by scholars.

A new era of Greek-Nubian relations began in 332 BCE, when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and soon dispatched reconnaissance expeditions into Nubia, possibly to find the sources of the Nile.

Half a millennium later, Hellenic influence became all the stronger, when Byzantium reached out to Nubia, which consisted of the three kingdoms.

Around 540 CE, Empress Theodora sent Greek-speaking missionaries to these lands, which had already been in the process of evangelization earlier and went on to adopt Christianity as their official religion.

Greeks of Sudan in the 19th century

When the Turkish-Egyptian forces of the Ottoman Khedive Mohamed Ali conquered the Funj kingdom in 1821, the invading army reportedly included Greek mercenaries of Arvanite origin. The chief military doctor was a Greek named Dimitrios Botsaris.

More Greeks followed in subsequent years from Egypt, not only as military officers and soldiers but also as interpreters, some of whom guided expeditions further southward, as well as medical doctors and pharmacists, who opened several drug stores. Others traded n ivory, leather, ostrich feathers, and gum Arabic.

Some also became involved in the trade of slaves from what was later to become South Sudan. Moreover, Greek entrepreneurs in Kassala and Gedaref used slaves on their cotton plantations in the 1870s.

According to Chaldeos most of the Greeks settled in Omdurman, the port town of Suakin on the Red Sea coast which became a favorite destination after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Greeks of Sudan
Greek families in Khartoum in September 1898 after the defeat of the Mahdist rule by an Anglo-Egyptian force. Public Domain

The indigenous Mahdist insurrection against colonial rule had serious implications for the Greek community in Sudan. Several were killed, others fled and by January 1885, only 54 Greeks still remained in Khartoum.

Those Greeks, who had been captured and kept alive, were forced to convert to Islam.

When Kitchener’s forces defeated the Mahdist army in 1898, they counted a community of 87 Greeks in Khartum. Many chose to remain in the British-dominated Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

This nucleus of the Greek community was immediately enlarged by interpreters and merchants, who entered Sudan with the invading army, either from the Red Sea or along the Nile.

The latter specialized as contractors in supplying logistics to the military and the newly established government. Some Greeks also officially served in the Anglo-Egyptian administration, particularly in the Railways and Steamers Department, as clerks and technical staff.

Altogether, the symbiotic association between the colonial regime and the Greek settlers essentially defined the Hellenic presence in Sudan during the first half of the 20th century.

Greek traders effectively dominated the market for more than two decades. Already during the first months, Greek speculators purchased land “for trifling sums” in the Khartoum area, so that “much of the most valuable land in the new city passed thus at once into the hands of a few wealthy capitalists.”

The number of Greeks grew rapidly: in 1902, there were already about 150 in the Khartoum area. In the same year the ‘Hellenic Community’ of the capital was officially established. Among its founding fathers were businessmen like Capato, John Cutsuridis, and Panayotis Trampas, who had survived the Mahdiya as a captive.

After the forced displacement of the Greeks from Asia Minor and the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, many of the Greek newcomers to Sudan originated from Constantinople and Smyrna, escaping abject poverty.

The Greek section of the Christian cemetery in Khartoum, Sudan. Credit: RomanDeckert , CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia

The years after Sudan’s independence were a peak time for the Greeks

When Sudan obtained sovereignty from the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium on 1 January 1956, the Greek settlers in the country were issued Sudanese nationality certificates and generally continued to thrive in the first few years of independence.

According to Chaldeos, the community reached its greatest number in 1957 at around 6,000. Alexandros Tsakos says that during that time “the Greeks were the main (foreign) agents supporting the transition of the Sudanese society from ‘former’ to ‘new’ times.

They occupied many posts in the public sector, they controlled production centres as important as the Gezira Cotton Scheme, and they influenced substantial parts of the urban economy and its everyday activities.”

Big exodus of Greeks from Sudan

The big exodus of the Greeks from northern Sudan started in 1969 after the May Revolution of the military regime under Gaafar Nimeiry, which in its early phase pursued a policy of nationalization.

Big companies like Contomichalos and Tsakirolglou were hard hit and most of the disowned entrepreneurs emigrated, many of them to the Apartheid states of Rhodesia and South Africa.

By 1970, the number of Greeks had come down to around 2,000. The culture of Greek newspapers, which had been published in Sudan since 1911, ceased to exist. In 1972, one of the Greek Clubs was disbanded.

Another hard hit for the Greek community was the introduction of the draconian “September Laws” as an interpretation of Sharia by Nimeiry in 1983, who ordered all alcoholic beverages in Khartoum spectacularly dumped into the Blue Nile overnight.

Until this prohibition, the trade in such goods as well as ownership of nightclubs and bars had traditionally been dominated by Greek merchants, who controlled around 80% of the market.

The Acropole Hotel in 2015. Credit: erdbeernaut, CC BY-SA 2.0/Wikipedia

Since then, the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum has all the more become one of the most prominent places of Greek presence in Sudan. It was founded in 1952 by Panagiotis Pagoulatos from Cephalonia, who had left war-torn Greece in 1944, and his wife Flora, an Egyptian-Greek from Alexandria.

By the end of the 1980s, the number of Greeks in Sudan had shrunk to less than 1,000. Following the 1989 coup d’état of General Omar al-Bashir, who was backed by Islamist forces, the number dropped to around 500 in 1992 and to about 300 in 1996.

The number of Greeks in Sudan stabilized by 2015 at around 150 – which amounts to the same level as the Hellenic Community at its foundation in 1902.

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