The land which lies to the east of Egypt, across the Sinai Peninsula, was known to previous generations of European travellers and writers as ‘Syria’, and to Egyptians as Barr al-Sham. When those who had been born there emigrated, they usually referred to themselves as ‘Syrians’. This chapter will deal with all of them, whether or not they came from the land which is now the Lebanese Republic, and whether they called themselves Syrians or Lebanese.
Syria (in this broader sense) and Egypt lie so close to each other that the movement of people between them has been continuous, although for the most part it has gone from Syria to Egypt rather than in the opposite direction. It has been unlike the movements which are the subject of other chapters in this book, in that it has been, at least for the last millennium or so, a movement within the same world of language, belief and culture. Merchants carried the products of Syria by land across the Sinai peninsula or by sea from the Syrian ports to the Mediterranean ports of Egypt, and students went to study at the great centre of Islamic learning, the Azhar mosque in Cairo.
The movement must have increased when the two countries were incorporated in the same empire and therefore the same trading area, as they were during the period of Ayyubid and Mamluk rule from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, and later during that of the Ottomans. Many of those who went from Syria to Egypt remained there. In the Mamluk period, the historian el-Maqrizi tells us in his survey of Cairo that Syrian merchants brought their wares to some of the great khans in the centre of the city: olive oil, sesame oil, soap, pistachios, almonds, and other goods of the kind. At the Azhar, Syrians were important in the student body, and teachers of Syrian origin played da significant part in the life of scholarship.
Syrian Muslim merchants and scholars could be absorbed easily and quickly into the life of the Egyptian cities, but in the eighteenth century there was formed a community which was sufficiently different from the inhabitants of Egypt to remain separate from them, in spite of long residence. In the middle years of the century families of Syrian Christians began to settle in some of the Egyptian cites. There appear to have been two reasons for this movement. On the one hand, there were certain changes in the trade of the eastern Mediterranean. Trade in silk grew: not only the silk brought from Iran by the long land route of which one branch led to Aleppo and the Syrian ports, but that which was being produced in the mountain villages of Lebanon. At the same time, trade with western Europe increased: European cloth was imported into the Ottoman countries, and also the colonial goods produced in the east and west Indies – spices and, towards the end of the century, the coffee of the Antilles, which began to compete successfully with the Yemeni coffee that was exported through Egypt.
On the other hand, new Christian communities were emerging which were in a position to profit from the new trade. From the beginning of the seventeenth century the Ottoman Empire, and in particular its Syrian provinces with their large Christian population, had been open to European Catholic missions; among the Eastern Churches, the Maronite Church had been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church since the time of the Crusades, but now there began to appear divisions in the other churches between those who accepted the supremacy of the pope and those who did not. Those united with Rome, the ‘Uniates’, organized themselves as separate churches under their own hierarchies, and in Syria the most important, apart from the Maronites, were the Greek Catholics of Melkites, the Uniate branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. From 1724 they had their own Patriarch, although they were not to be given formal recognition by the Ottoman government as a separate community until more than a century later, in 1848. Some members of the community acquired a knowledge of European languages through the mission schools, and some of them had relations with the European merchants of Aleppo and Saida. They were exposed to some pressure from the Church from which they had separated themselves, and also from the Ottoman government, and they tended therefore to seek the protection of local rulers who enjoyed some independence of action, and who could make use of their education and skills. Some took service with the princes of Lebanon or the governors of Saida, and others sought new fields of enterprise and greater freedom in Egypt under the Mamluk beys.Read more: Lebanese and Syrians in Egypt