Is there really an Egyptian Greek island?

Reports circulating in Egypt’s media claim that Greece’s fifth largest island is owned by Egypt and that Greece has stopped paying the US$1 million rent on the island.

The accuracy of such information remains contested, however.

These media reports quote Egyptian former official at the Endowments Ministry Atef Othman who said that the island was a gift from the Ottoman Sultan to Mohamed Ali Pasha in the 19th century. He claimed that Ali later transformed the island into an endowment to support charitable work. Located in the Aegean Sea, Chios is the hometown of Greek poet Homer, author of Iliad and the Odyssey.

Atef claims that an agreement was signed between the two countries 1997 in which Greece rented the island from Egypt for $1 million annually and that Greece stopped paying the rent following another agreement in 2015. This agreement redefined the maritime borders with Egypt ceding sovereignty over the island to Greece, according to Atef.

A quick search on the website of the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation concerning the history of agreements with Greece shows no reference to the alleged deal in 1997. There is another deal signed that year between the two countries, however — the ratification of the Double Taxation Prevention Agreement.

Professor of History at Harvard University Khaled Fahmy disputes the circulating information.

“The news given by former Endowment Ministry officials is catastrophic. They show that the ministry is unaware of Egypt’s heritage there,” Fahmy says.

These media reports come at a time when there continues to be tension around an April agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia redrawing maritime borders. The deal met with wide public disapproval as Egypt was seen to have ceded sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir islands to its wealthy donor-ally.

Two Egyptian lawyers have filed a complaint against the Egyptian government accusing it of giving up an Egyptian island to Greece and parliamentarian Haitham al-Hariry has asked the government to provide clarification.

The Ministry of Endowments said in a statement on August 21 that the minister has delegated the Egyptian Embassy in Athens to look into the renovation of Egypt’s endowments in Greece. A delegation from the ministry is expected to visit Greece soon to look into this.

Despite the inaccuracy of the reported news on the Egyptian ownership of the land, Egypt does indeed own a number of endowments in Greece.

Professor Fahmy explains that there are no Egyptian endowments on the island of Chios but on Thasos. Thasos is located to the north of the Aegean Sea, close to Kavala, the hometown of Mohamed Ali. The island came under Ottoman occupation in the 15th century, almost 100 hundred years before Egypt also came under Ottoman occupation.

The presence of Egyptian endowments in Thasos dates back to the 19th century, when the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II dedicated some agricultural land in the form of an endowment to Ali, as a reward for Ali’s military triumph against the Wahhabists in the Arabian Gulf, who had revolted against the Ottoman empire.

“Egypt never had any ownership claims to the island, but rather some endowments as rewards to Mohamed Ali,” Fahmy explains.

Ali later used the money generated by the endowment to build an “Imaret”, an Ottoman word meaning a major endowments building in the city of Kavala, his hometown, according to Fahmy. The building was a charitable school for poor children of Kavala, associated with a hostel and a restaurant.

“Egypt had a strong charitable role in the island in Kavala as a result of the endowment and the Imaret. But it was never a military or an administrative role,” Fahmy clarifies.

But the Egyptian presence on the island quickly weakened by the early 20th century, as the island turned into a battleground as part of World War I.

The Imaret in Kavala was in a derelict state until a Greek woman named Anna Macyrian rented it from the Egyptian Endowments Ministry in 1997 and renovated it. The decaying building quickly turned into an “architectural piece of art” Fahmy says and serves both as a cultural hub and five star hotel.

Macyrian acknowledges Egypt’s ownership of the endowment, according to Fahmy, and there is an Egyptian flag hanging and at the entrance a large statue of Mohamed Ali.

“She signed a 50-years contract and is committed to paying the annual rent after she spent millions of dollars on its renovation,” Fahmy says. She has also rented from the Endowments Ministry the house where Mohamed Ali was born, which is 500 meters away from the hotel.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Center for the Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT) is working on documenting the Egyptian heritage in Greece.

Fahmy says he was only able to glean information on Egypt’s heritage in Greece after a long and difficult process of research in the Egyptian National Library and Archives, which withholds most of the information.

A long time critic of what he sees as a securitized approach to knowledge and research, Fahmy says, “Why don’t Egyptians have any access to their history? Why does no one want these documents to be available? No one wants these documents to come to light, just like what happened with the Tiran and Sanafir case.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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