Last week, it was announced that a memorial plaque is going up in Alexandria, Egypt, to commemorate the contributions of Slovene women to the city (cf. Egiptovski spomin na slovenske aleksandrinke, 10 January in Večer).
As it turns out, these women – called Aleksandrinke – had quite a story. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, about 7000 girls and women from the Primorska area in what is now western Slovenia and the Italian areas around Trieste went to Egypt – mostly Alexandria but also Cairo – to earn money to send back to their struggling families.
The migration was tied to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which saw many European businessmen relocate to Egypt. They were hesitant to hire locals as servants but Slovene women were prized for their cleanliness and trustworthiness. Others worked for wealthy Egyptians – for example, Milena Fagannelli, a Slovene from the village of Mirna near Trieste, was the nanny of Boutros-Boutros Ghali, who was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1992-1996.
They are remembered today by a small museum in the Slovene town of Prvačina, near Nova Gorica, and in books such as Marjan Tomšič’s Grenko morje (Bitter Sea, 2004) and Južni veter (South Wind, 2006).
And now they will also be remembered by a memorial plaque by sculptor Janez Lenassi, to be unveiled on 8 February, the national holiday of Slovene culture. The plaque reads:
“This plaque is in memory of the fate of the Slovene women, les Goriciennes, les Slaves, les Slovenes, For an entire century they came to Egypt as wet nurses, nannies, cooks, governesses and seamstresses. With their earnings, they saved their families and homesteads from ruin. In the years 1860-1960, thousands of wives and mothers earned their daily bread in Egypt. Their lives and work were unselfishly aided the whole time by the Sisters of Saint Frances of Christ the King of the Province of Trieste in Alexandria and Cairo.”
The plaque will be placed on the headquarters building of the Sisters of Saint Frances, Slovene nuns who helped the Aleksandrinke acclimate to their new city – particularly after it was discovered that some of the Slovene girls were being sold into white slavery. The Sisters will also be awarded the State Honor of the Republic of Slovenia at the unveiling ceremony. More info about the Aleksandrinke (in Slovene) can be found here.
As it turns out, there are other Slavic connections to Alexandria. For one, famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and other artists fleeing the Russian Revolution found refuge in the city, at least for a time. Today, there is a Russian Cultural Center and a Consulate General in Alexandria.
The royal family of Bulgaria also found refuge in Alexandria when it was forced to abdicate in 1946 in the face of its own Communist revolution.
And the Library of Alexandria, the recently recreated wonder of the ancient world, is home to a memorial plaque to Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka, who lived in the city from 1910-1913.