Aleksandrinke – Slovenian Women in Egypt

Photo: Archive SIM

May 2010

The “Aleksandrinke”, Slovenian women who owing to the difficult economic circumstances in what was at the time Italian Primorska at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century went to Egypt in search of employment, many of whom remained there, are a special phenomenon among Slovenian emigrants who should not be forgotten. They were between 4800 and 6000 mostly young mothers and girls from the Gorica area who worked in then-flourishing Alexandria and Cairo, mainly as maids, nannies, cooks and nursemaids for the families of wealthy townsfolk, the majority of whom were European. The economic heyday of Alexandria, which paralleled the construction of the Suez Canal in the second half of the 19th century, made it possible for Slovenian women to earn at least twice as much as they would at home in the economically straitened Gorica area, and spread the good reputation of disciplined, hard-working and well-kempt Slovenian maids far and wide. The situation in Cairo, 250 km away, was the same. The town chronicles speak clearly about how valued Primorska women were in Egypt, stating that a full 195 bourgeois families were vying for three Slovenian maids, as there simply weren’t any more available. At the same time, their good reputation led to some of them going back to Egypt several times, many of them to stay.

Leaving children and families at home

The Slovenian women performed difficult tasks, as they were the ones who made the existence of the bourgeois families possible. Yellowed photographs show us images of attractive, well-dressed and elegant women; they were sophisticated ladies of whom we can be justifiably proud. However, the fate of these emigrants so far from home was also sometimes harsh: they left children and families at home, and when they returned years later they often were unable to re-establish genuine relationships with their own families. Moving letters from separated people expressing longing for each other are a significant part of the cultural heritage that the Aleksandrinke left behind, and bear witness to their close connections to their homeland.

Some of them found their last peace on the cemetery in Alexandria or Cairo

Photo/source: From the publication by the Society for the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of the Alexandrian Women.

Both of the cities’ cemeteries still have many graves bearing Slovenian names, where members of the once-strong Slovenian emigrant colony were laid to rest. At the beginning of the 20th century this colony numbered around 5000 capable and ambitious people, who in addition to numerous Slovenian and later also Yugoslavian associations also maintained a Slovenian school and church, and managed some well-known companies. Later the numbers and power of the Slovenian community began to wane, but even today in both cities (at the turn of the century the population of Alexandria was as much as around 40% European) you can still find quite a few people with Slovenian roots.

Over the past decade a special association from Prvačina near Nova Gorica has undertaken to preserve the cultural heritage left by the Aleksandrinke, and have researched this part of our history and raised awareness of its significance. The initiative was first seized by the Slovenian Emigrants Association, and then by the Government Office for Slovenians Abroad, and a lot of things began to happen because of this.  In 2007 a memorial plaque for Slovenian women in Egypt was installed at a home for school nurses in Alexandria, where they most often gathered, and in 2009 a special exhibition was held, which was hosted by the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum, at a gathering of Slovenian emigrants at the Nova Gorica Museum in the Kromberk Castle, and later in the hall of the Slovenian Emigrants Association in Ljubljana. At the end of March of this year we Slovenians dedicated a memorial plaque to our countrywomen in the Christian part of the cemetery in Cairo, which was unveiled by the Slovenian Ambassador to Egypt Borut Mahnič, the President of the Society for the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of the Aleksandrinke Dejana Baša and Secretary Janez Rogelj.

Text by: Jože Osterman, Sinfo 5, 2010