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WORLD BYWAYS: Egyptian City a Ghost of its Days of Glory

May 27, 1986

ASSIUT, Egypt (AP) _ This old Nile-side city is today a ghost of its past, when European royalty came as guests in the palatial homes of pashas, and wealthy Coptic Christian families wielded the political power.

″They used to hold spectacular balls for European royalty,″ said a son of a once-prominent family. ″People used to import the finest clothing and food.″

All that ended with the land and social reforms of the Egyptian revolution that overthrew playboy King Farouk in 1952 and brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power.

Little remains of those graceful days and Assiut today is just another of Egypt’s 25 provincial capitals.

The mansions of yesteryear are run down, many of them now offices of bureaucrats.

The treasures they contained were sold for the most part after Nasser took over in Cairo and set about spreading the wealth.

″Many families are now selling their houses, bringing in good sums for the land value,″ said Dr. Sarah Loza, a U.S.-educated sociologist who was born and reared in Assiut.

But even though Assiut’s glamor and power waned, it has retained a reputation as a city that cared for its own.

″In the past, there was a very strong sense of community commitment,″ Mrs. Loza said in an interview. ″Most of the community needs were handled through private voluntary organizations.″

Assuit’s people ran the city virtually without interference from Cairo, 240 miles to the north and the garden-club lives of the rich often spilled over to help the poor.

″The women used to travel in the summer and set up exhibits in the winter of the flowers, plants, new embroidery designs brought from abroad,″ said Mrs. Loza. Attempts to recreate the embroidery patterns led to jobs for illiterate or destitute girls and a needlework industry that became associated with Assiut.

After 1952, however, the government took authority over the volunteer organizations and the strong community spirit dwindled, Mrs. Loza said.

″Under the socialist regime there officially were no rich and poor, no more notion of the rich helping the poor,″ she explained. ″All came under the care of the government.″

Nevertheless, the city of 250,000 retains some semblance of philanthropy.

Existing schools for orphans and the handicapped today are financed by individual donors and run by church groups, while others are operated by the government’s Ministry of Social Affairs.

Philanthropic groups, such as the Salvation of the Souls Charitable Society, still function, some in run-down mansions.

The Young Girls’ Training Home, run by the Paris-based humanitarian organization Terre des Hommes, is the neighbor of the Trasher Orphanage, founded by Liliane Trasher, an American missionary from North Carolina.

But little has change at Assiut’s old bazaar, where the old crafts remain. One shop in the bazaar has stacks of white umbrellas awaiting repair. White umbrellas, popular among city folk long ago, are used today for shade by Egyptian peasants.

The bazaar still is the place where brides buy their trousseaus of hand- sewn mattresses and quilts filled with raw cotton.

Assiut had its dark side in the old days. Family ties were strong and conflicts often deteriorated into vendettas, usually solved by means outside the law, ranging from beatings to murders.

″The people were self-taught and self-sufficient,″ said an engineer who grew up here. ″The government had little authority over them. They had their own power and pride, and this gave rise to animosities and vengeance.″

But with that aspect of Assiut’s life abated after 1952.

″We don’t kill each other any more,″ said the young director of a sports club. ″We run this club instead.″

A colleague agreed: ″Our families used to shoot each other, but now we organize activities here together.″