The Slovenia Times

Alexandrians - Slovenian women in search of a better life in Egypt

The museum in Prvačina dedicated to the Alexandrians, women from western Slovenia who worked for wealthy families in Egypt between the second half of the 19th century and the Second World War. Photo: Jure Makovec/STA

Many Slovenian women from Goriška would go to Egypt to serve as maids in the homes of rich European families in the period between the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the start of WWII. Leaving their families was not easy but they helped them make ends meet. They are known as Alexandrians. One of them was nanny of a future UN chief.

Young single women and wives, most of them from the Vipava Valley and Kras in the west of the country, served in Alexandria and Cairo as nannies, wet nurses, chambermaids, cooks and lady's maids for wealthy Christian or Jewish families but also for some Muslim families.

It is difficult to say how many served in the course of 100 years, given that some went back three or four times, but it is estimated that in a certain period there were up to 7,000 there.

Travelling to Egypt from Trieste by ship, most of them worked in Alexandria, hence their Slovenian name Aleksandrinke, or Alexandrians. In Egypt, they went by their French name les Slovenes or les Goriciennes, and were in high demand for their hard work, tidiness, honesty and loyalty.

The house in Prvačina that keeps a collection dedicated to the Slovenian Alexandrians. Photo: Jure Makovec/STA

This unique female mass emigration in Slovenian history is cherished by the Association for the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of Alexandrians. Based in Prvačina, a village where every single house used to have at least one woman working in Egypt, the association runs a museum in a house once owned by an Alexandrian.

The museum features stories about individual Alexandrians, as well as various items they brought home from Egypt, such as dresses, including a wedding dress and a silk nightie, as well as cutlery, table cloth and a number of personal items, such as a watch, a ring, an umbrella etc.

Its president Darinka Kozic says that "this was probably the first women's emancipation in the world", although she admits more research is needed. But there is no doubt that these women were financially independent and provided for their poor families at home, enabling them to make ends meet, pay off debts and live better.

Reasons for mass migration to Egypt

Kozinc, who has written several novels about the Alexandrians, says women sought work so far away because of the difficult economic situation at home and the opportunity to make a living that arose with the opening of the Suez Canal when many wealthy European families moved to Egypt for business and needed female domestic help.

"It's thanks to Empress Maria Theresa that all these girls had at least primary school education, that they could read and write, which was not insignificant," Kozinc says in reference to education reforms in the Hapsburg Empire.

Alexandria was an extremely prosperous and cosmopolitan city, and the first of the future Alexandrians was probably a maid who went to Egypt from Vienna or Trieste with the family she was working for. There she could earn several times more than anywhere else.

Times were harsh, especially between both world wars. Many homes in the region of Primorska, the site of the WWI Isonzo Front, were destroyed, and the region came under Italian rule during the rise of fascism. Italy gave Slovenians loans to repair their homes at extortionate interest, which led to huge debt, and those who did not show loyalty to Fascism could not get work.

High price of being away from home

Leaving their families behind was difficult for all, especially mothers and foremost for breast-feeding mothers, who went to Egypt as wet nurses. It is estimated that around a quarter of all Slovenian Alexandrians were wet nurses.

They often became very fond of the children they took care of, and became accustomed to the new, more prosperous environment, learning new manners and languages, tasting new food, wearing different clothes.

The Prvačina museum keeps a collection of personal items that belonged to the Alexandrians. Photo: Jure Makovec/STA

While most of them eagerly waited to be finally reunited with their families, some found the return painful because of alienation, and so did their children, who would often no longer recognise their mothers.

Additionally, the rural environment was not always able to appreciate the wealth of knowledge, skills and outlooks that the Alexandrians brought home. It thus often happened that these women found "allies" only in their granddaughters, recounting to them the many stories from the exotic land and passing on new insights and skills.


Although it was often the family's decision to send one of the women to Egypt, those who were left behind as well as the Church worried about their morals abroad, which gave rise to speculation.

Kozinc says that while it could not be excluded that some ended up in dubious jobs, the vast majority were decent and worked hard. She quotes Alexandrian-born Berto Silič as saying that as a young man who went to many brothels he had never encountered a single Slovenian woman there.

The allegedly dubious reputation and stereotypes were also reinforced by some Slovenian writers. In his poem Egyptian Woman, Anton Aškerc for instance described a young girl who leaves for Egypt where she is a nanny, then she is courted by an Arab, whom she turns down, and eventually becomes a high-class prostitute.

Destigmatisation began only in the mid-1970s when journalist Dorica Makuc made a TV documentary and wrote a book about these women. And a few years ago, Metod Pevec made another documentary bringing affectionate accounts of some of the children the Alexandrians took care of but also heart-breaking stories of the children the Alexandrians left at home.

The collection on Alexandrians in Prvačina. Photo: Jure Makovec/STA

From Boutros-Ghali's nanny to queen of Alexandria elite

One of the missions of the association and museum is destigmatisation by presenting facts and stories. An interesting story is that of Milena Faganeli, a teacher from Miren, who took care of young Boutros Boutros-Ghali years before he became UN secretary general. Faganeli, born in 1879, left for Egypt after WWI and retuned home as late as 1962.

Marija Cvenk was only seven when she arrived in Egypt in 1914 with her mother, who was already working there. The mother made sure her daughter received a good education and she became a nanny for the children of royals. She remained there her entire life and died in a shelter run by Slovenian nuns, who helped many Alexandrians find their feet.

Joža Sedmak's Cinderella story is almost unbelievable. A poor girl from a large fisherman's family from a village near Trieste was, technically speaking, not an Alexandrian, as she went to Egypt for love. She met Oswald Finney, a wealthy Englishman, and married him to become one of the richest Slovenians ever, "the queen of the Alexandria elite".


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