Time seems to have stood still at Papazian’s, an Armenian Egyptian watchmaker whose almost 120-year-old Cairo shop has withstood the decades, surviving political upheavals and urban transformations. Sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the capital’s unforgiving traffic and surrounded by street vendors in Attaba Square, the unassuming shop housed under the arcades of an old Haussmannian building is a time capsule of Cairo’s rich cosmopolitan history.
It is a rare museum-like site where old clocks, watches and timepieces are meticulously repaired. “I have spare parts from my grandfather’s days,” Ashod Papazian, the current 64-year-old owner who inherited the family business, told AFP. The shopfront with patinated wooden frames boasts an impressive array of pocket watches and wrist models with ageing bracelets, as well as yellowed advertisements of the vaunted watchmaker. At the turn of the 19th century, Egypt had become a popular destination for Armenians who specialised in delicate manual crafts such as jewellery-making, along with a thriving European community that included Italians, Greeks, Jews and French citizens.
The Armenian community, estimated to have numbered between 40,000 and 60,000 before Egypt’s 1952 anti-monarchy revolution, mostly living in Cairo and Alexandria, has dwindled to only around a few thousand now. In his small office surrounded by a quaint mess of archives, books and clocks of all kinds, Ashod is the keeper of precious memories. Two black-and-white portraits hang behind his armchair: of his grandfather Nerses, known as Francis, the founder of the store, and of Ashod’s own father Sarkis.
Under the more than century-old counters, dozens of wooden drawers contain spare parts of almost every imaginable brand of watch. Antique comtoise pendulum chimes or cuckoo clocks-some from the 19th century-occupy every inch of available wall space. They belong to customers who have entrusted him to repair them or owned by the watch enthusiast himself-who refuses to part with his rarest timepieces.
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In 1893, Nerses Papazian, drafted into the Ottoman army, escaped by jumping on a boat without knowing his final destination, his grandson told AFP. He ended up in Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Ten years later, he opened the watch shop in Cairo that carries his name on the storefront to this day. Building a reputation, he attracted several stars from the golden age of Egyptian cinema such as Youssef Wahbi, Fouad el-Mohandes and Abdelmoneim Ibrahim as customers.
Papazian also said the family of King Farouk, Egypt’s last monarch, called his father Sarkis to the royal palace to have their pick from a wide array of watches. Later when Egypt’s Free Officers movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the country’s first president, overthrew the monarchy, the newly-established republic’s elite also adopted Papazian. “After the revolution there were (army) officers who dropped by, they were friends with my dad. They loved watches,” he said. Papazian’s retains many loyal customers, but there are no succession plans on the cards for his two sons in their 20s.
“Most of the clients have become friends. We don’t have anyone just passing through here,” he explained. Talaat Farghaly, 71, said he has been frequenting the shop ever since 1965. The Armenian watchmaker is “very reliable”, he said. “We respectfully call him ‘Khawaga’ (the foreigner),” said Farghaly, who works in import-export. Ahmed el-Melegy, 62, a printer, is also an aficionado with more than 35 in his watch collection. “My passion for clocks began in 1984,” he told AFP. “I often passed Ashod’s shop and was fascinated. One day I decided to buy myself a clock for my wedding. Since then I haven’t been able to stop,” he recalled. – AFP