Alexander Saroukhan


Alexander Saroukhan

Foremost Armenian Caricaturist of the Arab World

Often describing himself as an Armenian with an Egyptian soul, Alexander Saroukhan was a well-established caricaturist and considered by some to be among the best of the 20th century. An artist known for his satirical depictions of the cultures and political climate of his times, but also one who in his work clinged onto a hope for better days.

Text: Zareh-Sevag Sarkissian

Early Life

Alexander Hagop Saroukhan was born on the 1st of October 1898 as the third child of five in the town of Ardanoush in Batumi oblast (province) within the Russian Empire. In Ardanoush, Alexander’s father, Hagop Zadig Saroukhanian, worked as a middle-class fabric merchant. 

In 1900, the family moved to the city of Batumi which was undergoing a surge of wealth due to its status as the main export route of petroleum from Baku to the world. Not before long, Hagop began working in the oil trade in Batumi.

Abisoghom agha’s arrival in Constantinople (Illustration to H. Baronian’s comedy Respectable Beggars) 

Alexander, as well as his younger brother Levon, began their first drawing attempts as children at home with encouragement from their father. In Batumi, within his Russian primary school art teacher, Alexander found his first source of inspiration and encouragement that kindled his soul with the love of art.


Life During the War

After the ascendance of the Young Turks and the seemingly favourable new political climate of the Ottoman Empire (before the depths of their depravity would be made known), Hagop and his family moved to Constantinople with the hopes he could launch a Caucasian oil business.

In the school year of 1909-1910, Alexander and Levon joined the Catholic Viennese Mekhitarian fathers’ school in the Panghalty neighbourhood of Constantinople, known for its quality education in languages. In 1912, the two brothers remained at the boarding school while the rest of the family returned to Batumi expecting their reunification after graduation. They never saw their family again.
During the Great War and Armenian Genocide, the two brothers remained in the refuge of the boarding school along with other teachers and students, under the protection of the Austrian flag adorned on the school building. They stayed until the end of the war for the Ottoman Empire on the 30th of October 1918. 


A Fresh Start

Leaving the school in November 1918, Alexander first worked as a Russian/Turkish/English translator for the British army till early 1921.  

After struggling with odd jobs and unemployment, his cartoons were published by some Armenian newspapers and magazines, the most important being “Gavroche” a satirical and humorous newspaper, owned and edited by Yervant Tolayan.

With the renewed hostels of the Republic of Turkey in 1922, the Saroukhan brothers decided to leave Turkey forever. They travelled from Istanbul to Austria by train, and settled at the Mekhitarian Fathers’ monastery in Vienna.

Alexander’s kind uncle, after knowing about his success in selling some of his cartoons which were published in the Armenian press, decided to fund his academic art studies there.  

By mid December 1922 Alexander enrolled in the Institute of Graphic Arts of Vienna, and had compensated his wasted years by finishing his courses by mid July 1924 which often took other students four to five years.

In Vienna, Alexander developed many relationships, and some lasted a lifetime. One of them was with the painter Onnig Avedissian (1898-1974), who became his lifelong friend. Alexander also married Onnig’s sister Sirvart in 1927 and the trio lived together in one house. 

He also got acquainted with Abd el-Qader el-Shenawy who was the reason he travelled to Egypt. He was an Egyptian intellectual from a wealthy family in Mansoura, who was studying printing and was planning to establish a printing house and publish a satirical and humorous newspaper or magazine in Cairo.

Abd el-Qader had heard about the Armenian artist who was drawing caricatures during breaks and invited Saroukhan to Egypt after discovering his talent.


Land of Pharaoh

A stranger in a foreign city with inhabitants speaking an unfamiliar language, Alexander arrived at Alexandria harbour in the afternoon of 31 July 1924 unsure of what awaited him. 

A new phase began in his life and art, for he found himself in a land marked with great history and civilization, but struggling under corrupt rulers, deep political unrest, and socio-economic problems coupled with stains of Great Britain’s colonial rule.

Over time, he garnered admiration and respect towards Egyptians and started to feel Egyptian himself. However, he undoubtedly never forgot his Armenian roots. 

When Abd el-Qader’s projects would not succeed and his wealth stripped from another family member, he still aided Saroukhan in finding something. Saroukhan found a job as an art teacher at Kalousdian Armenian School in Boulac at the start of the 1924-25 school year.


The Armenian Cinema

In Cairo, Saroukhan met prominent Armenians; among whom were newspaper and magazine editors, merchants, craftsmen such as zincographers, but most significantly the editor Vartan Tchakarian.

Tchakarian agreed with Saroukhan to publish a coloured weekly humorous and satirical newspaper that would be edited by Tchakarian and illustrated by Saroukhan. With that, the first issue of “The Armenian Cinema” was published on Saturday, 24 January 1925, and the cartoons in this weekly represent a significant achievement in Saroukhan’s life.

The “Saroukhanian style” had begun to form in these cartoons. It was characterised by vivacity, strong movement, and grotesque exaggerations that reflect the artist’s ability to “discover the gist of humour” in the essence of any subject, even a tragic one, through grasping its contradictions. 

After Tchakarian promptly dropped out of the project, Saroukhan completed the final 12 of 50 issues with the help of the great satirical writer Odian instead. On Saturday, 13 March 1926, the final 50th issue was published.

After another cycle of struggling with unemployment, Saroukhan was motivated in organising an exhibition based upon a Greek caricaturist named Kem.

During the next few months he was able to complete 95 caricatures, and he displayed them in a joint exhibition with another newcomer young Armenian artist Arakel Badrig on Sunday, 8 May 1927. Saroukhan’s works were highly recognized and appreciated, and he was able to sell most of his drawings for more than 200 Egyptian Pounds, a considerable amount at that time. 

Given his success he went ahead and completed 140 new portraits in a few months, to present in an even more successful second exhibition in Alexandria from 30 October to 10 November 1927.

Saroukhan would soon be introduced by one of his Armenian associates to Mohamed Effendi El-Tabii. Their encounter marked the beginning of a 20-year friendship that led both men to great success and renown in Egyptian journalism.

Mohamed El-Tabii was the editor-in-chief of the Rosa el-Yousef weekly magazine that was first launched on 26 October 1925. Saroukhan’s caricature appeared on the front cover page (118th issue) on 3, March 1928.

It was during this period that Saroukhan first began drawing political caricatures under   El-Tabii’s guidance and encouragement. It required the study of the faces, personalities, and inclinations of contemporary Egyptian political figures.


Later Life

His time there did not last too long because in the first half of 1934, El-Tabii quit his job and took Saroukhan and a young assistant with him with the intention of publishing a new magazine called “Akher Sa’a”.

Saroukhan illustrated the cover pages of Akher Sa’a since its first  issue was published on 15 July 1934, exploiting his artistic energy, efforts and time. However, in 1946, Akher Sa’a merged with the Akhbar el-Yom weekly newspaper. There, he joined the great cartoonist Abdel Moneim Rakha and both artists worked together for the following thirty years.

Saroukhan created all types of cartoons; namely of social and political genres, jokes, book illustrations through which he mainly exposed Armenian literary works and local community life. He even wrote critiques, comic and satirical plays in the Armenian language, tackling Armenian Diaspora’s issues and causes as well as two autobiographies.



One of his most impactful literary works was the illustration of Yervant Odian’s political and satirical masterpiece: Enger Panchouni (the comrade Panchouni), published in Cairo in 1939. Another endeavour  which is still cherished by Western Armenians is his analysis of Armenians in the Diaspora through cartoons: Menk Mer Agnotsov (We Through Our Eye-glasses), published in Cairo in 1962.

With an artistic life span of 67 years, extending from the beginning of 1910, Saroukhan produced over 20,000 cartoons. He forged a legacy that resounds with diligent work, acknowledging one’s flaws, and bettering one’s self. Ironically he drew his last cartoon on 31st December 1976, and it was published in “Akhbar el-Yom” on the 1st of January 1977, on the New Year’s day and the day of his passing.

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