The Sephardim in Egypt
Victor D. Sanua, PhD.
For almost 400 years, Egypt was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Mohammed Zli Pasha, who was a former officer of the Turkish Army, became Viceroy of Egypt early in the 19th. Century (1805-1848) and established a dynasty of kings, the last one being King Farouk .
In his efforts to modernise the country, Mohammed Ali Pasha invited foreigners to settle in Egypt in order to contribute to its development. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 increased the influx of foreigners, and especially Jews who lived in other areas of the Ottoman Empire, particularly Turkey, and Syria. By the end of the 19th. Century, there were scores of rich Jewish families, a phenomenon which did not exist in other Middle East countries. The earliest known rich family was that of the Cattauis who are believed to have come from Holland. They were the first Jews to leave the Harer el Yahoud ( Jewish quarter) and to live in Shubra which at that time was a new suburb of Cairo. Other areas where Jews built and moved include Maadi, Zamalek, Heliopolis, and Garden City, Roda, Giza, etc..
The oldest established families functioned as "Safari", moneychangers, coin testers, and collectors of taxes. The transition to regular banking made it possible for them to reach high positions in the Egyptian Government. Jews contributed to the development of the Egyptian National Bank, Egypt Crédit Foncier, Misr Bank, and the Mosseris established their own bank, J.N. Mosseri & Compagnie. These banks assisted in international trade, land development, building of industrial plants, infrastructure etc.
Sephardi Jews coming to Egypt during the latter part of the 19th Century and early 20th Century went into commerce and started opening department stores. It is to be noted that marriages among the wealthy Jews tented to be frequent.
While many of these Sephardi Jews, were sophisticated in high finance, they included a respectable number of scholars, many having attended European universities.
Besides focusing on the development of the economy of the country, the major families presided over Jewish communal affairs, in Cairo and Alexandria and were involved in philanthropic activities. Because of close relationships with European businessmen, they were able to persuade them to invest in Egyptian enterprises.
In spite of their small number, Jews dominated the financial and economic life of Egypt. Other nationalities were involved in this development; the French, Belgian, British, Greeks, Italian, Armenians, etc. also participated in this development. Each group had a speciality, but Jews dominated banking. During World War I and World II, Jews developed local industries, which contributed to the national income and created jobs for Egyptians? As recognition for their efforts, many members of these Jewish families were given the title of "Bey" or "Pasha" by the sovereigns of Egypt.
The Cattaui Family
One of the first known Cattaui was Youssef ( Joseph) who wrote two volumes on the history of the world and a history o Egypt in Hebrew. The family was involved in the financing of the railway system in upper Egypt and public transportation? Joseph Aslan Cattaui (1861-1942) who studied engineering in France contributed to the development of the sugar industry. He was a member of the Egyptian delegation to London to negotiate the independence of Egypt. He published in French a book defending the economic policy of Khedive Ismail who, because of his extravagance, almost ruined the country. He was nominated finance Minister of Egypt in 1924 and later appointed as a Senator and presided over the Jewish community in Cairo. His son Rene Cattaui took over the management of the sugar refinery of Hawandiah, 25 kilometres from Cairo.
I had the opportunity to visit this huge and massive plant which refined the molasses arriving mostly from plants in upper Egypt. René Cattaui, who wrote a 3rd volume's history of Egypt under Mohammed Ali, tried to re-establish with Rabbi Haim Nahum Effendi the Société dEtudes Historiques des Juifs d'Egypte. In June 14th, 1944, he wrote a letter to the Hebrew University asking for assistance in their efforts:
I have the honour to inform you that the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt has been re-established. In the course of our recent discussion, it was decided that among other activities, to have an annual scientific review dedicated to the history of Jews in Egypt... (Translated from the French). Unfortunately, a few years later with the political situation deteriorating for the Jews, this dream was never accomplished in Egypt. This task of writing a yearly history of Jews of Egypt was never realised. Documenting the history of Egypt was recently undertaken by The International Association of Jews from Egypt which had a very successful conference at The Middle East Institute of Columbia University in December 4th, 1997, where scholars from around the world gave papers on Egyptian Jewry. The proceedings of the Conference will be available in the fall. René Cattaui Bey was the last of the Cattauis to preside over the Jewish Community. Members of the Cattaui family had presided over Jewish communal affairs for almost 100 years.
The Cicurel Family
Moreno Cicurel a Ladino- speaking Jew from Izmir, Turkey came to Egypt in the latter part of the 19th Century. After working in a store owned by a Jew Hannaux called, " Au Petit Bazar", he established Les Grands Magasins Cicurel near La Place de l'Opéra, which was in the heart of the city. In time with the assistance of his three sons, it became the largest department store in Cairo and other cities. They opened another chain of stores, Oreco, where the prices were moderate. Salvator is better known since he took over the presidency of Cairo Jewish Community, in 1946, from René Cattaui. Salvator Cicurel was the last president of the Jewish community. He was the head of the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce and was involved in other economic activities. He was also a distinguished sportsman. He was a champion fencer and golfer, and was selected to be the captain of the Egyptian fencing team at the Olympic games of 1928 in Amsterdam, where they reached the finals. His niece married Mendes-France who became prime-Minister of France.
Other major rich Jews in commerce include Douec, Haim, Mizrahi, Najar, de Piccitto, Romano, Aghion, etc... It is to be noted that the name of the department store, Cicurel, is still in use today. Other well-known department stores with Jewish ownership include Chemla, David Ades, Benzion, Gattegno, Simon Artz ( Port-Said), Chalons, Morums, Pontremoli, etc..
The Mosseri Family
They came from Livorno, Italy and established the well-known Bank Mosseri. One member of the family, Victor Moise Mosseri, an agronomist by training, contributed a great deal to the development of cotton, by saving the crops from parasites. Eli N. Mosseri reorganised the Egyptian Cement Company Joseph Vita Mosseri Bey founded the Josy Film Company in 1915, which developed onto the largest company in the Egyptian film industry.
Other rich families include the Suares, which had an important square in Cairo named Suares Square; the Menasce family established the Menasce Free Schools, one member of family was elected president of the Alexandria Jewish community; the Rollo family were involved in the Helwan railway, Robert Rollo was director of the National Bank of Egypt.
Joseph de Picciotto Bey - contributed periodically to al-Muqattam, where his economic and financial studies were well received; Eli Politi founded and directed l'Informateur financier et commerial and played a part in the establishment of the daily al Lisr which became one of the most important Arabic-language papers;
Joseph Smouha was responsible for the construction of Smouha City built over reclaimed marshes. He is also well known for having built a race- track in Alexandria.
Jewish businessmen began losing their dominant position with the rise of nationalism and the conflict in Palestine. In time, many of the Board members of industrial and agricultural organisation were replaced with Muslim boards of directors. Between 1948 and 1957, Jewish business suffered because of mass arrests, internment in camps, confiscation of property.
All those rich families left Egypt during those eventful years, and many of them settled in Switzerland and Southern part of France. Today, there are approximately 100 aging Jews in Egypt, the remnants of a population that was 80 000 strong, and was a great asset to the country.
If any of the readers know the whereabouts of the descendants of these families, please contact the writer.
Dr. Victor Sanua is Research Professor at St. John's University,
Victor D. Sanua, PhD.