My recent immersion in multinational Alexandria has turned up some interesting sources; I’ll link to a couple of them here.
Racheline Barda’s “Egyptian Jewry in modern times” (.doc file, HTML cache) begins with a description of the varied origins of the community:

The face of the small indigenous Jewish community of 5-7,000 at the beginning of the 18th century, was therefore dramatically altered by the newcomers’ diverse ethnic backgrounds and was gradually transformed into a multicultural and multilingual mosaic. As a matter of fact, the Jews of Egypt’s main characteristic was their diversity, diversity in culture, ethnic origins, nationalities, rituals and languages.
Thus, on the eve of the 1948 war with Israel, the Jewish community was made up grosso modo of three different ethnic groups, each with their own customs, language and rituals:
1) A core of indigenous Jews with a Judeo-Arabic culture, divided by two different religious traditions, the Rabbanites and the Karaites, belonging mostly to the lower socio-economic strata, apart from a small privileged elite. Their mother tongue was Egyptian Arabic whereas immigrants from the other Arab countries (Syria, Morocco, Irak, Lybia) spoke their own Arabic dialect…
2) The second and largest group: the Sefardim (literally from Spain), included different ethnic clusters. They initially spoke Ladino but were also familiar with French, Italian, Turkish, and Greek depending on which part of the old Ottoman Empire they came from…
3) The third group was the Ashkenazim (about 6000 in the interwar period) originally from Eastern Europe plus a small cluster who came from Germany just before WWII. Spoke Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German…
Apart from these three categories, there were other smaller categories – not strictly Sephardim or Ashkenazim – such as:
* The Italian Jews (8 to 10,000), originally from Leghorn sometimes via Lybia. Spoke Italian. Felt very close to the mother country until Mussolini enacted the Racial Laws in 1938. They were well established in business and financial sector and belonged to the upper and middle class. Some of them had no Ladino or Sephardi tradition. My husband’s family for instance could trace its origins back to Livorno in Tuscany in the early 1800s and had been in Egypt for four generations, and still maintained the use of Italian at home.
* A small group of Greek Jews or Romaniot, who strictly speaking, were not Sephardi. They came from mainland Greece or from the old Ottoman Empire, still maintained the use of Greek. They are believed to be the descendants of Hellenised Jews.
* The Corfiote Jews (from the Greek island of Corfu), who spoke a Ven[e]tian dialect (Corfu had been under Venetian domination for centuries before passing onto French and then British and then Greek domination)…
All these different ethnic groups were mostly educated in French, English or Italian private schools (secular and religious). Those who could not afford private schools sent their children to the Jewish communal schools where the main language of tuition was French apart from Arabic and Hebrew.

So Aciman is, if anything, downplaying the diversity in his memoir, with his references to the different nationalities found in his family!

The other item is Alexander H. de Groot’s “Dragomans’ Careers: Change of Status in Some Families Connected with the British and Dutch Embassies at Istanbul 1785-1829” (pdf; there doesn’t appear to be a cached version). Primarily concerned with diplomatic history and the divisions in the European community of Constantinople caused by the Napoleonic Wars, it presents a dizzying mix of nationalities and ethnicities among the dragomans who served as intermediaries between the European powers and the Porte, and concludes with this admonition:

The difficulty of grasping the complexity of the multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural and multilingual Ottoman historical reality of the past remains an obstacle to a proper understanding of the situation of the original dragomans. Those western and Middle Eastern historians of today who limit their studies to the agents (dragomans and other protégés, barattaires) of one particular foreign power are guilty of a false historiographical approach. They ignore their political, juridical and social status which implied that these middlemen were not subjects of the states employing them but Ottoman subjects. They were only seemingly binational because of the status they had acquired of protégé of a foreign capitulatory power. But this status had, after all, to be granted by the Ottoman Porte upon the request of the foreign ambassador concerned.
The dragoman families were interrelated across all European national boundaries, irrespective of their original descent. It is therefore historically meaningless to try to establish their single national standing, to define them as foreigners, as westerners or orientals, or as native Ottomans. Historians should take the Levantines as they were.

Addendum. A quote I just found in Aciman’s essay “Alexandria: The Capital of Memory” (in his collection False Papers; the start of the essay is online here):

The Alexandria I knew, that part-Victorian, half-decayed, vestigial nerve center of the British Empire, exists in memory alone, the way Carthage and Rome and Constantinople exist as vanished cities only—a city where the dominant languages were English and French, though everyone spoke in a medley of many more, because the principal languages were really Greek and Italian, and in my immediate world Ladino (the Spanish of the Jews who fled the Inquisition in the sixteenth century), with broken Arabic holding everything more or less together.

A useful summary of the linguistic situation.


  1. The D’Ohsson family, which produced at least two pioneering Orientalists and several Swedish diplomats, was a dragoman family working for the Swedish Embassy in Istanbul. They formed the nucleus of an old but small Armenian-Swedish community tracing back to 1709 and afterwards, when Karl XII fled to Turkey after his defeat by Peter the Great. “D’Ohsson” is an ersatz, hybrid quasi-Swedish quasi French name: the Armenian name was Mouradgea.
    Constantine d’Ohsson’s ~1850 History of the Mongols, written in French from Persian sources, is still occasionally cited.

  2. Elizabeth says

    I just stumbled on this site and was struck speechless. Amazing and wonderful and a variety of other overblown superlatives, but you get the picture. You win the Internet.

  3. Why, thank you, and by all means stick around—the discussions are most of the fun!

  4. Libya not Lybia (though the Arabic is the pleasingly symmetric ليبيا )

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