The Egyptian city of Alexandria was until the 20th century home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Diaspora—and for a long time one of the most important. Jews first settled there not long after it was founded by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 332 BCE; by the beginning of the Common Era Jews comprised over a third of its population, making it likely the largest concentration of Jews anywhere. During the early medieval period Alexandrian Jewry experienced another efflorescence. Jacob Rosen, who once served as Israel’s ambassador to Jordan, has compiled a comprehensive list of Jewish surnames from the city. Benjamin Weinthal writes:
The former ambassador, who is fluent in Arabic, wrote: “The community in Alexandria grew from only a few thousand souls at the end of the 19th century to a vibrant community of approximately 40,000 members by the time it peaked in 1948.”
Some of the more famous Jews born in Alexandria include Haim Saban, the Israeli-American businessman; André Aciman, the professor of literature and novelist; and the Egyptian-French singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki (born Giuseppe Mustacchi).
A key source of information was the “ledger of circumcisions,” which contained more than 3,000 names. [It was kept by] the mohel, Maatuk Dabby [and] “details the name of the father, the maiden name of the mother, and the name of her father,” [wrote Rosen]. “Although he was not the only mohel in the city, he left a mine of vital data.”
Rosen’s list of over 1,000 surnames testifies to the diversity of Alexandrian Jewry, and includes typical North African and Levantine names like Abadi, Ben-Dahan, and Habib; those of probable European Sephardi origin like Gallico; Italian names like Ottolenghi; and Ashkenazi names like Abramovitch, Eisenberg, and Zimmerman.