By; Samir Raafat
ON DECEMBER 21, 1950 a landmark auction took place in a large villa on Ibrahim Pasha Naguib Street, Garden City. The event, regarded by many as one of the social and intellectual highlights of the season, consisted of auctioning off the extraordinary library of senator Joseph Aslan Cattaui Pasha (author of Coup d’oeil sur la chronologie de la nation Egyptienne, Plon, Paris,1931), now dead for almost nine years. Cairo’s primo auctioneer, Maurice George Lee (formerly Levi) presided the occasion with the able assistance of rare books expert I. Feldman, who had come over especially from Europe. While priceless books and volumes were finding new homes, the auction signaled the closing of yet another colonial chapters in Egypt’s modern history and the going off stage of one of Cairo’s most powerful Jewish families.
Here is their story, which started over one hundred and fifty years ago.
In the wake of Egypt’s modernization, which started with the reign of Mohammed Ali Pasha (r.1805-48), vast fortunes were conceived in the form of trading houses, banks and real estate. How, and the way in which they did it, shaped the lives of certain families into the great dynasties they became. One such clan was the Cattauis. From Master of the Mint under Viceroy Abbas Hilmi I (r.1848-54) and saraf bashi under Viceroy Said (r.1854-63) to minister of transport and finance under King Fouad (r.1917-36), the Cattauis, deep rooted oriental Jews of Egypt, held a most privileged place in the country’s politics, commerce and society such as few other families in contemporary history. Banking and real estate, formed the basis of their dynastic fortune. Their power and prestige lasted unchallenged well through the first quarter of the present century.
The founder of the dynasty, Yacoub Cattaui Bey (1800-83), was a senior administrator in the Egyptian government and a confidant of viceroys and khedives. He lived in opulent splendor in the fashionable district of Shubra where successive rulers set up residence. Yet, by the time he passed away, the seat of power had already shifted to the area of Abdin and the new Cairo district of Ismailia, so named after its promoter, Khedive Ismail (r.1863-79).
Yacoub Cattaui’s progeny was large with two of his four sons and a grandson attaining the distinguished rank of pasha. As for his daughters and granddaughters, they contracted dynastic marriages with other leading merchant and banking families in Egypt, thus assuring the predominance of the House of Cattaui.
Moise (1848-1924; sometimes called Moussa or Maurice depending on circumstances), was the founder’s youngest son. He carried the title of an Ottoman khedivial pasha as well as a hereditary Hungarian knighthood hence the appendage "de" in his branch of the family. Like his father before him, he made several contributions towards the enhancement of Austrian influence in Egypt, thus assuring himself the continued support of an appreciative European sovereign.
Several of the other Cattaui descendants served in the Egyptian civil service as cabinet ministers and senators or, alternately, as deputies from the Upper Egyptian district of Kom-ombo where the Cattauis held significant interests in the sugar industry. There were also the architects, the lawyers, the poets, the musicians and the diplomats, the latter were posted in the choice Egyptian embassies in London, Paris and Washington as well as the presidents of Egypt’s thriving Jewish community. There were even those who spent their time in the pursuit of philanthropy and pleasure, and the odd man out who broke with family ranks by converting to Catholicism, ultimately becoming a prince of the Church. As for the Cattaui women, they were the leaders and arbitrators of the social scene attending the glittering court balls, the opera premieres and the countless charity bazaars.
In stark contrast to the traditionally-minded Egyptian upper class women, most of whom were never seen in public early this century, the Cattaui consorts, because of their European education and their emancipated upbringing, were one step ahead and quickly became an integral part of the cosmopolitan Cairo and Alexandrine societies.
At the Royal Egyptian court two Cattauis played important roles. Diplomat-author George Adolphe Cattaui was King Fouad’s speechwriter and the wife of Joseph Aslan Cattaui Pasha the Madame Cattaui’s reigned supreme yielding more influence amongst the courtiers than did the queen herself. The grande dame of the Egyptian Court was born Alice Suares (d.1955), the daughter of real estate tycoon Joseph M. Suares. She had replaced her late cousin Valentine, the daughter of railway baron Felix M. Suares (d.1906), as first lady-in-waiting to the queen.
Through her mother, born Henriette Aslan Cattaui, Valentine (d.1920), was the great granddaughter of the founder of the modern day Cattaui dynasty. She married Robert Simon Rolo (d.1944; Sir Robert as of 1938) who was himself the private financial advisor to King Fouad as well as heir of a rich merchant house with branches in Cairo, Alexandria, Liverpool and Manchester. The Anglophile Rolos were involved in the Manchester and colonial trade evolving into a private bank.
The Cattauis, the Rolos, the Suares and millionaire Elie Mosseri Bey (d.1940), nicknamed Lord Elie by his family and whose mother Elena (d.1922) was a daughter of Yacoub Cattaui, invested heavily in real estate. They foresaw the unparalleled growth of Cairo and the lucrative effect such expansion would have on land values. It is not surprising, therefore, that their separate private residences were located at the nexus of the elegant European quarter of Ismailia or in the choicest parts of Kasr al-Dubara, and later, in Garden City, Zamalek and Giza.
The Cattaui residence on Cherifein Street was situated in the middle of a large garden overlooking what we know today as Talaat Harb Square. In its early days, Kasr al-Nil Street was often referred to as Rue Cattaui. In fact Cairo boasted several Cattauis streets including one running from Midan Khazindar to Rouei Street and the Moussa Cattaui Bey Street in Abbasia. There were two other Cattaui streets which came into existence after the Cattaui town house on Kasr al-Nil Street was carved up into several lots.
The first downtown Cattaui house (No. 23) on Kasr al-Nil Street, was built by Julius Franz Pasha surrounded by a large garden and a pond. It was subsequently redesigned in 1907 by the architecture firm of (Maurice) Cattaui & (Edward) Matasek to make way for a larger residence. Part of the garden, facing Midan Soliman Pasha (later, Talaat Harb), was sacrificed to commercial development. It is there where the Sednaoui building, built by Guiseppe Mazza, was constructed. In 1927, the Cattaui’s Kasr al-Nil property was sold and the house torn down to make way for amongst others the Shell Building, the Cairo Bourse and the Asicurazione de Trieste Building.
To the south of the large Moise Cattaui town house stood the houses and offices of other Cattaui relations such as the marble villa next to No.33 Kasr al-Nil Street belonging to Youssef Yacoub Cattaui Pasha and his wife Bida Eliahou Israel herself a daughter and granddaughter of Cairo and Jerusalem’s 19th century grand rabbis.
Maadi’s Vera Rabinovitch, who in 1996 is approaching her 87th birthday and is a great-granddaughter of Youssef Cattaui Pasha through his daughter Rachel Cattaui (Mrs. Teophile Elia Rossi), remembers (see Cairo Today, October 1983) when her branch of the Cattaui clan gathered together to witness the arrival of the sultan followed by Lord Allenby heading a military parade which included overflying Handley Page airplanes commemorating the British victory over the Turks in Palestine. Allenby would become British High Commissioner (Egypt’s de-facto ruler during the Protectorate). After the death of Israel Cattaui in June 1922, the house was pulled down and what remained of the garden with its royal palms and red gravel paths was taken over by Sault’s a favorite tearoom and cafe-restaurant.
To the south, stood the Risotto Building and other Suares relations properties, hence the name of Rondpoint Suares (later, Midan Moustafa Kamel). And further north, lived Nessim Mosseri with his wife nee Elena Cattaui. Their residence occupied almost an entire block fronting today’s 26 of July and Mohammed Farid Streets. It is said the Mosseris donated part of their garden for the construction of the Ismailia Synagogue on Maghrabi (now Adly) Street. The synagogue, which was designed by Cattaui & Matasek, was the scene of many Cattaui weddings and funerals. It is also there that Moise Cattaui Pasha sustained a serious shoulder injury while inspecting the damages that resulted from the accidental fire that took place in April 1922.
The palatial Cattaui houses were centers of entertainment and hospitality. A Cattaui wedding inevitably led to traffic congestion while the death of one or the other of Yacoub Cattaui’s male descendants led to the closure of the Cairo or Alexandria Bourse. In Charles Didier’s book Les Nuits du Caire, (1860), we learn of a brit mila, or circumcision fete, that took place at Kasr al-Nozha, the Cattaui palace in Shubra, during the reign of Viceroy Abbas I. The eight-day old boy was Yacoub Cattaui’s youngest son, Moise. According to Didier, everyone was in native dress and since no one knew French save for a very few, the conversation amongst the invited notables was conducted in either Turkish or Arabic. Women were nowhere in sight. They were celebrating in another quarter of the opulent palace entertained by the diva of the day, the Oriental singer Sakna and her accompanying tar or drum.
Twenty-six years later, it was the turn for Moise’s son, Gustave (b. January 15, 1875), to be circumcised. Attending the celebrations was Khedive Ismail. The difference this time is that the festivities was attended by both sexes and the language of conversation had shifted from Arabic to French. The irreversible Europeanization of the Cattauis and a whole generation of Cairo’s Levantine community had begun thanks to the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle and to French cultural imperialism that had so imbued Egypt at the end of the 19th century. French had become the lingua franca of the entire business community and had displaced Italian in the Mixed Courts.
When the Earl of Dufferin, the British Ambassador to the sublime porte in Constantinople, visited Egypt in 1882, he stayed in the Cattaui palace. This was the ultimate honor for the host since Egypt at the time was still an Ottoman province.
To fathom the scale entertainment that went on at the Cattaui homes, one should read the May 28, 1909 edition of Le Progris, which illustrates in detail the 11-course dinner offered by Moise and Ida Cattaui when entertaining the visiting Austrian minister. The guests were limited to 16 because Ida was then in mourning over the loss of her Ferrara-born father, Doctor Elia Rossi Bey, the former doctor of the khedivial court and author of the book La Nubia e il Sudan.
From the Egyptian Gazette (1905) we note that Cattauis extensive real estate holdings included the 6,000 square meters of Nile frontage land in the fashionable district of Kasr al-Dubara sold by Moise Cattaui Bey (not yet Pasha) to the Swiss hotelier Mr. Bucher-Durrer for five pounds sterling a square meter. It is there that Bucher-Durrer erected his magnificent baroque-style Semiramis Hotel (today replaced by the Semiramis-Intercontinental). Cattaui’s neighbor to the south was the walda pasha or khediva-mother whose own Kasr al-Ali palace was separated from Kasr al-Aini by extensive gardens and fields. These would shortly become Cairo’s belle epoque suburb of Garden City, designed by engineer Josi Lamba on behalf of the Nile Land & Agricultural Company owned by a group of Syro-Levantine investors including Charles Bacos, George Maksud, Frantz Sofio.
To the north of the Semiramis Hotel stood the palace of the khedive’s sister, Princess Ahmed Kamal al-Din, which she later donated to the Egyptian Foreign Affairs. Further south were the stately villas of several Cattaui relations. One of these villas belonged to Sir Robert Rolo and occupied part of what is today the American Embassy compound. Two blocks away, on Ibrahim Pasha Naguib Street stood the house of Joseph Aslan Cattaui (1861-1942) who was granted the title of pasha on March 23, 1918. One of the more prominent and mediatized members of his family, Joseph Pasha started off as an engineer after completing his studies in the Ecole Central in France in 1882. Upon returning to Egypt he worked in the ministry of public works where he participated in a concours for the design of the Alexandria Railway Station. He then joined his relations sugar factories in Upper Egypt and to that purpose, went to Moravia to learn about sugar refining. With time Joseph Cattaui Pasha became a director of both the Sucreries d’Egypte and the Kom-Ombo Sugar Company. He became a member of Egypt’s 33rd government headed by Ahmed Ziwer Pasha in November 1924 and then again in the 34th government of March 1926. He was appointed to the senate by King Fouad in 1927. Between 1924 and 1942 he was president of the Sephardic Jewish community council of Cairo having taken over from his uncle, Moise Cattaui Pasha. Upon Joseph Pasha’s death, his son Reni took over the presidency until he resigned 1946. For the first time in almost half a century, a Cattaui was no longer president of the community.
It was at Joseph Cattauis Pasha’s house where the famous book auction took place in 1950. The house was subsequently by a tall building housing the headquarters of Misr-America International Bank. From among all of the Cattaui residences in Garden City, only the residence of Elie Mosseri was spared and is today owned by the Swiss Embassy.
Aside from their handsome residences, the Cattauis owned large chunks of real estate in and around Cairo. Among them is Les Halles or indoor marketplace on Midan Falaki, Bab al-Louk which was built in 1911 on newly acquired Cattaui property. The Sociiti des Halles Centrales d’Egypte was owned by Joseph and Adolphe Cattaui. In the district of Abbasia, the Cattauis owned masses of property, possibly acquired when Yacoub Cattaui Bey was Master of the Mint to Abbas I. It was from this land that Yacoub donated a sizable plot to the Austro-Hungarian community in 1881 for the erection of the first Crown-Prince Rudolf Hospital. Although the hospital was inaugurated on December 2, 1888, on the occasion of Franz Josef’s 40th anniversary as Emperor of Austria, it would be 23 years later before Moise Yacoub Cattaui Pasha, president of the Austro-Hungarian colony since 1906, received his Hungarian letters of nobility entitling him to the appendage of "de" to his name: henceforth known as Moise de Cattaui.
The Israelite school which opened in 1920 near Fagala on Sakakini Street, was named after its benefactor, Moise de Cattaui Pasha. A decade earlier, on May 20, 1909, it was Moise Cattaui who inaugurated an Israelite school situated on Hassan al-Akbar street, opposite the Khedivial Law School. In 1927 the large Israelite school of Abbasia was inaugurated a few meters from the hospital thanks to generous donations from Joseph Aslan Cattaui Pasha and other members of the Jewish community.
A landmark villa that was built by the "de" Cattaui branch is the house (No.15) on Mohammed Mazhar Street (ex-Rue Rossi), Zamalek, which they sold in the 1930s to Princess Samiha, the daughter of the late Sultan Hussein Kamel. It is in this house that famous poet Edmond Jabes had celebrated his marriage to Moise Cattaui’s granddaughter, Arlette Cohen, in the 1930s. Several years after the death of princess Samiha, who, incidentally, was also a poet, the house was transformed into the Greater Cairo Library scheduled for inauguration first lady Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak in 1995.
In Giza, the Cattaui-Mosseri-owned Cairo Land & Financial Company acquired the palace and the adjacent property belonging to Sultan Hussein Kamel. It is there that several Cattaui-Mosseris built their mansions when they moved out of downtown Cairo. One of the remaining villas belongs today to the Russian Embassy. Another one, once the property of Victor Mosseri, became a government school still recognizable for its gargoyles and other Victorian follies.
There was the Alexandria branch as well. Its patriarch, Baron Jacques Bohor Yacoub Levi de Menashe (d.1916) was the son of Semha, Yacoub Cattaui’s eldest daughter. The Menashes were amongst the first to take advantage of the blanket protection given to the Jews of that city in 1854 by Austria’s monarch. Having caught Emperor Franz Josef’s attention during the Suez Canal inaugural celebrations of 1869, Yacoub Levi Menashe, an Alexandria merchant claiming roots in Central Europe, was ennobled by the Austrian Emperor in October 1873. Two years later, the honor was upgraded to the hereditary title of Hungarian Baron. Alexandria’s colorful aristocracy thus welcomed another nobleman among its inflated ranks. Like their Cattaui cousins in Cairo, the Menashes were the leaders of the Jewish community residing in Egypt’s maritime capital.
At the turn of the century the name Menashe was synonymous of power, wealth and arts. The Menashe legacy in Alexandria is abundant starting with the Menashe gallery which faces Mohammed Ali Square (ex-Place des Consuls), the Menashe Schools, the Menashe hospitals and the Menashe temples. There were also the great Menashe houses, the Menashe immeubles de rapport and the Rue Menashe.
In 1904, the Cattauis and the Menashes, together with two influential British Financial Advisors to the Egyptian Government Sir Auckland Colvin and Sir Elwin Palmer formed the Egyptian Delta Land & Investment Company which created in 1907 the suburb of Maadi along the Bab al-Louk - Helwan railway line. The railway itself belonged to a consortium led by Jacob Cattaui’s son-in-law, Felix Suares. Delta Land was but one of several urban and agricultural venture capital companies owned by the same business elite of Cattauis, Suares, Menashes and Rolos. Later, it was joined by Elie Mosseri whose accumulated wealth surpassed the richest of his relations making him the undisputed taipan.
The founding fathers and early directors of the National Bank of Egypt, which opened in June 1898, included a Cattaui (Moise Pasha) a Menashe (Baron Jacques) two Rolos (Jacob and Sir Robert) and three Suares (Felix, Raphael and Leon). These gentlemen were either descendants of Yacoub Cattaui or related to him by marriage. Even before the National Bank was created, the Cattaui dynasty were directors of several banks and companies in Egypt, a position they retained well into the 1930s until, one by one, they either retired from commercial life or passed away.
The Cattauis also had large banking and business dealings in Europe, notably Paris. Leafing through leading Parisian newspapers dated the first half of February 1903, one learns of a famous libel suit at the Palais de Justice brought against the celebrated Humberts-Daurignacs of Paris by the well-known Egyptian banker Monsieur Cattaui whom Madame Fridiric Humbert had accused of usury. Madame Humbert was the daughter-in-law of Auguste Humbert, the former French minister of Justice. Her accusations were not very conducive to Cattaui’s business reputation: " For me, Cattaui and his son-in-law Mr. Reitlinger, have certainly been the biggest and most terrible usurers who have ever crossed my path. Cattaui was always inexorable, always trying to bleed me for money with his fantastic rates of interests reaching between 300 and 400 per cent". Strong accusation against the 1886 recipient of the French Legion d’Honneur for services rendered to the French residents in Egypt. The ensuing court case was among the most notorious of the decade.
The process of gentrification and westernization of the Cattauis which started in the heyday of Khedive Ismail’s reign, was completed with the arrival of Moise de Cattaui Pasha and his generation. By that time the European powers carved up what remained of the vast Ottoman Empire taking full advantage of the latter’s profitable regime of capitulations. During the heyday of the British occupation of Egypt the Cattauis and their relations had become the fulcrum of Egypt’s business world. But as is usual with third and fourth generations in comparable dynasties, the Cattaui wealth slowly dissipated through inheritance and taxes. The economic and political climate had changed and fierce competition appeared from new and different quarters. The less motivated heirs had also come of age.
Today, the Cattauis are no longer super-rich or omnipotent, just well-heeled citizens leading contented lives. Out of Yacoub Cattaui’s many descendants, less than a handful remained in Egypt; these have adapted to changing times. The rest are scattered around the world either as diplomats in European chancelleries, country squires in Scotland, financiers in Geneva and auctioneers in New York or as pensioners in Lausane, poets in Paris, and artists in Marseille. One of them, Henri Cohen, a grandson of Moise Cattaui, still imports cotton from Egypt.
The two last Cattaui patriarchs Deputy Aslan and Senator Reni JosephCattaui Beys are buried in Switzerland. The first has Egypt’s pre-1954 flag (crescent and three stars) engraved on his tomb and reportedly was buried a Catholic. His brother died in Lausane age 97 a forgotten man. His modest obituary in al-Ahram (10/09/94) referred to him simply as: Reni Joseph Cattaui Bey, former Egyptian senator. None of the usual accolades once attributed to his famed forebears were listed.
The spirit of this important dynasty is no more. It is as though it passed into history, a ghost for what had once stood for riches, glamour and power.
Regards from Samir W. Raafat in Maadi,