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The Quest for my Ancestors

Article by Lucien Gubbay
Mar 2009


After over twenty years of intermittent research, I can now report the success of my quest to identify the ancestors in Baghdad of the Gubbay family of Aleppo and their kinsmen in Calcutta.

The first stages of the search were comparatively easy - for the Gubbays of Aleppo were British-protected subjects, mentioned frequently in consular correspondence now kept in the Public Records Office at Kew. The earliest Gubbay named in these sources is Reuben Gubbay, who lived in the latter part of the eighteenth century and had at one time worked for the British authorities.

Proceeding backwards in time from Reuben to the assumed origin of the family in Baghdad was far more difficult – even with the help from Naim Dangoor, who encouraged me pursue Baghdad and had also warned that different Gubbays in Baghdad were not necessarily related to each other because Gubbay is a generic name denoting the office of Gabbai (Treasurer) of a Jewish community or important charity.

Several false starts were made in the process of identifying the progenitor of the Aleppo family. For a long time Aslan Gubbay, whose grandson Reuben appeared to fit the profile of our ancestor Reuben, seemed the best possibility until a paper discovered in the Sassoon archives proved that assumption to be incorrect.

The first breakthrough came with the discovery by Lydia Collins of an Italian document recording the settlement of Reuben Gubbay’s business affairs in Aleppo after his death. From this it was learned that Reuben had died in Constantinople in 1799. An amazing stroke of luck then enabled me to locate his grave in an Istanbul cemetery and to obtain photographs of the tombstone. Its long inscription, carved in relief, stated that Reuben was the first-born son of Salah and that he came from the famous city of Baghdad.

The search then shifted to attempting to identify the correct Salah Gubbay from the several Salah Gubbays mentioned in Baghdadi records. That was far from easy for, apart from approximate dates, there were few other clues from which to work. Several Salah Gubbays in turn were investigated and then rejected because they did not fit into the slowly emerging pattern of dates and relationships. A once promising theory was that Salah was descended from Yehoshua/Yiss’haq, born in Baghdad in around 1600; and I went so far as to arrange for a paired DNA test with one of Yehoshua’s undoubted descendants. The test never took place because further research suggested a far more likely hypothesis.

The clue that pointed directly to the eventual solution of the problem of Salah’s identity was a memory preserved independently in two long-separated branches of the Gubbay family of Aleppo. The story is that two Gubbay brothers left Baghdad at the same time to pursue careers elsewhere. The richer brother went to India where he first made and then lost a large fortune and ended by working for the Sassoons in Calcutta. The poorer brother went to Aleppo where he prospered exceedingly.

The richer brother was easily identified as Yeheskel ben Salah ben Haham Aharon ben Haham Salah Gubbay, whose movements and changes of fortune are well recorded. Murad ben Reuben Gubbay, was a good fit for the poorer brother for, as the youngest son of a man who died in the middle of his life-span, he probably did not start out with much capital but according to the British Consul, became the wealthiest and most respected merchant of Aleppo. Those two men both left Bagdad for their different destinations in the early 1840s and their careers followed the courses described in the story – but they were not brothers.

It was Shmuel Reuven Yoseph who achieved the final breakthrough by concentrating on Yeheskel Gubbay’s antecedents in a further analysis of Baghdadi sources. He found the crucial evidence in the form of a brief footnote to one of Dr Avraham Ben-Yaaqov’s surveys of Babylonian Jews, itself referring to another footnote in a document in the Sassoon archive. One short sentence in the footnote referred to Haham Salah Gubbay’s son Reuben; and a closer search revealed an additional reference to Reuben ben Haham Salah Gubbay elsewhere in Dr Ben-Yaaqov’s works.

At a stroke, that discovery confirmed that not only did (first-born) Reuben Gubbay of Aleppo have a father Salah in Baghdad, but that Haham Salah of Baghdad also had a son Reuben – and at roughly the same time.  The fact that Reuben was the Haham’s eldest son was deduced from other data.

Could two distinct Salah Gubbays, each with an eldest son Reuben, have lived in Baghdad at the same time?  Such a possibility must be remote - especially as, for one reason or another, none of the other Salahs found in the records could be identified as our elusive ancestor. In addition, the conclusion that the two Salahs were the same person confirmed the family memory quoted above – except only that the two travellers from Baghdad were cousins and not brothers. They were actually first cousins once removed, with Murad being some ten or so years older than Yeheskel. Their description as brothers is an understandable distortion of their actual relationship that must have occurred during the telling and re-telling of the story over more than a century.

Shmuel Yoseph’s discovery of that scrap of documentary evidence transformed the possible identification of Haham Salah Gubbay of Baghdad as the father of Reuben Gubbay of Aleppo into a virtual certainty. After that, the remaining pieces of the jigsaw easily fell into place and the lineage of the Aleppo and Calcutta Gubbays was established beyond reasonable doubt.

The first of our ancestors to achieve renown in the Baghdadi chronicles was Haham Salah ben Aharon, who was born in about 1725 and who died in the great plague of 1772.  Haham Salah became Gabbai of the Charity of the Four Lands – which raised money in Baghdad and Basra for the holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias. The prestige attached to that office caused him to add Gabbai to his name at a time when family names were not used in Baghdad. The name ‘Gubbay’ was subsequently adopted by him and his children as their family name – and so Haham Salah became the very first Gubbay in our particular clan. 

Before family names came into general use in Baghdad, the names of as many of forebears as possible were added after a man’s own name for more precise identification; and Dr Avraham Ben-Yaaqov records that “perhaps” Salah b. Aharon b. Salah b. Yeheskel b. Abraham b. Mordecai  was Haham Salah, the Gabbai of the Charity of the Four Lands. Another expert opinion has it that Haham Salah Gubbay was “definitely” Mordecai’s descendant Salah, Gubbay. Thus, if we accept that identification, we know the names of Haham Salah Gubbay’s ancestors in direct line back to Mordecai, who must have been born in Baghdad in round about 1600.

Haham Salah Gubbay had two sons and one daughter whose names are recorded; and he probably had several more children whom we have not been able to trace so far. His first-born son Reuben Gubbay established himself in Aleppo and was the ancestor of the Aleppo Gubbays. The children and grandchildren of Haham Salah’s younger son, Haham Aharon Gubbay, moved in stages from Baghdad to Calcutta, where they formed the clan of Calcutta Gubbays.

The only remaining loose link in the chain of descent of the Aleppo Gubbays is Haim of Damascus and his sons, mentioned in British consular records as being part of Reuben Gubbay’s youngest son Murad’s family in Aleppo.  Clues point to the possibility that Haim may well have been one of Haham Salah’s younger (so far unidentified) sons - but that has not been established.

Several of the Aleppo Gubbays claimed to have been born in Calcutta; and evidence of close family links with Calcutta was found in the Aleppo consular records. There is even mention in a Calcutta street register of a house lived in by one of the Aleppo Gubbays between 1856 and 1858.

              Mordecai (b. circa 1600)
                                Our                                              |
                                Baghdad                             Yeheskel
                                ‘Gubbay’                                   |
                                Clan                                        Salah
                 Haham Aharon (b. circa 1700)

     Haham Salah Gubbay (1725 – 1772)
   (he first adopted the name ‘Gubbay’)
                                                 __________________ |   _______________
                                                |                                    |                                |                    
                           Reuben Gubbay (2)            Sarah Gubbay          Haham Aharon Gubbay
                                       (d.1799)                 (m. Michael Gubbay)             |                                                           
                                            |                                        |            __________|____________ ­
                              Murad Gubbay (4)                   Serah      |             | ­                |             |
                                   (1798 -1870)                                      Salah      Shalom      David     Khatoun                              
                                           |                                                     |            |                  |              |
                       The Aleppo Gubbays                                            The Calcutta Gubbays 


The Aleppo Gubbays and their descendants are listed in Two Worlds and in Two Worlds - Supplement 2009 - some six hundred of them in all. They also appear on Alain Farhi’s website Les Fleurs de l’Orient (  All the Gubbays from Aleppo belong to the same family.

More details of the Calcutta Gubbays may be found in Les Fleurs de l’Orient. In contrast to the situation in Aleppo, there appear to have been several distinct Gubbay families in Calcutta. According to Dr. Avraham ben-Yaaqov,

There are several distinct Gubbay families in Calcutta: the biggest of them is that of Haham Aharon ben Salah Gubbay . . . . He was the son of Rav Salah ben Aharon Gubbay who passed away in 1772 . . .  Shalom ben Aharon ben Salah Gubbay and his two sons Aharon and Eliya (Eliahu) were known to be one of the richest and most generous families in Calcutta. 

                                        Haham Aharon ben Salah Gubbay
                           |                                            |                                       |                                   |                 
                   Salah                                   Shalom                            David                        Khatoun                 
      (b. Baghdad 1875)                     (b. Baghdad)                     (b. Baghdad)       m. Yeheskel Yehudah                                      
                        |                              d. Calcutta 1891)               d. Calcutta 1875)          of Calcutta
                        |                                            |                                     |                                      |
                 Yeheskel                     ________|________                     |_____________          issue          
        (b. Baghdad 1812               |                               |                     |                       |
         d. Calcutta)                  Aharon                   Eliyahu             Sasson             3 daughters
                       |                (b. Baghdad 1826         (b. 1828)       (d. 1899 Siam)    (two married)
                  3 sons             d. Calcutta 1888)               |
                       |                            |                            Menashe
                       |                    3 sons and                  (b. 1862)
                    issue                1 daughter        m. Luna bat Reuven ben
                                                    |                  David Sassoon in London
                                                 issue               where they mostly lived


In Baghdad itself, as in Calcutta, there were several distinct and most probably unrelated Gubbay families; and we were able to chart the family trees of some of them during our searches. In his investigation, Shmuel Yoseph established beyond reasonable doubt but not beyond all doubt that some of the Gubbay families of Baghdad (including the Sassoons) were in fact branches of the same large Gubbay family descended from Yehoshua/Yiss’haq who was born in Baghdad in around 1600. (That family is not related to the Aleppo Gubbays except occasionally by marriage.) Shmuel Yoseph has summarized his findings and conclusions on the lineage of many of the Gubbay families of Baghdad in a paper yet to be published.

In part explanation of why it took me so long to establish this family tree, I would say that I lack any training in genealogy, have poor language skills and only applied myself to the task intermittently. What also made my search difficult from the start was the indifference displayed by previous generations of Gubbays to their family relationships.  Gubbays who left Aleppo for Egypt and Western Europe in the early twentieth century took no further interest in those who returned to Aleppo from exile in the early 1920s (British subjects were expelled from Syria on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914): the new Europeans looked firmly to the future and decisively turned their backs on all aspects of their past. Members of the family who returned to Aleppo I n the 1920s, and had remained there until driven out in 1947, knew little or nothing of their cousins in Europe and the Americas until made aware of them though this research.Gubbays who emigrated to Argentina before the days of easy travel and communication simply lost touch with, and were forgotten by, the rest of the family:  their descendants knew nothing of other Gubbays in the world - and in fact one gentleman once lamented to his three daughters that they would be the last of the Gubbays. 

Preliminary work on the family tree of the Aleppo Gubbays was previously published in the Scribe.  The book Origins, its information long since superseded, was published in 1989 and was followed in 2004 by Two Worlds, packed with much relevant detail and history. The recent breakthrough in tracing the early origins of the family, with additional data and corrections, will be described in Two Worlds – Supplement 2009 to be published later in 2009.

Many people contributed to solving this problem of origins and, in particular, Lydia Collins and Shmuel Yoseph are to be thanked for making critical discoveries. Lydia and her husband Maurice prevented me from making several false starts; and Shmuel, working from my data, practically carried out the last stage of the research on his own. I am also obliged to Minna Rozen for sending me photographs of Reuben Gubbay’s tombstone in Istanbul and of course to my first cousin Alain Farhi for his limitless patience in recording all the data with such assiduity.

Lucien Gubbay
March 2009


Biographical note  (only if needed)

Lucien Gubbay was born in Buenos Aires and has his roots in the Middle Eastern Sephardi community of Manchester. He is the Chairman of the Montefiore Endowment which runs the London Semicha Programme; and a past President of the Elders of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation.

Lucien Gubbay was educated at the Manchester Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford, after which he served in the Royal Air Force. A consulting structural engineer by profession, he has long been fascinated by religious history and lectures, teaches and writes on related subjects. His books include Origins,  Ages of Man,  The Jewish Book of Why and What,  Quest for the Messiah,  The Sephardim – Their Glorious Tradition, Two Worlds, and Sunlight and Shadow – The Jewish Experience

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