The Egyptian city of Alexandria is one of the most astonishing places in recorded history. A metropolis of great culture and diversity founded by the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great who, untroubled by modesty, named it for himself. It was home to the greatest library of antiquity and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, its magnificent Pharos or Lighthouse.
Ruled over the centuries by Romans and Persians, it later fell to Ottomans, French and English colonial rule. A peaceful home to Christians, Muslims and Jews for centuries, in the Twentieth Century it remained a remarkable, partly-mythologised, cosmopolitan culture until the the 1950s. The British ruled Alexandria after the First World War, but French remained the language of choice among its elites.
Home to writers and poets, diplomats and spies as well as its native Egyptians, the influence of a huge number of Greek, Italian, Armenian and Lebanese residents as well as English, Spanish, French communities gave Alexandria an aura of mystery and decadence, aided by writers such as Lawrence Durrell who famously used it as the setting for his The Alexandria Quartet.
Its enclave of Jewish residents thrived in the north-east quarter of the city until the rise of Egyptian nationalism following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when most Jews left for Israel or other countries. The Nasser government began a program of expulsion in the 1950s.
Of 80,000 Jewish inhabitants of Alexandria at the turn of last century, it's estimated that just 12 remain.
Many emigrants lost trace of their heritage, often centuries of family history. Some, such as Melbourne's Jack Aghion, are picking up the threads.
"It's actually been going on for about 100 years," Jack Aghion says of his search for the story of his forebears.
"It was started by my family back in the 1920s. I've built on what they've done and with the internet and DNA testing."
A Sephardi born in Alexandria in the 1940s, Jack Aghion came to Australia with his parents in 1959. His family had lived in the Egyptian city for about 250 years; he regarded Alexandria as one of the places in history where multicultural coexistence thrived and people of different faith lived together happily.
"It was a successful time for art and science and medicine and literature. Spain was that way in its golden age, as so was Alexandria in the 1930s, 40s, 50s. And so I came to Australia as a child of 12. It was very difficult, especially for my parents."
But it was not easy for Jack either. As native French speakers, Jack's parents named him 'Jacky', a not-uncommon diminutive.
That was not going to wash in Australia, where 'Jackie' was most definitely not a boy's name, he was told.
"At the age of 12, going to school in Sydney, I soon learned it was regarded as a girl's name. A few fights later, I decided to make it a boy's name. So I became Jack. But when I was conscripted into national service at the age of 20, when I went to register - I gave my name as Jack - they said, 'No, no,no, your name is 'Jacky', it's on your birth certificate.
"I had to change it by deed poll to go into the army, or there would have been a few more fights."
I asked my father: 'What were you going to do with the Germans coming this way?' And he said he had packed the car with belongings and they were going to go. And I said: 'Where?'Jack Aghion
As an insurance broker for Lloyds of London in Egypt, Jack's father was a respected and successful member of the community in both Alexandria and Cairo. He was offered work in London.when he decided to take his family out, but as Alexandrians the Aghions decided the weather in Australia was far more palatable.
He soon had the broking representation for Lloyds in Sydney, and Jack followed his father into the business.
His father's stories of the war years in Alexandria are a vivid memory for Jack, who says the German advance to El Alamein was really only the same distance removed from Alexandria as Geelong is from Melbourne.
"I asked my father: 'What were you going to do with the Germans coming this way?' And he said he had packed the car with belongings and they were going to go.
"And I said: 'Where?'
"He said they had no idea. They were just going to go.So if it wasn't for the Allied troops, the Australian troops, who did such a magnificent holding job in Tobruk, the Rats of Tobruk, and Alamein, my parents would have finished in Auschwitz or somewhere like that."
Jack Aghion later became firm friends with Richard 'Charlie' Scales, an Australian Army veteran of the 2/24 Battalion, who had fought in Tobruk and El Alamein.
"I organised for him and his section commander to be honoured by B'nai Brith here in Melbourne for what they did. They saved who knows how many from the same fate as those in Europe."
Jack's research into his family has traced them back as far as the 13th century in northern Spain, where once again Jews suffered and died, this time at the hands of the Inquisition. Although they had converted to Catholicism, an accusation was made against the family of secretly professing their Judaism.
Two of the family, Paolo and Isabella, were burned at the stake.
Jack Aghion will tell his family's story at the Ballarat Speaker's Club on Thursday October 10, midday at the City Oval Hotel. Bookings can be made online.