The volunteers trying to revive Egypt’s Jewish heritage often encounter difficult scenes – synagogue courtyards that have become garbage dumps, Jewish cemeteries that have been destroyed and ancient manuscripts that have been discarded and neglected. “We have come to places that were closed for 70 years, during which they became – it’s hard to say this – a garbage dump, with awful destruction and neglect,” says Prof. Yoram Meital of Ben-Gurion University’s Middle East Studies Department.
Over the last five years, Meital, a 63-year-old specialist on Egypt, has been taking part in a project aimed at conserving synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish sites in Egypt. The project is being carried out by the tiny Jewish community that remains in Egypt, with American funding and the cooperation of Egyptian authorities. A consultant on the history of the Jewish community, Meital is documenting existing conditions through photography and texts, and creating a detailed database of remaining Jewish sites in Egypt.
“I document the height of synagogue pillars, the state of curtains covering the ark (parochet), the writing on memorial plaques in synagogues and the names of people on name plates affixed to synagogue chairs,” he says. No less important is the collection and preservation of Jewish manuscripts, some of them rare and valuable, that he have found in the course of his documentation.
The neighborhood dump
Last month, the focus of the project was an old Jewish cemetery in Cairo. “Some 250 garbage trucks were used to clear the area. The place had become the neighborhood dump,” says Meital.
While the site was being cleared, Meital received a WhatsApp message while he was in Israel that made him sit up. “They sent me a photo of an opening to a genizah (repository) inside a burial chamber,” he says excitedly.
A Jewish grave in Cairo, before and after renovations
But before he had a chance of examining the material found there, officials from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities arrived and took away 165 sacks of documents. “We can’t say what’s there and how valuable it might be,” he says.
In the same breath he notes that nearby were found 120 years ago, parts of the famous Cairo Genizah, a collection of Jewish manuscripts spanning from the ninth to the 19th centuries.
He notes that one of the guiding principles of the Jewish heritage project is to keep what is found in Egypt. “We oppose in principle the idea of taking Judaic artifacts out of Egypt, supporting the preservation of what remains of the Jewish past in the places where it was created,” he adds.
A Jewish communist who converted to Islam
The driving spirit behind the project is Magda Haroun, 70, the head of the small Jewish community in Egypt, together with Samy Ibrahim, the son of Albert Arie, a Jewish communist who converted to Islam but was once one of the community’s pillars. At its peak in the 1940s, the community numbered 80,000 people, most of them living in Cairo and Alexandria, with a few residing in smaller towns and villages. The number of Jews living in Egypt today can be counted on one hand.
“We ask ourselves what will happen when there are no Jews left here. What will be done with all the treasures they left behind? With the synagogues, the cemeteries, one of which is more than 1,000 years old, and with the Cairo Genizah?” asks Meital.
One idea they are promoting is using synagogues as cultural centers for local Egyptian communities, “on condition that they don’t change anything having to do with artifacts and architecture,” he says. The first test of cooperation with local community members was successful.
“We published an invitation to visit the synagogue in Cairo on Facebook after it had been closed for 70 years. We were worried that no one would come, since a synagogue is associated with Jews, who are identified with Israel, etc., but we tried,” says Meital. No fewer than 5,000 people expressed their interest, although the authorities permitted only 20 to visit. “But, through sharing on social media, photos and information reached tens of thousands of people,” says Meital with satisfaction. “All of a sudden, there was talk about a building people had walked past for decades without knowing what was inside.”
Egyptian government covers all costs
There are 16 synagogue buildings in Egypt, 13 of them in Cairo. Half of them are in “reasonably good condition,” according to Meital. In one of them there is a government office which the community is trying to oust. Another is out of bounds. In the city of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, in the center of the Nile Delta, Meital and his partners found the remains of a synagogue. When they got there, they were surprised to discover that the locals knew about the site, despite the fact that no Jews remained in the city. They put up a gate to close it off and prevent it from continuing to be used as “a garbage dump and a den of drugs,” as Meital calls it.
The pinnacle of the conservation drive occurred in 2020 with the completion of the refurbishing of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, which was originally built in the 19th century. The Egyptian government covered all the costs of refurbishing the structure.
This week, during Hol Hamoed, the intermediate days of Passover, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced that it has begun to restore the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, which was built about 1,200 years ago and is one of the oldest synagogues in the world. This synagogue is the site of the famous Cairo Geniza, which, to this day, serves as the main source for writing the history of Eastern Jewish communities. “In the past year the condition of the building has deteriorated. This is an important and encouraging step, which testifies to the commitment of the authorities to preserving the heritage,” said Meital.
The Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue in Cairo, built in 1905, has been hosting Passover seders since 2017 (although not this year), to which Egyptians with an interest in Jewish heritage are invited. “Simple Egyptians sit by the table and read from the Haggadah,” says Meital. “They wonder about the story and ask questions.” He says that apart from a few oddballs, most visitors show a genuine interest in Egypt’s Jews, something that’s becoming trendy.
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Meital traces the renewed Egyptian interest in its Jewish heritage to the 2011 Arab Spring. “We are in the midst of a new and unprecedented process, which I can see as a historian, in which the Jewish past is undergoing a revision,” says Meital. “The Arab Spring generated a political and social change, opening a historical Pandora’s box, that made Egyptians examine their identity anew.” Consideration of Egypt’s attitude towards its minorities became part of the process of self-examination.
Under the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, in power since 2013, the small Jewish community got approval to undertake new projects meant to conserve the local Jewish heritage. This process, described by Meital as unprecedented in its scope, still encounters difficulties posed by some authorities, but he hopes to continue despite this. “Continuing this welcome process of conserving Jewish heritage as part of Egypt’s heritage depends on the wide support of Egypt’s government and society,” he says.
As expected, opponents of the regime do not welcome the Jewish revival. “The Muslim Brothers, persecuted by the regime, oppose our projects. The whole issue is evoking an internal debate in Egyptian society,” says Meital.
Meital puts particular emphasis on conserving documents he locates in existing structures. So far, he says, his team has collected around 1,000 books that were “strewn all over the place.” Some of them are rare editions dating from the 16th or 17th centuries. “Among these large collections, we found some rare editions as well as a body of Karaite manuscripts,” he recounts.
The most important finding came from the Karaite synagogue in Cairo, a manuscript of the Bible written 1,000 years ago on vellum “preserved in excellent condition,” he says. “It’s inconceivable. This book was located in a place where anyone could have picked it up .... You can’t imagine its monetary value.” The 616-page book, dated to 1028, had been previously documented by researchers but later disappeared.
Another recent discovery was found in the cellar of a Cairo synagogue. “A small metal container was full of papers. When I examined them I saw that this was a registry of the entire Ashkenazi community in Egypt, including names, birthdates, emigration, professions and many other delights from the community’s past, such as letters of complaint,” says Meital. “It was all stowed away at the synagogue, including a story about a Jewish doctor from Vienna who escaped Austria after the Anschluss, arriving at Alexandria, then moving to Cairo. When he asked to be accepted by the Jewish community, he said that he’d left Vienna with the approval of an SS officer,” says Meital.
He also found documentation of a Yiddish theater that operated in Cairo, putting on plays by Shalom Aleichem, as well as invitations to a Purim spiel. “We are able for the first time to significantly document Ashkenazi community life in Egypt,” he says excitedly.
If the project’s organizers’ vision comes true, a central library will be set up in Cairo whose holdings will include manuscripts that are now in the process of preservation. They are currently being held in a safe location, Meital says, declining to give any details.