Egypt’s Jewish Heritage

Jun 12, 2024

Jewish Egypt is not a side visit, it is an entire lost world whose rediscovery is a profound journey. 

According to legend, when the messiah comes to raise the dead, the first priority will be with those at Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.  The second to rise will be those at the 1200 year old Bassatine cemetery of Cairo, ten thousand or more Jews buried feet towards Jerusalem ever ready to walk in the right direction.  The cemetery stretches over a gob-smacking 70 hectares (170 acres), and holds 50 generations of Egyptian Jewry, Karaites and Rabbinic, Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

It is an almost impossible stretch to imagine the lost universes of Egyptian Jews who lived under the protection of ninth century Sultan Ahmed Ibn Tulun, alongside twelfth century Rabbinic genius and imperial aide Maimonides, under the Kabbalistic influence of seventeenth century Rav Haim Capusi, or in furtherance of Mohamed Ali’s great nineteenth century modernisation.
Yet in returning to Egypt on a deep Jewish heritage experience, that is precisely what we challenge ourselves to do.

The Jews of Egypt enjoyed more than one golden age, the final one being the glamorous world of the nineteenth and early twentieth century when the Jews of Cairo and Alexandria contributed beyond their number to cinema, culture, newspaper publications, business and the economy.  The glamour, intoxicating mix of peoples and languages, and odd combination of religious strictures and social liberties, is beautifully captured in Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.

Under Nassar, life for Egyptian Jews was made unlivable and the sophisticated, educated and wealthy millennium old community was turned out penniless, transfigured into refugees of France, the US and the UK, or olim of Israel.

Frozen in Time

The synagogues of Cairo and Alexandria are a moving monument to this lost world, and importantly we visit them with our specialist guides, direct descendants of Egypt’s Jewish community.

In Alexandria the Eliyahu haNavi synagogue dates back to 1354, was stunningly reconstructed in 1850, and recently restored by the Egyptian government, every detail of its early twentieth century glamour captured, including gold name plaques on seats.  Visiting the site one is overwhelmed not just by the grandeur of the building, but by a window into an entire lost world once supporting Jewish schools, shops, businesses, restaurants, associations, and homes.  The synagogue and everything it represents is frozen in time – a time machine back to a world which once was.  Visiting, I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss, dislocation, and the slightly eerie feeling of trespassing on a world which is no more.

In Cairo too the grand Adly Street synagogue with its unique Pharonic art deco architecture captures that same sense of a lost world.  Yet here in the capital it is the other synagogues which are never visited, many not officially open to the public, which most vividly bare their secrets and forgotten histories.  For example, the Karaite synagogue which resembles a mosque, sacrificing seats to its grand kneeler’s carpet, replete with ancient wooden shoe lockers in the entrance.  The Karaite community has been in Egypt since 882 and does not follow Rabbinic law but the written word of the Torah.
Another nineteenth century synagogue I visited was jarringly whole and yet utterly dilapidated, its caretakers an elderly Muslim couple.  Entering was like walking into a scene from Great Expectations, with a dusty but preserved Succah in the yard, and lonely elaborately crafted brit milah chair.  The part of Miss Havisham in her wedding dress was played by ceremoniously wrapped Torah scrolls which unbelievably remain in the ark.

Uncover, Discover & Help Save Egypt’s Jewish Heritage

Pomegranate is proud to actively support the protection of historic, cultural and holy Jewish Egyptian sites, including previously unkempt and neglected cemeteries, through contributions, raising awareness and facilitating client engagement.
Today’s Jewish Egyptian community is dwindling to the point of extinction, and we are reliant on the support of the Egyptian government and particular NGOs for the protection of these important cultural sites.  Active tourism demonstrates their value to the world at large, and to the Egyptian government in particular.

Bar & Bat Mitzvah Ceremonies & Special Prayer Services

In addition to private and group tours, Pomegranate offers spectacular Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and special prayer services at Egypt’s too often empty synagogues.  Such ceremonies represent an unparalleled and highly emotional opportunity to connect with the past, whilst celebrating with a once in a lifetime Egypt tour.

Private Journeys
Please contact StartYourJourney@Pomegranate-travel.com to plan a private Jewish heritage journey in Egypt, which can of course be combined with a classic Egypt tour.  You can find an example of such a journey here:  https://pomegranate-travel.com/tour/jewish-heritage-egypt/

Why Pomegranate?

  • Tailor made itineraries
  • Deep local knowledge
  • Expert guides
  • Outstanding style & service
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