Jews and Egyptians have a long history as the bible tells us, but the first fully documented Jewish presence in Egypt was on Elephantine island where Jewish mercenaries were garrisoned. Later, it is well known that Maimonides joined the Medieval Jewish community of Cairo, wrote many important works, and indeed died there. The Ibn Ezra synagogue, closely associated with Maimonides, is currently closed for renovations but we are eagerly awaiting its opening, it is both ornate and impressive in its interior and historically extremely significant both in its aforementioned connection with Maimonides and as the home of the famous Cairo geniza, now mostly found at Cambridge University.
In more recent times it was the opening of the Suez canal and subsequent trading hub which brought nineteenth century Jews from all over the Ottoman empire, Italy and Greece, to Egypt. Indeed the Egyptian authorities put in place special privileges to attract well educated immigrants and the Jewish community of Cairo became well embedded in Cairo society, playing an important role not only in trade but also in art and culture having a major influence on newspapers and cinema. In the later part of the nineteenth century, Ashkenazi Jews also sought refuge from Pogroms in Egypt. Unfortunately, with the rise of Zionism and subsequent Arab-Israeli wars, the position of the Jews of Egypt became far less stable and each incident saw the eviction of large swathes of the community.
Today you can visit the Adly street synagogue and meet a community leader who will retell the history of the Jews of Egypt with personal memories and anecdotes. The building itself is impressive, with a Pharaonic Art Deco style, and one can feel how well established and well-heeled the community once was.
In addition to the Adly Street synagogue there are several others which can be visited with the correct permissions including a Karaite synagogue which is fascinating for incorporating Mosque-like elements; a totally unrenovated ancient synagogue which still houses Torah scrolls and an elaborate brit milah chair; and an unusual baroque style synagogue which is currently being renovated by the local Jewish heritage NGO.
We can also arrange visits to the Bassatine cemetery, the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world, which was restored with the help of the Egyptian government and volunteer British yeshiva students.
Outside of Cairo, the city of Alexandria should not be missed by those keen on discovering Egypt’s Jewish past. In addition to the Jewish cemeteries, shops and schools, the marvelous Eliyahu HaNabi synagogue brings to life the glamour and sophistication of this lost community. A synagogue was originally erected at this site in the fourteenth century, and was destroyed in the Napoleonic attack of 1798. In 1885 Mohamed Ali rebuilt the synagogue, but it again fell into great disrepair in the twentieth century after the Jewish population was forced out of the country. The current Egyptian government has restored the abandoned place of worship to its nineteenth century glory of pink marble columns and grand chandeliers. The restoration has taken care to include the smallest details, such as returning the correct name plaques to individual synagogue seats. There are also places where visitors can peer into dug out sections and view the underlying original fourteenth century structure.
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