To Promote Diversity, Egypt Plans to Restore Alexandria Synagogue

By Wirtschafter, Jacob | The Christian Century, August 30, 2017 | Go to article overview

To Promote Diversity, Egypt Plans to Restore Alexandria Synagogue


Wirtschafter, Jacob, The Christian Century


A $2 million restoration of Egypt's largest synagogue, Prophet Elijah Synagogue in Alexandria, is the start of a government effort to keep Jewish heritage alive.

"The government is elevating the profile of the heritage of Egyptian Jews," said Samy Ibrahim, vice president of the Cairo Jewish community, which, like the one in Alexandria, counts a population of less than a dozen members.

The Jewish community numbered 75,000 when the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948. Since then, most members have left for Israel, France, and elsewhere.

Ibrahim and other Egyptian Jewish leaders met recently with Joshua Shamsi, a Connecticut-based photographer, at the synagogue in Alexandria to draw up plans for a comprehensive visual survey of their synagogues, schools, and cemeteries.

"Something important is happening in Egypt," said Shamsi, who has documented heritage sites in Morocco, Tunisia, and Iraq for Diarna, an online "geo-museum" of Middle Eastern Jewish life. "Doors closed before are now opening."

Khaled El-Enany, minister of antiquities, said his agency plans to fund the restoration of the 700-seat Italianate synagogue. The sanctuary in the 160-yearold structure was restored to 1850s style after being damaged when French forces bombarded the Mediterranean port city. Egyptian King Muhammad Sa'id Pasha paid for the work at the time.

The resoration efforts are in line with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's attempts to court Coptic Christians and emphasize Egypt's religious diversity in response to a series of deadly bombings in minority communities, mostly by the Islamic State group.

The efforts with Jewish Egyptians show el-Sisi is serious about promoting religious diversity, Ibrahim said, even as human rights groups accuse authorities of cracking down on civil society in other spheres of life.

"This is part of Egypt's national heritage, and what we are doing is encouraging understanding among religions and respect of the other," he said.

Some supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have denounced the Alexandria synagogue restoration and accused el-Sisi of taking money from Israeli and American Jewish donors.

In fact, Egypt has rebuffed Israeli efforts to fund the restoration of Jewish heritage sites. Even though Israel and Egypt formally signed a peace accord in 1979, relations have remained cool. …

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