Egypt chose to start 2020 with a celebration of its plurality and diverse, multi-faceted heritage. Alexandria’s Synagogue of Eliyahu Hanavi (Hebrew for Elijah the Prophet) was reopened on 10 January, in the wake of renovation works that lasted two-and-a-half years, and cost some EGP68 million. The works were carried out by the Engineering/Construction Department of the Armed Forces, under supervision of the Ministry of Antiquities, and were financed from the State budget.
Accompanying the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anany for the opening event of the 14th century synagogue, were Alexandria Governor Muhammed al-Sherif, as well as other high ranking officials. Many Egyptian and foreign officials, public figures and members of the cultural elite were invited and attended the event, these included the leaders of the small Jewish community in Cairo and Alexandria, 25 diplomats representing their countries, Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Mostafa al-Feki, archaeologist Zahi Hawass, and Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri. Although no Israeli diplomats were at hand, the Times of Israel reported that Lior Haiat, a spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, said they would take part in another event to mark the reopening of Eliyahu Hanavi later this year.
Minister Anany said that the restoration of Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue came within the scope of Egypt’s keenness to preserve its heritage: Pharaonic, Jewish, Coptic and Islamic. “Egypt boasts a multi-faceted civilisation and culture, the components of which have over the years intertwined and coexisted,” he said. He proudly announced that the inauguration of the newly restored Jewish synagogue in Alexandria sends a message to the entire world that the Egyptian government cares for Egyptian heritage at large, whatever religion it belongs to.
A documentary screened during the opening event focused on the cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria and its cultural diversity throughout the centuries. The documentary also told the story of Eliyahu Hanavi, how it was originally built then rebuilt.
The restoration and opening of the Jewish synagogue did not pass unnoticed; the World Jewish Congress (WJC) acknowledged Egypt’s initiative to restore it. “Egypt’s Jewish community today is fewer than 20 members,” the WJC posted on Twitter. “But the rich heritage of the Egyptian Jews is being preserved. In Alexandria, the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue has been restored.”
Jews in Egypt
Eliyahu Hanavi was originally constructed in 1354, but was destroyed by fire during the French military campaign against Egypt, led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 – 1801. Eliyahu Hanavi’s was later re-built in its current form in 1850 on top of the ruins of the original temple. It was built by an Italian architect, according to the directives and contribution of the governor of Egypt, the Pasha Abbas Helmy I. Dedicated to the prophet Elijah, Eliyahu Hanavi was one of 12 synagogues which served the Jewish community in Alexandria until the mid-20th century.
Studies reveal that during the 19th century, the Jewish community in Alexandria was 4000 strong, this number rose to 18,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, then 40,000 by 1948. Historians claim that half the Jews living in Alexandria at the time were Egyptian, the other half were emigrants who had come to Alexandria from Spain, Italy and Morocco; some from Austria, Hungary and Poland fleeing Nazi persecution.
Following the 1948 Israeli-Palestinian war, during which Egypt went to war with Palestine, many Jews left Egypt to Israel.
The number of Jews in Egypt saw another severe decline in the wake of the Suez War in 1956 when, in retaliation to Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Israel joined England and France in war against Egypt. Antagonism against the Jews rose in Egypt, and large numbers left. Ever since, the Jewish community in Egypt dwindled, especially following the 1960 socialist laws which hit businesses and businessmen in Egypt, not a few of them Jewish. Today, the community stands at less than 20 members with only two synagogues remaining in Alexandria, one of them the Eliyahu Hanavi.
Eliyahu Hanavi’s is located in the heart of Alexandria’s al-Attarin district, on the narrow al-Nabi Danial Street which borrows its name from a 20th century mosque that still stands. Some 200 metres from Eliyahu Hanavi’s stands the Coptic Orthodox St Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of Coptic Orthodox Christianity brought to Egypt at the hand of St Mark in the first century. Attarin is thus a place where civilisations and religions meet.
Eliyahu Hanavi’s was rebuilt in the 19th century over 4200 square metres, in Italian style. Its façade boasts a grand entrance reached by a few marble steps. First to catch the eye is the splendour of the large green and violet stained glass windows. Underneath the largest window and right up the stairs leading to the entrance stand four marble columns; two on each side, between them a rectangular design of floral motifs on top of which is the hexagonal Star of David.
The synagogue is two floors high; the ground floor for men and the upper for women; a side door leads directly to the women’s quarter on the upper floor. The rectangular building can accommodate up to 700 worshippers, in between its many pews are 28 towering marble columns. Each of the pews is adorned with a brass nameplate that carries the names of the Jewish worshippers who used to attend service at the synagogue.
The marble altar is in the east of the synagogue; in front of it stands the pulpit. To the north and south of the altar are two doors, one leading to the staircase that goes up to the women’s quarter.
Eliyahu Hanavi also boasts a large central library that is home to rare books and publications that go back to the 15th century, including 63 copies of the Torah.
Old stone foundation
According to Ministry of Antiquities official, part of the synagogue roof collapsed in 2012 and later, part of the staircase too. The building became exposed to Alexandria’s heavy winter rains which seeped into its walls and flooring. It became life threatening and had to be closed.
Restoration works started in August 2017, under supervision of the Ministry of Antiquities. It was carried out by a team of technical experts and involved structural reinforcement of the synagogue, restoration of the main façade, stained glass, marble, ornamented walls, and brass and wooden beams and ceilings. Security and lighting systems were installed. The fire alarm and drainage systems were upgraded.
The restoration project involved meticulous documentation of all parts of the synagogue including the marble floors. A thorough record was kept of all the damages treated. Ministry officials divulged that the restoration works led to a discovery of parts of the stone foundations of the old synagogue; they were cordoned off to preserve them.
“We have always been here”
Magda Haroun, an Egyptian Jewish and head of the Jewish community in Cairo, told the media that the restoration of the synagogue by the State constituted a “recognition of Egypt’s Jews who were neglected for over sixty years. It confirms that we have always been here and that we have contributed a lot to Egypt, just like all other Egyptians,” Ms Haroun said.
A beaming 80-year-old Yolande Mizrahi, who attended the inauguration ceremony, gushed: “If it weren’t for [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, this would have never been done. A lot of things have changed since he took over.”
On its website, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) reported on the restoration of Eliyahu Hanavi: “For Egyptian Jews living around the world, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue stands as an emblem of the community’s legacy. For local residents and authorities, it is a symbol of Egypt’s historical plurality, when diverse national and religious communities lived and worked together in a spirit of conviviality and religious freedom.”
This, in a nutshell, is what the reopening of Eliyahu Hanavi is all about.
30 January 2020