Egypt renovates historic synagogue

The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, one of the largest in the Middle East, underwent restoration beginning in 2017 and will reopen in January

Alexandria, Egypt (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Alexandria, Egypt
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Egyptian Antiquities Ministry announced on Friday the reopening of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue next January. The government began renovations on the 14th-century Alexandria house of worship in 2017.
This came after the Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani toured a number of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean port city, among them the synagogue, which was built in 1354. The ministry explained in a press release that the Egyptian government is interested in preserving all of the country's monuments and heritage, regardless of whether they are Pharaonic, Jewish, Coptic, or Islamic.
"The restoration project included structural and architectural reinforcement to the building, in addition to meticulous restoration of the main façades and ornate walls as well as wood and copper elements, and developed systems for modern lighting and security,” the press release said.
Adel Darwish, a London-based, Alexandria-born historian who is writing a book about the city of his birth, told The Media Line that restoration of the Eliyahu Hanavi is a sign of the local authorities’ growing interest in the preservation of minority groups’ heritage.
“It’s one of two remaining synagogues in Alexandria, where there were once 12. [The] Eliyahu Hanavi [Synagogue] is witness to a disappearing Jewish community. It could accommodate 700 worshipers and was the last functioning synagogue in Egypt until it [was] closed in 2012 due to security concerns,” he said.
Darwish said that for local residents and authorities, the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue is a symbol of Egypt’s historical pluralism and a time when diverse national and religious communities lived and worked together in a spirit of conviviality and religious freedom.
“There are three streams of thought regarding this matter in Egypt: One views it as about preserving religious identity. Another is pragmatic and sees the matter as an economic interest for the country. The third is political, seeing it as a public relations move.”
Darwish said the Egyptian government first announced the project in 2017, saying that renovation of the site (which was expected to last for eight months) would be executed under the supervision of the Antiquities Ministry and would cost 100 million Egyptian pounds (about $6 million), financed by the government itself. “The same year, the ministry [of Antiquities] allocated 40 million Egyptian pounds for emergency repairs and restoration of Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue.”
In 2018, Minister al-Anani announced that Egypt had decided to allocate a relatively large sum of money for the restoration of Jewish monuments in the country, confirming the change in the government's position on minority monuments. “For Egyptian Jews living around the world, the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue stands as an emblem of the community’s legacy."
While the Egyptian government’s total contribution to the renovation cost is unknown, the government’s renovation initiative brought attention to the importance of the synagogue to the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of historic architecture and cultural heritage sites, which allocated millions of dollars to restore eight Jewish sites, among them, the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue.
Reportedly, the cost of the repairs that started in August 2017 amounted to approximately $15 million (about 240 million Egyptian pounds).
When reached by The Media Line, the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the issue. Repeated calls to the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry went unanswered.
Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, told The Media Line that the Egyptian government made an independent decision to renovate the synagogue. The local Jewish community provided some degree of pressure on the Egyptian government, “but there was additional pressure from organizations of Jews who came from Egypt, which have been following up [on the matter] and asked the Egyptian authorities to do something about [the] Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue because it was falling apart.”
Mazel said that it’s not the first time that Egypt has renovated synagogues. “I was there once when the government was attacked in the Egyptian press, which asked why the government would allocate money to the Jews while Egyptians suffer. And the answer was, Jews are part of Egypt; they absolutely must be commemorated, and their property and synagogues respected.”
Darwish said that when the Jews were forced to leave Egypt in 1956 by [then-President] Gamal Abdel Nasser, they moved to Israel, leaving behind thousands of synagogues and important artifacts.
“The Egyptians are doing themselves and the Jewish community a favor when they show the world that they have a multicultural society including Copts and Jews, also,” Darwish said. “These organizations have proposed to the Egyptian government the building of a museum to protect and display what they left behind in Egypt when they were expelled. I believe they are discussing the project now. It hasn’t been decided yet but is being discussed slowly.”
He pointed out that peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel have been ongoing since 1977, when then-President Anwar Sadat visited Israel. “The decision to renovate the synagogue was initiated by the Egyptians, themselves. It is an independent Egyptian decision and they are very happy about it. As I understand, the architect who renovated the synagogue is Egyptian, too.”