Egypt reopened a restored historic synagogue on Friday in the coastal city of Alexandria, but only three local Jews were on hand at the ceremony.
The Eliyahu Hanavi [Elijah the Prophet] synagogue, built originally in the 14th century, was renovated in a multi-year, multi-million euro effort as part of Egypt’s program to preserve its Jewish heritage.
“I’m very proud of what my country has done, and it symbolizes living together, today there is no difference between Egyptian Muslim, Christian and Egyptian Jew[s],” said Magda Haroun, the head of Cairo’s tiny Jewish community, at the reopening ceremony. With tears in her eyes, she said that she had been struggling for years to preserve Jewish heritage in Egypt and she never thought that the Egyptian government would spend the money to rebuild the landmark Sephardi house of prayer. The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, with green and violet stained-glass windows and towering marble columns, is one of two remaining Jewish houses of worship in Alexandria. The renovations included the structural reinforcement of the synagogue, the restoration of its main facade, decorative walls, and brass and wooden objects, and the development of its security and lighting systems, the Antiquities Ministry said in a statement in December.
The original Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue was built in 1354. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt and the synagogue was destroyed in a fire. Subsequently, the synagogue was rebuilt in 1850 when there were thousands of Jews in Egypt. Alexandria boasted 12 synagogues and had some 40,000 Jews in the 1940s, half of the country’s Jewish population, according to the official page of Alexandria province.
Since 1948 and Israel’s establishment, the Jewish community in Egypt dwindled, and the synagogue fell into neglect.
Today, only a handful of Jews remain from Egypt’s once-thriving community, most of them elderly. At the age of 67, Haroun is the youngest of the eight remaining Egyptian Jews.
“I will be the last Jewish woman in Egypt to close the door of the synagogue,” she said.
Yolande Mizrahi, in her 80s but still vital, sat in one of the rebuilt wooden benches of the synagogue. Although her family left Egypt for France, Italy and Israel, she remained and reveled in returning to the synagogue which she attended as a child.
“I have traveled a lot and I have always returned. This is my country, I belong here. Why should I leave? asked Mizrahi, adding that she hopes her family will visit to see the refurbished shul.
“Egyptian officials are hoping that the synagogue will become a tourist attraction that backs up Sisi’s assertion that the country respects religious minorities and their heritage.
If it wasn’t for [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sissi, this would have never been done. A lot of things have changed since he’s taken over,” Mizrahi told AFP.
In 2018, Sissi singled out preservation of places of worship for Egyptian Jews and Coptic Christians as a priority for his government. “If Egypt has Jews again, we will build synagogues for them,” he said.
Of course, that was an empty gesture, but the restoration of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue enables the government to place a feather of tolerance in its cap. And for the few remaining Jews of Alexandria, they can carry on with the knowledge that their heritage will not completely disappear.
“This is recognition of Egypt’s Jews who were neglected for over sixty years,” Haroun told AFP. “It is recognition that we have always been here and that we have contributed to a lot of things just like any other Egyptian.”