Untangling the synagogues of Cairo

Egyptian Jewish history without the Jews.

Maimonides Synagogue 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maimonides Synagogue 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the fall of 1964, I was a 34-year-old bachelor on vacation exploring the wonders of Pharaonic Egypt. September 16 that year was Yom Kippur, and I was enough of a Jew that I wanted to fast and attend a synagogue if I could find one. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the Sinai campaign of 1956, the community of Cairene Jews had vastly declined. After 1956, several thousand Egyptian Jews were expelled.
I had my bar mitzva in the synagogue in Sharon, Pennsylvania, a small town in the western part of the state where I had grown up, and I knew that I was a kohen, a supposed descendant of the priests of the Temple.
My inquiries about operating synagogues in Cairo produced two possibilities: a small and very old synagogue in the Fostat section of the city, and the Grand Temple of Ismailia, the large synagogue where most of the remaining observant Jews of Cairo gathered. I decided on the old Fostat synagogue.
When I walked in about 10 a.m., I was warmly greeted by 13 Jews who were holding a service. They had paid 10 pounds to the government to allow them to occupy the synagogue on Yom Kippur. When they learned that I was a kohen, it was like a minor miracle; they had not had a kohen – or a levi – in five years to bless the first and second portions of the Torah reading. They washed my face with rose water and gave me the honor of reciting the blessings for the first two aliyot.
As the day wore on, however, I decided to change synagogues.
I figured I had a better chance of being invited home to break the 25-hour fast at the Grand Temple of Ismailia. So I decamped there, and indeed I was invited home by a button manufacturer who kept his business in the name of his Arab partner. Oh – and by the way, he had a beautiful 18-year-old daughter who had recently been elected Miss Plage (“Miss Beach”; French was the language of the old Western residents).
Allegra Haffez became my tour guide. We went to the Giza pyramids together and rode camels through the desert to the famous Stepped Pyramid of Saqqara, built in about 2650 BCE by the architect Imhotep for the Pharaoh Djoser of the third Egyptian dynasty. The stepped pyramid of Djoser is even older than the great pyramids of Giza, by about a century.
I have kept up with Haffez intermittently. After the Six Day War in 1967, her father was arrested. The family was able to leave Egypt with the help of the Spanish consul, who supplied them with Spanish passports. She is now living with her husband in Monaco.
In the 1980s, I returned to Egypt. By then, I, too, was in a different place. In 1972, I had taken a sabbatical from my law practice and spent a year with my wife and two little daughters in Israel. When I came back, I started a magazine called Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) as a hobby.
When I returned to Egypt this time, I was particularly interested in the Cairo Geniza and the Ben-Ezra Synagogue where it had been found. The Cairo Geniza contained almost 200,000 documents dating from the ninth to the 15th centuries, covering every aspect of Jewish life in letters, legal records, marriage contracts and business accounts, as well as religious documents (Bible, Talmud, midrash and liturgy). It was largely removed from the synagogue in 1897 by Solomon Schechter, then a reader in Talmud at Cambridge University, where it is still being studied.
To me, the most fascinating of these finds are two copies of a document known as the Damascus Document (abbreviated CD in scholarly literature) from the 10th and 12th centuries. Schechter speculated that this text had originated with and reflected the views of a Jewish movement from the turn of the era, 1,000 years earlier than the copies in the geniza. A halfcentury after his speculation, copies of CD were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, confirming Schechter’s speculation.
Although all surviving copies of this document are incomplete, both the copies from the Cairo Geniza and those among the Dead Sea Scrolls fill lacunae in each other.
Schechter also hypothesized that this ancient Jewish movement possessed some sort of manual containing its tenets, as well as a set of rules of discipline. This, too, was later confirmed when, in 1947, Beduin tribesmen recovered seven documents in a cave near the Dead Sea, one of which was the “Manual of Discipline” regulating the Jewish sect most scholars believe to be the Essenes.
When I returned to Egypt in the 1980s, I wanted to see what was left of the Ben- Ezra Synagogue. I located the synagogue in the heart of the Old City. It was deserted except for the caretaker, and I was left to wander about by myself. The building seemed dilapidated. The entrance to the geniza was at the end of the upper balcony (the women’s section) to the left of the Torah ark. I was not able to enter; I could only gaze in fascination.
THIS PAST January, less than a week before the protests erupted, I was in Cairo again. Now over 80, I had become nostalgic.
I wanted to revisit the two synagogues I had attended on Yom Kippur in 1964. But I could not find either. No one had heard of them. They knew of the Ben-Ezra, where the Cairo Geniza had been found, but that was the only old one. And they had never heard of the Grand Temple of Ismailia.
Wandering through the alleys of the Old City, I came upon a prominent sign pointing to the Ben-Ezra Synagogue.
How could I resist? I went again to see where the Cairo Geniza had been found.
What a difference! It was now a major tourist attraction, and it had been elegantly restored. The marble bima in the center of the prayer hall from which the Torah was chanted fairly glistened. It was an unusual bima that could accommodate a reader on either the front or the back, looking in either direction. Suddenly it struck me: This was the Fostat synagogue where I had recited the Torah portions on September 16, 1964, long before I had heard of the Cairo Geniza.
The old Fostat synagogue and the Ben-Ezra Synagogue were the same! Later, during my January trip, knowing that I was interested in synagogues, my driver pointed out another one on a main street in downtown Cairo – the Adly Street synagogue, or simply the Adly. Would I like to see it? Why not.
What attracted me most was the security.
In addition to the usual security personnel roaming about, a truck faced the street under a sideless tent. Pictures were forbidden, I was told just after taking one from a distance, which included the security vehicle in front.
I later learned the reason for the tight security: The synagogue had been firebombed less than a year before. Fortunately the inside of the building had not been damaged.
The Adly is a large, hulking structure impressively appointed and reflecting pompous bourgeois comfort and community standing. After making a donation to the upkeep of the synagogue and entering, I suddenly realized: This was the Grand Temple of Ismailia that I had attended on the afternoon of Yom Kippur in 1964. But in 2011, no one knew it by that name anymore.
It had once been in the Cairo neighborhood of Ismailia, named for the Khedive Ismail Pasha. But that and the old name had long ago disappeared.
THE PRINCIPAL reason for my 2011 trip to Cairo was to interview Zahi Hawass, then the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
There was much I wanted to talk to him about, including his alleged anti-Semitism.
He was quoted as saying on an Arabic television program that “the only things that the Jews have learned from history are methods of tyranny and torture – so much so that they have become artists in the field.” And he had written in a London-based Arab newspaper that “the idea of killing children, old people and women and ignoring taboos runs in the blood of Palestinian Jews.”
Hawass denied that he was anti-Semitic.
He had been misquoted regarding the television program, he said, and he naturally expressed himself differently to an Arab audience, speaking in an idiom they would understand. He was anti-Israel, he told me, only to the extent it denied to the Palestinians a homeland like the Jews had acquired for themselves. Besides, most of his friends during his seven years studying in America had been Jewish.
As further evidence of his philo-Semitism, he pointed to his restoration of Cairo’s Maimonides Synagogue. In 2009, at the instigation of Hawass, the Egyptian government undertook the 18-month restoration at a cost of $2 million.
“Before me,” Hawass told me, “no one really touched the synagogues of the Jews in Egypt. [The Maimonides Synagogue] was neglected. I brought glory to this temple. I restored it… Tell me if a man can do this and be anti-Semitic.”
Known as the Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), Maimonides was an illustrious Jewish philosopher, theologian, court physician and general scholar who lived in the 12th century. Born in Spain, he spent much of his life in Egypt. He prayed and taught at the synagogue that now bears his name. According to tradition, Maimonides was buried in the synagogue before his body was moved to Tiberias, where it is venerated.
Of course, I visited the Maimonides Synagogue.
It can be reached only on foot, as it is located in the section of Cairo known in medieval times as Harat al-Yahud (the quarter of the Jews). By the 21st century, it had become a slum. The ceiling of the synagogue had collapsed due to underground water and earthquakes. Debris was all over. The building itself was crumbling. Now it was beautifully restored. Israel’s ambassador to Egypt called the restoration “spectacular.”
In Alexandria, I also visited the imposing Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, also known as the Navi Daniel Synagogue (on the Prophet Daniel Street). Ben Youssaf Gaon, head of the Jewish community in Alexandria, told me that there were 20 Jews using the synagogue, three men and 17 women. There were 35,000 Jews in Alexandria before they were forced to leave, he said.
In all Egypt today, there are fewer than 100 Jews, according to most estimates. Egypt is now recovering Jewish relics – regarding them, however, as part of Egyptian history.
A major chapter of Jewish history has ended. It seems that Egypt now values Jewish history, as long as there are no Jews.