Egypt is considered one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. In 1948, the Jewish population of Cairo and Alexandria was estimated to be more than 75,000. In the 1950s, Egyptian authorities began expelling Jews and sequestering Jewish-owned property.
Today, the number of Jews living in Egypt can be counted on one hand.
The declining population also went hand in hand with a lack of protection for Jewish heritage sites. But we can take some inspiration from a group of volunteers who have been working to revive Egypt’s Jewish heritage.
As described in Haaretz, the volunteers have been working to conserve Jewish sites in the North African nation. The project is being carried out with American funding by the tiny Jewish community that remains in Egypt and with the cooperation of Egyptian authorities. When these volunteers go to work, they are often greeted with destruction and neglect — places closed for more than 70 years have been used as garbage dumps.
In March, the project’s focus was an old Jewish cemetery in Cairo, where it took 250 garbage trucks to remove all of the debris that had accumulated over the years.
Of the 16 synagogue buildings in Egypt, 13 are in Cairo. In 2020, the refurbishing of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, built in the 19th century, was completed. The Egyptian government covered all the costs of renovating the structure.
The next big project is to restore the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, which was built about 1,200 years ago and is one of the oldest synagogues in the world. This synagogue is the site of the famous Cairo Geniza, a collection of almost 400,000 pieces of manuscripts and documents outlining a 1,000-year continuum of Jewish Middle Eastern and North African history. These pieces comprise the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world and, to this day, serve as the primary source for writing the history of Eastern Jewish communities.
One of the guiding principles of the Jewish heritage project is to keep what is found in Egypt.
The most incredible finding was discovered at the Karaite synagogue in Cairo. In a place where anyone could have picked it up was a Bible written on vellum. The priceless 616-page manuscript was dated to 1028.
The group of volunteers has uncovered more books in existing structures that are lying about like trash. Some of them are rare editions dating from the 16th or 17th centuries. To date, around 1,000 books have been recovered.
Another discovery was unearthed in the cellar of a Cairo synagogue. A small metal box contained a registry of the entire Ashkenazi community in Egypt, including names, birthdates, emigration, professions and other information from the community’s past.
These are just some of the treasures that have so far been discovered. If the project’s organizers are successful, someday there will be a central library in Cairo where these antiquities can be preserved — and hopefully be on display — so the world can know of the rich Jewish heritage that was once in Egypt.
We look forward to that day. These items are beyond priceless and serve as a reminder of often-forgotten Jewish history. It’s a project we can all get behind. JN