Egypt set to reopen Alexandria synagogue Friday after extensive renovation

Jewish community leaders, Egyptian antiquities minister and diplomats are slated to attend Eliyahu Hanavi’s reopening following multi-million-dollar rehab

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on December 20, 2019. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on December 20, 2019. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)

A synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, is set to reopen Friday following the completion of multi-million-dollar renovations of the almost two-century-old building, an Egyptian Antiquities Ministry official said.

The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue is one of two remaining Jewish houses of worship in the city that was once home to a thriving Jewish community.

The heads of the Alexandria and Cairo Jewish communities are expected to attend the opening, according to Egypt’s Assistant Minister of Antiquities for Engineering Affairs Hisham Samir.

Egyptian Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani, some 25 diplomats and others are also slated to attend the synagogue’s reopening, Samir told al-Masry al-Youm, a privately owned Egyptian daily, in an article published on Tuesday.

Lior Haiat, a spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, said in a phone call that while Israeli diplomats would not be at the synagogue on Friday, they would take part in another event marking its reopening later in 2020.

Eliyahu Hanavi was once home to an estimated 30,000-40,000 Jews. Its current structure was erected in the 1850s, after the original building, which dated back to the 1300s, was badly damaged in the late 18th century, during a French invasion of Egypt. With room for approximately 700 worshipers, it is the larger of the two synagogues remaining in the city.

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.

Eliyahu Hanavi was once an “active and bustling” synagogue, but it fell into a precarious state after rainwater started to leak through the roof into the women’s section seven to eight years ago, according to Alec Nacamuli, a former resident of Alexandria and a board member of the Nebi Daniel Association, an organization that works to preserve Jewish sites in Egypt.

The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on December 20, 2019. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)

Then, four or five years ago, part of its roof collapsed and it was in urgent need of repair, Nacamuli, who left Alexandria with his family for Europe in 1956 at the age of 13, said in December. “The Antiquities Ministry stepped in to take charge of its restoration,” he said.

The renovations, which were paid for by the Egyptian government, cost 68 million Egyptian pounds ($4.23 million), Samir said.

Egypt’s Jewish community, which dates back millennia, numbered around 80,000 in the 1940s, but today stands at fewer than 20 people. The departure of Egypt’s Jews was fueled by rising nationalist sentiment during the Arab-Israeli wars, harassment, and some direct expulsions by then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Egypt and Israel signed a landmark peace treaty in 1979 and have since maintained formal diplomatic relations. But public opinion in Egypt has largely remained hostile to the Jewish state.

Only four or five septuagenarian and octogenarian Jews currently reside in Alexandria, Nacamuli said. The city used to house 12 synagogues, but most of them were sold over the years to support the Jewish community there, and its infrastructure and institutions, he said.

Egypt also sponsored the restoration of the Maimonides synagogue in Cairo in the 2000s. But many Jewish houses of worship in Cairo, as well as a major Jewish cemetery there, have sat in disarray for decades.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said in November 2018: “If we have Jews, we will build [synagogues] for them.” In recent years, Sissi, who has led a widespread crackdown on dissent and jailed thousands of critics, has frequently met with Jewish delegations in the US and Cairo.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. 

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