'We need to show that we're still in control of this place'

Historic synagogue creates tension between Egypt’s government and few remaining Jews

The antiquities ministry has exerted control over the 1,200-year-old house of prayer it paid to renovate. Now the tiny community fears it doesn’t respect their ownership of the site

  • Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli (2nd-R) and Tourism and Antiquities Minister Ahmed Issa (3rd-R) touring around the newly-restored 19th century Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Coptic Cairo on August 31, 2023. (Photo by Egypt's Prime Minister Office / AFP)
    Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli (2nd-R) and Tourism and Antiquities Minister Ahmed Issa (3rd-R) touring around the newly-restored 19th century Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Coptic Cairo on August 31, 2023. (Photo by Egypt's Prime Minister Office / AFP)
  • Illustrative: This picture taken on December 2, 2023, shows a view of the interior of the newly-restored 19th century Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Coptic Cairo. (Photo by Amir MAKAR / AFP)
    Illustrative: This picture taken on December 2, 2023, shows a view of the interior of the newly-restored 19th century Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Coptic Cairo. (Photo by Amir MAKAR / AFP)
  • Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
    Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
  • Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli (L) touring around the newly-restored 19th century Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Coptic Cairo on August 31, 2023. (Photo by Egypt's Prime Minister Office / AFP)
    Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli (L) touring around the newly-restored 19th century Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Coptic Cairo on August 31, 2023. (Photo by Egypt's Prime Minister Office / AFP)
  • Visitors walk past the entrance of the 19th century Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Cairo on October 23, 2022. (Amir MAKAR / AFP)
    Visitors walk past the entrance of the 19th century Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Cairo on October 23, 2022. (Amir MAKAR / AFP)

JTA — In September, Egyptian authorities re-inaugurated Cairo’s historic Ben Ezra synagogue, which had undergone a year-long renovation. Despite having maintained the synagogue for years, Egypt’s few remaining Jews were conspicuously not invited.

In February, according to a Haaretz report, a genizah — a trove of once disregarded sacred texts — was discovered during excavations in a Cairo Jewish cemetery. But its contents were confiscated by officials despite protests from the Jewish community.

“They refused to wait until a rabbi would attend the excavation,” said Sammy Ibrahim, vice president of the Jewish community’s organization. “We complained but they did nothing. So [the documents] have gone to a store room to rot away.”

The tensions have continued to build. On Tuesday, the Jewish community made use of the synagogue for the first time since it was renovated and reopened for tourists by the Egyptian government. Community leaders toured around a group of professors and alumni donors from Princeton University.

“It’s about showing them that we are still in control of this place,” Ibrahim told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

As Ahmed Issa, Egypt’s minister of tourism and antiquities, said in September, the 1,200-year-old synagogue “is one of the most important and oldest Jewish temples in Egypt.” It is most famous for having housed the Cairo Genizah.

Visitors walk past the entrance of the 19th century Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Cairo on October 23, 2022. (Amir MAKAR / AFP)

Ibrahim saw the lack of an invitation in September as a clear slight by the antiquities ministry, and now he’s worried the ministry does not respect the community’s ownership of the site.

When Ibrahim asked the ministry, which currently manages the synagogue, to close the site for tourists and allow the community’s event to be private, they refused, according to Ibrahim.

The restoration of the synagogue was funded by Egypt’s antiquities authority on the direct order of President Abed Fattah El-Sisi, who also tasked the authority to work on three other historic synagogues in Egypt. Those projects have not yet begun, but in 2020, the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria was renovated by the Egyptian government at the cost of about $2.2 million.

In Egypt, the cost of such works would normally fall on the minority community associated with the site, but unlike Coptic Christians, who account for 10% of Egypt’s population, Egypt’s Jews had no such funds. Today, Egypt’s Jewish community numbers under a dozen members, most of whom are elderly.

Egyptians carry the coffin of Nadia Haroun, the deputy head of the dwindling Jewish community, outside the Jewish synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim in Cairo, Egypt, March 11, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Ahmed Gomaa)

Recognizing that they had no financial ability to fulfill the antiquities ministry’s request, the community reached out directly to Sisi, with whom they have maintained good ties, for support.

“We made a complaint to the president and he gave an order that the synagogue should be restored on the expenses of the antiquities [ministry],” Ibrahim said. “So [the ministry] didn’t like this, that we stepped past them and went higher.”

Egypt was once home to one of the largest and oldest Jewish communities in the Middle East. By the early 20th century, Egypt was still home to more than 80,000 Jews, including Sephardim, Karaites and an Ashkenazi refugee community which founded a burgeoning Yiddish Theatre scene. 

Illustrative: Marcelle Haroun, the widow of former prominent Egyptian Jewish lawyer Shehata Haroun and the mother of the president of the Egyptian Jewish Community Magda Haroun, speaks during an interview at their home in Cairo, February 11, 2017. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 brought an end to that world. Most Egyptian Jews emigrated during the following years, as Arab-Israeli tensions spilled over into antisemitic laws and riots in Egypt.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue’s Cairo Genizah has continued to provide scholars with insights into Jewish life across the world and the ages for more than a century after it was first discovered. The Princeton visit was organized by Marina Rustow, one of the leading scholars on the famous genizah.

Despite the rocky history of the 20th century and the shooting of two Israeli tourists in Alexandria by an Egyptian policeman following the start of the Israel-Hamas war after the terror slaughtered 1,200 people in southern Isreal on October 7, Ibrahim stressed that the remaining community feels both safe and comfortable in Egypt.

“We have no fear at all, no fear at all,” he said.

The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

The community’s president, Magda Haroun, made similar points when speaking to the Princeton group on Tuesday.

“So this event was nice because we showed them a demonstration that this is our place,” Ibrahim said.

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