Historic synagogue in Alexandria set to be reopened following major renovation
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Historic synagogue in Alexandria set to be reopened following major renovation

Eliyahu Hanavi shul is one of two remaining Jewish houses of worship in the coastal city, where only a few Jews live today; Jewish leaders originally from Egypt welcome move

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

  • The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
    The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
  • The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
    The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
  • The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on December 20, 2019. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
    The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on December 20, 2019. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
  • The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on December 20, 2019. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
    The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on December 20, 2019. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
  • Egyptian Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani touring the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on December 20, 2019. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)
    Egyptian Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani touring the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on December 20, 2019. (Egyptian Antiquities Ministry)

A major project to renovate the largest synagogue in the coastal city of Alexandria has been completed, Egyptian authorities announced over the weekend.

Eliyahu Hanavi, one of two remaining synagogues in the Egyptian city, will be formally reopened in January, Egypt’s antiquities ministry said in a statement on its Facebook page on Friday.

The house of worship is one of several Jewish sites in Alexandria, which was once home to an estimated 30,000-40,000 Jews. Its current structure was erected in the 1850s, after the original building, which dates back to the 1300s, was badly damaged in the late 18th century, during a French invasion of Egypt. It can hold approximately 700 worshipers.

The renovations included the structural reinforcement of the synagogue, the restoration of its main facade, decorative walls, and brass and wooden objects, as well as the development of its security and lighting systems, the antiquities ministry statement said.

Eliyahu Hanavi was once an “active and bustling” synagogue, but it fell into a precarious state after rain water started to leak through its roof into the women’s section seven to eight years ago, said 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 a phone call. “The Antiquities Ministry stepped in to take charge of its restoration.”

The renovations cost approximately $4 million, paid by the Egyptian government, Nacamuli said, adding that Egypt turned down an offer by the Nebi Daniel Association to raise funds.

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 former 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.

Egyptian Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani visited the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue last Friday, the ministry said in its statement.

The Egyptian government maintains an interest in preserving Egypt’s antiquities –“whether they are Pharonic, Jewish, Coptic, or Islamic,” the statement said.

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

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 Israeli Foreign Ministry indicated that it welcomes Egypt’s restoration of the synagogue.

“We take a very positive view of Egypt’s efforts to preserve the sites of the Jewish community that has existed in Egypt for more than 2,000 years,” spokesman Lior Haiat said in a text message, without explicitly referring to Eliyahu Hanavi.

Israeli Ambassador to Egypt David Govrin visited the synagogue in September 2016.

On the day of his visit to Eliyahu Hanavi, he told the right-wing Arutz Sheva news site: “Restoring the synagogues is important because it’s part of our heritage, as well as part of Egypt’s history. It’s amazing and special to walk into an old, beautiful, magnificent synagogue. It’s a symbol of the past, of a time when there was a flourishing Jewish community in this city.”

In his comments, he also appeared to indicate that Israel could not financially support the restoration of synagogues in Egypt, “since that would seem to Egypt to be interfering, and Egypt does not want to be pressed into handing over documents or properties.”

Alec Nacamuli, a former resident of Alexandria and a board member of the Nebi Daniel Association. (Courtesy of Alec Nacamuli)

Nacamuli, whose grandfather was an honorary president of Cairo’s Jewish community, praised Egypt for restoring Eliyahu Hanavi.

“I think this is an extremely positive move. It is recognition that Jews were part of Egyptian history,” he said, stating that Egyptian police protect all Jewish synagogues in the country.

Levana Zamir, the head of the International Association of Jews from Egypt, said that she was excited about the renovations to the synagogue.

“We are thrilled,” Zamir, who said she celebrated the Jewish new year at Eliyahu Hanavi with her family and diplomats in September, stated in a phone call. “This is grand piece of property.”

She added that she thought Egypt made the effort to restore the site for two major reasons.

“They did this work out of respect for antiquities and their Jewish past,” Zamir, who left Cairo with her family in 1949 at the age of 12, said, adding that the other factor was to encourage tourism.

Zamir, who now lives in Israel, said she and her family left Egypt after authorities arrested her uncle in 1948 and confiscated their property.

Nacamuli said that while it was unlikely a significant number of Jews would return to Egypt in the future, preserving the Jewish community in Egypt’s history was crucial.

“Will we ever see a resurgence of Jewish life in Egypt? I don’t know,” he said. “At least, there will be traces of our passage and history there. That is very significant.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article. 

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