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US contributes to project aimed at conserving historic Jewish cemetery in Cairo

American Research Center in Egypt says work will focus on creating thorough documentation of the graveyard and putting together a site management plan

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

Burial plots at the historic Jewish cemetery in the Bassatine district in Cairo. (Courtesy)
Burial plots at the historic Jewish cemetery in the Bassatine district in Cairo. (Courtesy)

The US Embassy in Egypt recently announced that the State Department will support a project aimed at conserving a historic Jewish cemetery in the Bassatine district of Cairo that dates back to the 9th century.

The cemetery, which contains the graves of many notable Jews including Rabbi Haim Capusi, who lived in Cairo in the 17th century, has long suffered from accumulation of trash, urban encroachment and theft.

The Egyptian government and the Drop of Milk foundation, an Egyptian group that works to preserve Jewish sites in Cairo, has made greater efforts to preserve the cemetery over the past year, but much of it has continued to sit in disarray.

The embassy said in a statement in late January that the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), an organization that seeks to conserve Egyptian antiquities, would implement the project in collaboration with the Drop of Milk foundation, an Egyptian group that works to preserve and restore Jewish sites in Cairo.

A general view of damaged tombs and fetid water at the historic Jewish cemetery in the Bassatine district of Cairo, Egypt on Thursday, April 18, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)

Louise Bertini, ARCE’s executive director, said the project will largely focus on creating a thorough documentation of the cemetery as well as putting together a site management plan for it.

“This is important because it can help inform the local Jewish community on how to deal with any future interventions at the site,” she said in a phone call.

The cemetery is currently 270 dunams (about 66 acres) even though it originally occupied some 1,300 dunams (320 acres); a number of structures in the Bassatine district sit on land that originally belonged to the graveyard.

Bertini also said that ARCE planned to carry out “emergency conservation” work on a small handful of graves, possibly including that of Capusi.

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.

A burial plots at the historic Jewish cemetery in the Bassatine district in Cairo, Egypt. (Courtesy)

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.

Bertini added that the US State Department planned to contribute a total of $150,000 to the project, while noting that ARCE hoped to obtain additional funds to contribute to the conservation of the cemetery in the future.

US Ambassador to Egypt Jonathan Cohen spoke highly of the project at an event in late January with members of Cairo’s Jewish community.

He called it “an investment in Egypt’s diverse cultural history” and “an opportunity to raise awareness of Egypt’s diversity.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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