Jewish synagogues in Egypt: renovated places of workship that tell a lot about Egypt’s history
Egypt is a nation known for its rich history, unique treasures, secrets, and discoveries; it’s not just about the pharaohs, but also related to the Islamic, Coptic, Roman, Turkish, and Jewish heritage. All together are much more than a window into its rich history. Also, their remaining hundreds of thousands of buildings, monuments, books, fragments, letters, and even sheets are another Egyptian contribution to knowledge about the development of both the eastern and western civilizations.
“Egypt is unique in its cultural and civilization diversity,” said Minister of Tourism and Antiquities – Khaled Al-Anani. In his speech about Egypt and the cradle of Abrahamic religions, he also announced that Egypt witnessed a great event in January 2020 – the unveiling of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria after three years of restoration. It indicates that the Egyptian government thrives to promote its multi-cultural civilization, which is the Jewish heritage is an integral part of it. Below you will find a shortlist of the most famous Jewish synagogue in Egypt that you can visit whenever you come to Egypt.
The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, Alexandria
The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue is one of the largest Jewish synagogues in the Middle East; it’s one of two remaining synagogues in Alexandria – there were once twelve. Eliyahu Hanavi was built in the 14th by an Italian architect. It’s a really big building as it could accommodate around 700 worshipers, as well as, the interior features immense marble columns with brass nameplates still affixed to the regular seats of male worshippers. It also has green and violet stained-glass windows and unique wooden antiques. Furthermore, it holds important records of Jewish births and marriages in Alexandria. It contains a chamber that holds 30 Torah scrolls collected from other closed temples, as well as books and manuscripts dating to the 15th century.
The synagogue was destructed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition in 1798 when a defensive wall that expanded from the Kom Al-Dikka area to the Mediterranean was built. Then, Mohamed Ali Pasha family initiated to rebuild it in 1850.
The Eliyahu Hanavi temple once consisted of Rabbanites and Karaites, who started to immigrate to Egypt after their expulsion. Originally, the synagogue was located in Nabi Daniel Street, downtown Alexandria; the synagogue now stands in the heart of Alexandria, the second-largest city in Egypt. It was closed in 2012 due to security issues. Yet, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced the reopening of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in January 2020. The government began renovations on the 14th-century Alexandria synagogue in 2017. It was renovated as part of Egypt’s program to preserve its Jewish heritage.
In 2017, the Egyptian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities – Khaled al-Anany – allocated EGP 40 million for emergency repairs and restoration of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, after a portion of its roof collapsed, as the synagogue remained exposed to the elements with rainwater seeping into the walls and flooring. Restorations include work on the lighting, safety, alarm systems, and wooden elements. Furthermore, the building’s structure, façade, and rooms were restored, as well. It was a good sign of growing interest on the behalf of the local authorities in the preservation of minority groups’ heritage in Egypt.
Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo
Ben Ezra Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Cairo back to the 19th century AD. It is one of the most important tourist attractions; as it still holds great importance in the contemporary history of Judaism. The Ben Ezra Synagogue was originally known as El-Shamieen Church; it is located behind the famous Hanging church in the area of old Cairo.
Back to its history, it was originally a Christian church that was sold to the Jews, in 882 A.D. Abraham Ben Ezra bought it for 20,000 dinars; he came from Jerusalem during Ahmed Ibn Tulun’s reign.
It is believed that the site of the Ben Ezra Synagogue is where “the box of Baby Moses” was found and taken by the wife of the pharaoh at that time. It was built in the shape of a rectangular shape and consists of 2 floors; the first is dedicated to men and the second one is dedicated to women. Its entrance is located on the north side.
The Ben Ezra synagogue features unique geometrical decorations, which goes back to the Turkish rulers. You can see it clearly in the side halls with patterns such as star patterns, pentagonal patterns, and rectangles. Also, many floral decorations are used as a background for these geometrical patterns; they are also found around the Star of David in the middle of the ceiling.
Moussa Dar’i Synagogue, Abassieh, Cairo
The synagogue was built in 1933 on land that initially donated by the widow of Sitatah Al Musafi, in 1900. It was named after the famous Karaite poet “Moshe Dari”. The interesting thing that, the synagogue doesn’t have any chairs or pews! Attendees would take off their shoes prior to services and store them in the lockers near the entrance.
Maimonides Synagogue, Cairo
It is also known as the Rav Moshe Synagogue – one of the historic synagogues in Egypt that was built in the 10th century. Maimonides Synagogue was subsequently named after the famous Jewish philosopher, rabbi, and physician Maimonides. Moreover, it is believed that Maimonides’ original tomb is contained within the building. The synagogue also contains two areas for prayer and rituals. It also shows a Bible that allegedly was written by Maimonides himself.
Jewish synagogues in Egypt were shuttered and neglected for decades. However, the Egyptian government allocated $71 million for the restoration of Jewish sites, including synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria. The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities managed to promote the cultural heritage and the Jewish antiquities as an integral part of the Egyptian treasures. There are more than 9 Jewish synagogues in Egypt, which will give you a glimpse of the Jewish community in Egypt decades ago.
Egypt’s tourism sector is rebounding after years of stagnation to declare that the Jewish sites would diversify Egypt’s tourist attractions. There are 13 synagogues in Cairo and many others in Alexandria. Some of them have been fully restored and could become powerful draws to tourists interested in Egypt’s Jewish history.
Sherif Khalil is Owner of Dunes & Beyond. Dunes & Beyond offers luxury tours, Nile cruises and desert safaris in Egypt.