Egypt unveils historic Alexandria synagogue أقدم معبد يهودي إلياهو هانبي

Text and Pictures by: Mohamed El-Dakhakhny

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Guests visit the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria on January 10, 2020, on the day of its inauguration. (Mohamed EL-DAKHAKHNY)


ALEXANDRIA — Egypt unveiled Friday a newly renovated 14th-century synagogue in Alexandria as part of a push to market the country’s rich cultural heritage with total cost of the temple’s renovation is estimated at more than 60 million pounds.

One of two remaining synagogues in Alexandria, where there were once twelve, Eliyahu Hanavi is the witness of a disappearing Jewish community. The monumental synagogue—one of the largest in the Middle East—was built in its current form by an Italian architect in the 1850s, at the site of a fourteenth-century synagogue that was bombed during Napoleon’s invasion in 1798. Originally located in what were the outskirts of the city, the synagogue now stands in the heart of Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt. The synagogue could accommodate 700 worshipers and was the last f
unctioning synagogue in Egypt until it closed in 2012 due to security concerns. Though numbering over 40,000 at its height, today the remaining Jewish community in Alexandria contains fewer than 10 elderly members.

 After a portion of its roof collapsed, the synagogue remained exposed to the elements with rainwater seeping into the walls and flooring. In 2017, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities allocated 60 million Egyptian pounds for emergency repairs and restoration of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, a sign of growing interest on the behalf of the local authorities in the preservation of minority groups’ heritage. For Egyptian Jews living around the world, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue stands as an emblem of the community’s legacy. For local residents and authorities, it is a symbol of Egypt’s historical plurality, when diverse national and religious communities lived and worked together in a spirit of conviviality and religious freedom. 

Egyptian Jews constitute one of the oldest an youngest Jewish communities in the world. The historic core of the indigenous community consisted of Arabic-speaking Rabbanites and Karaites. After their expulsion from Spain, Sephardi and Karaite Jews began to emigrate to Egypt. Their numbers increased with the growth of trading prospects. It was after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 . Jews from territories of Ottoman Empire, Italy and Greece went to main cities of Egypt . They settled there where they thrived. The Ashkenazi community, confined to began to arrive in the aftermath of the waves of pogroms. It hit Europe in the latter part of the 19th century In the late 1950s, Egypt expelled its Jewish population and sequestered Jewish owned property. 

Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the north Egyptian city of Alexandria. (Mohamed EL-DAKHAKHNY)
Guests visit the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the north Egyptian city of Alexandria on January 10, 2020, on the day of its inauguration. (Mohamed EL-DAKHAKHNY)
Magda Haroun, one of the leaders of the Egyptian Jewish community in the capital Cairo, visits the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the northwestern Egyptian city of Alexandria on January 10, 2020, on the day of its inauguration. (Photo by Mohamed EL-DAKHAKHNY)
Coptic priests leave after visiting the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the northwestern Egyptian city of Alexandria on January 10, 2020, on the day of its inauguration. (MOHAMED EL-DAKHAKHNY)
Egyptian Jewish, visits the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the northwestern Egyptian city of Alexandria on January 10, 2020, on the day of its inauguration. (Photo by Mohamed EL-DAKHAKHNY)
People attend the opening of Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, three years after the Egyptian government started the renovations of the synagogue originally built in 1354. (Photo/Mohamed EL-DAKHAKHNY)
Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue from inside in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria. (Mohamed EL-DAKHAKHNY)
Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria. (Mohamed EL-DAKHAKHNY)

Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue from inside in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria. (Mohamed EL-DAKHAKHNY)

The Ministry of antiquities has 11 registered Jewish houses of worship, nine in Cairo and two in Alexandria.

In 2016, an article in an Egyptian periodical contained a quote from Magda Tania Haroun (the president of Cairo’s Jewish community) which seemed to imply that there were only 6 Jews remaining in the entire country, all of them women over age 65. However, a subsequent article in another periodical clarified that she was specifically referring to the Jews remaining in Cairo (where she is based) and that there are a further 12 Jews in the city of Alexandria, whose spiritual leader is Ben Youssef Gaon. With the death of Magda’s mother, Marcelle Haroun, at the age of 93, in July 2019, left only five Jews in Cairo.

بُني معبد الياهو هانبي في منتصف القرن التاسع عشر على قطعة أرض كانت جزء من الكنيسة المرقسية، أقدم كنيسة في مصر، بعد أن تنازل بابا الكنيسة في ذلك الوقت بقطعة الأرض لبناء المعبد عليه، التي كانت هدية منه ليهود مصر لبناء المعبد وإقامة شعائرهم

، تبلغ مساحة المعبد 4200 متر، وهو مكون من طابقين، أحدهما للرجال والثاني للسيدات. ويحتوي على مكتبة مركزية قيمة يعود تاريخها إلى القرن الخامس عشر من الميلاد، كما يضم صفوفًا من المقاعد الخشبية تسع 700 شخصًا، وصناديق من الرخام مخصصة لجمع التبرعات وعدد من المكاتب الخدمية الخاصة بالطائفة اليهودية. إن مشروع ترميم المعبد بدأ منذ أغسطس/آب 2017، وذلك بتكلفة مقدارها 64 مليون جنيه.

وأوضح الدكتور جمال مصطفى رئيس قطاع الآثار الإسلامية والقبطية واليهودية، أن المعبد يُنسب إلى النبي إلياهو هانبي أحد أنبياء بنى إسرائيل الذي عاش في القرن الثامن قبل الميلاد.

 أن المعبد شيدته الجالية اليهودية في عام 1354، وتعرض للتدمير على يد الحملة الفرنسية، وأعيد بناؤه مرة أخرى في 1850 إبان عهد والي مصر عباس حلمي الأول، كما أُعيد بناء المعبد أكثر من مرة، آخرها عقب الحرب العالمية الأولى، حيث تم زيادة مساحته وتكسية الأعمدة بمادة الأسكاجولا (عجائن الرخام).

في حين شكرت السفارة الإسرائيلية بالقاهرة جهود الحكومة المصرية على ترميم المعبد و”بالحفاظ على ذلك الأثر المصري – اليهودي”.

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