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Alexandria, Egypt - handsome old synagogue, now renovated

Eliyahu Hanavi/Elijah the Prophet Synagogue was originally built in Nabi Daniel St in Alexandria in the C14th. But I am surprised that the historians not know where it was, at least until restoration work revealed the remains of an older synagogue beneath the C19th structure?

With the inevitable destruction that came with the passage of time, war damage from Napoleonic arm­ies and local riots, the building had to be re-built in 1850. This C19th version of the syn­agogue was monumental, exactly as we would expect from an 1850s It­al­ian architect working for Baron Yacoub Levi de Men­ashe and with contrib­utions from the Muh­ammad Ali Dynasty. Origin­al­ly located in what were the outskirts of the city, the synagogue now stands in the heart of beau­tiful Alexandria, in el-Mansheya Square.

Under British influence (1882-1922-1956), and under King Fuad I (reigned 1922-36), Egypt was friendly towards its Jewish populat­ion. Jews played important roles in the mercantile economy, and their populat­ion climbed to c90,000, in respon­se to increasing persecution in Europe. Half of the 90,000 Jews lived in Alexandria.

Pass through fancy wrought iron gates, walk through the formal garden 
and approach the front entrance to the synagoguge.

In Oct 1956, after the conflict with Britain, France and Israel in the Suez Crisis, President Gamal Abdel Nasser expressed a surge of nationalism. He introduced sweeping regulations, abolishing civil liberties and all­owing the state to strip away Egyptian citizenship from any group. When the Jews were forced to leave Egypt in 1956-7, they moved to Israel and other countries, leaving behind heaps of synagogues and hist­or­ical artefacts. The expelled citizens were all­owed to take only one suit­case and a small sum of cash, and were forced to don­at­e their property before emigrating.

My daughter-in-law’s entire family had lived a cosmopolitan life in Alex­andria, with nice houses, plenty of synagogues and successful trad­ing between Egypt, Greece and Italy. They would never have left Alexandria volunt­arily, but they were nonetheless grateful to Aus­tralia for giving them a safe home in 1957.

Eliyahu Hanavi was one of two extant syn­agogues in Alex­andria, where there had once been 12 thriving communities. This building could seat 700 worshipers and was the last functioning synagogue in Egypt, until it had to be closed on sec­ur­ity grounds in 2012. It might have been one of the largest Jewish buildings in the Middle East, but after some of its roof collapsed, the synagogue remained exposed to the elements; rainwater seeped into the walls and floors. Only immed­iate repairs prevented it from becoming a danger, particularly for the women who sat upstairs.

Peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel have occurred since 1977, when President Anwar Sadat visited Israel. But Egypt’s Antiquities Min­ister Khaled al-Anani didn’t get to tour a number of arch­aeol­og­ical sites in Alex­and­ria until 2017. In a press release, the Minister noted that the Egyptian government was interested in pres­er­v­ing all of the country's monuments and heritage, be they Islamic, Phar­aonic, Jewish or Coptic. He ordered structural and architectural rein­force­ment to the synagogue, res­toration of the main fa├žades, ornate walls, wood and copper elements, and light­ing. The marble columns, which are still beautiful, marked out the seating space and the brass name plates are still affixed to the pews of the regular male worshippers.

The restoration of Eliyahu Hanavi was a clear sign of the local aut­h­or­ities’ growing interest in the preservation of minority groups’ heritage, a symbol of Egypt’s historical pluralism. It reflected a time when div­erse communities lived together in a spirit of relig­ious freedom.

The central aisle is defined by marble pillars on both sides.

The ark, holding all the holy scrolls, 
is surrounded by menorah lamps

Men's pews, still with the brass name plates 

 Under the supervision of the Antiquities Ministry, the Egyptians paid for emergency repairs and then for the complete restoration of Eliyahu Han­avi. The government’s renovat­ion initiative brought attention to the import­ance of the synagogue to the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based non-profit organis­at­ion dedicated to the preservation of historic architecture and cul­tural heritage sites, which allocated millions of dol­lars to rest­ore eight Jewish sites in Egypt. Appropriately this syn­agogue went straight onto the World Monuments Fund's 2018 list of monuments-at-risk.

Because the entire Jewish population of Egypt in 2017 could sit together in a small Fiat 500 car, it is unclear how much pressure the local Jewish comm­un­ity provided on the Egyptian government. But there certainly were requ­ests from organisations of Jews who had emigrated from Egypt in 1956-7, and their children. Generations of Jews had loved Egypt, spoke French at home and Arabic at work, and were integral parts of the merchant econ­omy. Those communities absolutely had to be commemorated, and their property and synagogues respected.

This entire process was a great sign of growing interest by the Egyptian authorities in the preservation of minority groups’ herit­age, a symbol of Egypt’s historical plural­ity and religious freedom. But who will pray, marry or be bar mitzva’d in the now beautiful Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue – just overseas tourists and consular staff? The organisations of ex-pat Egyptians have proposed to the Egyptian gov­ernment a new Museum, to protect and display the comm­un­ity’s legacy in Egypt. Perhaps Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue will also become the home of the Jewish Museum.

This weekend marked the largest Jewish prayer gathering in Egypt for decades. 180 Jews of Egyptian origin flew to the land of their fathers for a Sabbath dedicated to the newly restored synagogue. The highlight of the day was when 12 of the synagogue’s original Torah scrolls were taken out and emotionally paraded throughout the hall. The 12 Torah scrolls were in honour of the 12 tribes of Israel.


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