The Conspiracy

What’s Going On With Egyptian Synagogues?

Concerns have grown from the Egyptian revolutions about the country’s priceless antiquities.  Despite Zahi Hawass’s assurances that many items have remained safe, it appears much has been damaged.

Egypt also has invaluable Jewish sites, like the synagogue at Alexandria, but these are not mentioned in the media as much. During all the chaos, what has happened to Jewish historical sites in Egypt?

According to Hawass, “Museums all over Egypt are safe, Sakkara, the Valley of the Kings, all the synagogues, all the Coptic monasteries….the Islamic monuments, and pharaonic and Greco-Roman [artifacts and sites] are completely safe.”

Why did he specify synagogues amongst Egypt’s cultural patrimony that remains safe from looters? I suspect that Hawass wants to placate his international audience, which includes American Jews, by assuring them that they have nothing to worry about.

As far as I know, no news outlet has reported extensively on the fates of individual synagogues. I have found only scattered reports about various sites. Apparently, some synagogues are being guarded and others are shuttered, but not much info is available. The Ben Ezra synagogue, original home of a cache of documents about life in the Middle Ages, provided scholars with a priceless fount of information about Jewish commerce in that time period. What is known about its fate during the chaotic Egyptian uprising? I don’t know.

As of late January, the synagogue of Eliyahu Hanavi reported that its employees were safe, but shops in the surrounding area have been looted. Another synagogue that was reported on was in the Egyptian town of Ghabes. There, a few weeks ago, a synagogue was set aflame and Torah scrolls were burned.

Why have we not been informed about what is happening to the Jewish cultural patrimony in Egypt? Are they so destroyed that news outlets just won’t tell us what happened? Can they not get close enough to figure it out? According to some, little synagogue damage has occurred in Alexandria or Cairo because “there remain only a handful of elderly Jews in Egypt’s second-largest city and virtually none in the capital.” Therefore, there doesn’t need to be coverage if nothing has happened, some might say. But I believe that the international Jewish community would like to know what has happened to these sites.

If ancient Egyptian relics are the cultural patrimony of the Egyptian people, then are synagogues the heritage of all Jews or just Egyptian Jews? The claim of cultural ownership is one that could be endlessly debated. Whether or not people can lay claim to that heritage justly isn’t as important right now as their interest level, which should be high. If news sources can bother to report on every artifact missing from the Cairo Museum, they should at least give a roundup of Jewish synagogues in Egypt.

Who’s to say what’s more important—ancient Egyptian artifacts or synagogues? The interest level definitely varies, but both are significant to different groups of people. The news media should inform the people of the world just what’s going on with the synagogues of this embattled country.

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5 Older Responses to “What’s Going On With Egyptian Synagogues?”

  1. Alex Howie
    February 20, 2011 at 12:19 am #

    Interesting questions you raise. “Retensionist Cultural” policies of museums versus “Encyclopedic Art Museums” is a big debate internationally amongst art and archaeology scholars/historians. Should art made in Egypt remain in/be returned to Egypt? Or should the art made in different places/times be spread around the world for all to share as an opportunity to experience other cultures? It is certainly not an easy question, and one that a country with so many historical artifacts such as Egypt has a very large stake in. The question of the synagogues/Jewish relics is slightly different, though. The Jews of Egypt are still utilizing these historical places/objects. They encounter them daily/weekly in synagogue. The cultural objects of Egypt (coffins/statues/etc) are held onto as cultural artifacts that don’t have an effect on the day-to-day life of the Egyptian people. The historic synagogues are and should be of interest to all Jews, but is something tangible to the Jewish lives of Egyptian Jewry. So — it will be interesting to see what happens to them in the coming weeks or months. Hopefully they are preserved!

  2. howiej
    February 23, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    What has not been stated was that when the ancient synagogue in Cairo was restored, Hawass stated that it was part of EGYPTIAN cultural heritage and Jews could not hold religious services in it. It was no longer seen as Jewish but was now Egyptian. Will the synagogue in Alexandria suffer the same fate?
    Very little has been written about this in the mainstream media.

  3. David Zarmi
    February 23, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    Ghabes is in Tunisia. Which has a sizeable Jewish population (including the site where Septuagint was translated under one of the Ptolemies). Nothing to do with Egypt.

    I suppose it makes sense that the schul should become part of the Egyptian cultural heritage under the theory that there is no Jewish people, only unrelated practitioners of the Jewish religion in different countries. This theory has been bandied about by academics on the Left, post-Zionists, and anti-Semitic Arabs and Muslims alike. So if there is no Jewish people, then the Jews outside of Egypt have no interest in Egyptian Jewish artifacts. Anyway, I’m sure that’s how he’d describe it.

  4. Alex Howie
    March 7, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    Carly – I am an assistant editor for the KOACH Ezine, a college Jewish journal that has monthly themes for articles. Our upcoming theme is Jewish arts and culture. If you are interested in writing, please email me at howieam@muohio.edu. Thanks!

  5. Joshua גדליה חיים Reback
    April 13, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    Why are Arabs so interested in preserving synagogues anyway? Lebanon recently restored a major synagogue in Beirut, but there are few Jews left (much less any willing to walk outside without a guard). In my mind it’s worth exploring the idea Arab Nationalism can replace Zionism: we take care of your houses, so obviously we would take care of you. It seems to be as much a naive attempt to woo international Jewry as much as it is a chance to do a little bit of PR for societies saturated with antisemitic imagery.

    The world also has a more general interest in Egyptian artifacts – mementos of a lost civilization. Synagogues remind people of the present. Take it as a source of satisfaction and nostalgia for the future: we are boring because people hear about us all the time.

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