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Egypt documenting Jewish artifacts

Cairo is seeking the world’s help to catalog historical records of Jewish antiquities.

Egypt has begun registering Jewish antiquities in an attempt to protect them from theft and neglect — an important step forward in preserving history. However, the government still faces criticism for not making good on promises to renovate the country’s synagogues — or, for that matter, Egyptian historical and archaeological sites in general. 

Jewish antiquities have always been part of Egypt’s cultural heritage, and government officials have said they are also part of the world’s heritage and the property of all mankind, not only Egypt. And so, Saeed Helmy, the head of the Islamic and Coptic Monuments Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, is calling on countries around the world to financially support Egypt in restoring and preserving the antiquities.

Helmy, who is in charge of the Jewish monuments in Egypt, told Al-Monitor in mid-August that the country has been unable to finance such projects because of its financial state. Egypt’s economy has suffered since the January 25 Revolution in 2011, and tourism has been decimated.

“I know very well that the Egyptian monuments — including the Jewish antiquities — capture the attention of people all around the world. Therefore, I’d like to make it clear that Egypt pays considerable attention to its monuments whether they are Islamic, Coptic or Christian, and that is what I asserted during my meeting with the [US] cultural attache at the US Embassy [in Egypt] on Aug. 2. However, we need the support of the countries that are interested in cultural heritage in order to protect these great antiquities.”

The Jews built 11 synagogues in Egypt — 10 in Cairo and one in Alexandria — which contain thousands of manuscripts that document their community in the country, along with birth and marriage records of Egyptian Jews.

Many synagogues in the heart of Cairo were frequently visited tourist attractions, especially Ben Ezra, Ashkenazi and Sha'ar Hashamayim. Ben Ezra in Old Cairo is one of the oldest synagogues in Egypt and houses thousands of ancient Jewish books. Old Cairo is also where the first mosque in Egypt, Amr ibn al-As Mosque, was built in 642, and is home to a number of Coptic churches, most notably the so-called Hanging Church.

The Ashkenazi Synagogue in Ataba, built in 1887, is in need of complete maintenance in addition to renovation work of its floors and walls.

Despite their small number, members of the Jewish community in Egypt — which is down to six individuals — have always cared for and attended to the Jewish antiquities in Egypt. 

On March 26, Magda Haroun, the president of Egypt's Jewish community, said in an interview with the privately owned Al-Youm Al-Sabeh newspaper that she had received several promises from Egyptian officials who are responsible for documenting and repairing buildings of Jewish origin, but none of these promises were actually fulfilled. 

Therefore, Haroun said, she called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to help preserve this cultural heritage, especially after water leaked through the walls of some synagogues.

“I don’t want to place on him [Sisi] a burden greater than what he can bear. He is a true human being who bears a great responsibility. Yet I had to look for a higher authority to preserve this great heritage,” Haroun said.

Sisi indeed may have responded to Haroun’s message, as the Ministry of Antiquities announced June 11 that it was forming a special committee to take stock of Jewish antiquities in synagogues and register them in the ministry’s records. This was the first time that the Ministry of Antiquities has offered to register the artifacts, after many years of neglect.

Ahmad Abd al-Majid Hammad, a member of the committee assigned to register the artifacts, said 60 pieces have been registered to date at the Moussa al-Dar'I synagogue, which was built in 1925. The antiquities included 32 boxes containing Torah scrolls, in addition to a few curtains that display drawings, decorations and the Star of David. Moreover, the antiquities included a metal frame and wooden artifacts.

Helmy, who heads the registration committee, told Al-Monitor that the ministry looks equally at Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities. Helmy said he does not allow any discrimination against any of these monuments, and that he often reminds antiquities students of this.

“The best proof that the Ministry of Antiquities cares about the Jewish heritage is that we have finished [in 2010] repairing the Maimonides synagogue in Jamaliyyah Street in midtown Cairo at a total cost of 8.5 million Egyptian pounds [roughly $950,000]. We have restored the synagogue’s entrances, floors and all the antiquities inside it. For the first time, the synagogue has been placed on the list of tourist attractions in Egypt,” he said.

Helmy added, “Therefore, anyone can come and freely visit this great archaeological site. It is an unprecedented achievement and it shows that the ministry gives great attention to the Jewish monuments in Egypt and seeks to preserve them, [even] making them touristic attractions that visitors can enjoy."

He acknowledged the deteriorated condition of Jewish antiquities in Egypt, saying, “The situation of the Jewish antiquities in Egypt is no different than the situation of the Egyptian monuments as a whole. They need considerable support to restore and repair them, especially after the security chaos that broke out in Egypt after the [2011] revolution that had a [negative] impact on tourism and the economy. 

“Therefore, the Ministry of Antiquities paid a heavy price, given that its resources are based on the revitalization of tourism.”

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