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US embassy helps restore Jewish burial sites in Cairo

The US Embassy in Cairo, in partnership with American and Egyptian Jewish organizations, inaugurated the 15th-century burial grounds after their restoration.
Cairo Jewish

CAIRO — The US Embassy in Cairo, in partnership with the American Research Center in Egypt and representatives of American and Egyptian Jewish organizations, on Nov. 20 inaugurated a newly restored historic Jewish cemetery.

The US State Department issued a $150,000 grant to ARCE and partner Drop of Milk Foundation to restore the Karaites and the Bassatine cemetery. A private donation from the Karaite Jews of America provided additional amenities and landscaping for a memorial garden.

The Lichaa and Menasha burial site sits on 120 acres south of the city, and is one of the oldest operational Jewish cemeteries in the world. It holds the remains of many members of the Jewish community that lived in Egypt until the 1950s.

At the inauguration ceremony, US charge d’affaires Daniel Rubinstein stressed the US commitment to preserving the memory of the Jewish community's role in Egyptian history. “The Bassatine cemetery has served Egypt’s Jewish community since its establishment in 1482 by Mamluk Sultan al-Ashraf Qaitbey," he said. "The US government will remain Egypt’s committed partner in the preservation, restoration, and protection of Egypt’s valuable cultural and religious sites.”

Magda Haroun, a Jewish community leader in Cairo, told Al-Monitor that the Egyptian government's emphasis on restoring and opening Jewish cemeteries and other places of worship proves that the Jews were part of the fabric of this society and contributed to its civilization.

She called for opening Jewish historical monuments all over Egypt to the public, including synagogues.

Youssef Osama, a historian and researcher in heritage and antiquities, told Al-Monitor that many Jewish cemeteries and temples survive in Egypt. “The methods of constructing the tombs differ according to the importance of the buried person," he said. "Some are covered with marble in different shapes and types, and some of them are covered with stone. The strange thing is that there are tombs with high compartments and a large foyer, and with inscriptions, and it is rumored that most of these compartments were exhumed and stolen. There are also tombs for children, and it is certain that the tombs with compartments are for rabbis, clergy, and wealthy Jews.”

Mohamed Abdel Latif, a professor of antiquities at Mansoura University and former assistant minister of antiquities, told Al-Monitor that 13 Jewish historical sites are registered with the Egyptian Antiquities Authority.

Abdel Latif noted, “This cemetery holds the remains of a number of Jews, including Ya’qub ibn Killis, who took charge of taxes in Egypt, and some considered it a sign of religious tolerance at the time.”

The Egyptian government is in the process of registering the Jewish Bassatine cemetery as a historical monument, he added.

On Jan. 10, 2020, Khaled Al-Anani, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, inaugurated the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, after its restoration. It is one of the most important and oldest remaining Jewish monuments in Egypt, built in the middle of the 19th century.

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