Egypt looks to preserve Jewish heritage with an eye on tourism
CAIRO - Officials are protecting Egypt’s Jewish heritage by preserving a historic cemetery in southern Cairo, removing tonnes of waste and debris from inside and around the sprawling burial grounds.
The Bassatine Cemetery is the world’s second oldest Jewish cemetery, the Jewish Community of Cairo said. The cemetery covers 15,000 hectares, although it reportedly included 59,500 hectares when it was established in the ninth century.
“Thousands of souls will sleep in peace tonight,” the Jewish Community of Cairo wrote on its Facebook page, in reaction to recent clean-up work at the cemetery.
In addition to removing waste, Cairo authorities built a fence around Bassatine as part of measures by Egypt to restore the country’s Jewish heritage in what amounts to a new-found official interest in the sites.
Egypt once had a thriving historic Jewish community in Cairo and Alexandria, although the number of Jews in the country declined during the modern era.
In her book, “Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World,” Lucette Lagnado recounts how the Jewish community was an intrinsic part of Egypt’s social fabric, particularly between World War II and the 1952 revolution.
It was that revolution and the rise of Arab nationalism, driven by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which turned Egypt into a hostile place for the Jews.
With successive wars against Israel and rising suspicion about the country’s Jewish community, Jews slowly left Egypt, emigrating mostly to Europe and the United States. Now, Egypt’s Jewish community includes no more than 20 people, mostly elderly women. There were 80,000 Jews in Egypt in the 1920s, official data indicate.
However, at a time when Egypt has expanded the licensing of churches, it seems that authorities are also keen to preserve Egypt’s Jewish heritage.
“Jewish heritage is an important part of Egyptian heritage, in general,” said Mansour Abdel Wahab, a professor of Hebrew at Ain Shams University. “The growing interest in Jewish sites comes in line with state interest in all houses of worship.”
Synagogues were shuttered and neglected for decades, raising concern among the Jewish community in Egypt and Egyptian Jews living outside the country. However, last December, the Egyptian government allocated $71 million for restoration of Jewish sites, including synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria.
Apart from wanting to deliver a message of tolerance and reassurances that it has room for adherents of all faiths, Cairo has a more practical reason for this decision — tourism.
Egypt’s tourism sector is rebounding after years of stagnation and there is belief that Jewish sites would diversify Egypt’s tourist attractions.
Egyptian Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany said in December that some synagogues would be open to the public as tourist sites. There are 13 synagogues in Cairo and several in Alexandria. Some synagogues in Cairo have been fully restored and could become powerful draws to tourists interested in Egypt’s Jewish history.
The government is investing additional $22 million to refurbish the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria. The synagogue is one of the oldest in the country, built in 1354 and rebuilt in 1850 after it was attacked by the French during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798.
The synagogue reportedly contains 50 ancient copies of the Torah as well as books and manuscripts dating to the 15th century. It holds important records of Jewish births and marriages in Alexandria.
Ahmed Amer, a researcher in Jewish history, said Jewish sites can turn into important tourist magnets for Egypt. “Jewish synagogues have a huge historical value,” he said.
The land where the Jewish cemetery in Bassatine is built was given to the Jews by Ahmad ibn Tulun, who ruled Egypt and Syria from 868-905.
There are various forms of graves in the cemetery, depending on the status of the person buried there. Some graves are covered with marble and others with traditional limestone. There are also large mausoleums.
Cairo officials said the removal of debris from Bassatine cemetery was just a beginning, with a second stage scheduled to restore the cemetery to its former glory.
“We have already removed tonnes of waste that accumulated over the years in this place,” said governorate spokesman Ibrahim Awad. “After the cleaning, we will hand the cemetery over to the Jewish community.”