Egypt registers Jewish artefacts ‘to preserve them’

Egypt has begun registering Jewish antiquities ‘in an
attempt to protect them from theft and neglect’ — an important step
forward in preserving history, says Al-Monitor. Cynics would say that Egypt is merely making an inventory of movable artefacts which the tiny Jewish community has unilaterally handed over to the Egyptian state. As for immovable property, the article registers the
criticism levelled at the government for not making good on promises to renovate the country’s
synagogues, which it sees as part of Egypt’s heritage in general.

The library at Adly St synagogue, Cairo: handed over to the Egyptian state

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  (actually, the  Cairo community – ed)— 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.

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