Friday, August 21, 2009

Egypt stung by charges of neglect over Jewish site

Prayer books strewn across the rubble of this Cairo synagogue/yeshiva (Photo: Yom al-sabeth)

The Egyptian authorities have been stung by a critical open letter issued by Egyptian Jews as president Mubarak visited Washington this week, and pictures of a derelict Jewish site appearing on weblogs such as Point of No Return. They are at pains to state that the site is not a synagogue but a yeshiva.

To show that accusations of neglect of Egypt's Jewish heritage are unfounded, they are trumpeting their plans to restore the Maimonides* synagogue. The timing is not linked, they say in this AFP report, to the culture minister Farouk Hosni's bid to head UNESCO. Hosni once said he would 'burn Israeli books.'

CAIRO — Egypt denied on Thursday that it was restoring its Jewish antiquities only to help bolster a controversial bid by Culture Minister Faruq Hosni to head UNESCO.

Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass was responding to complaints by Jewish groups after recent pictures circulating on the Internet reportedly showed religious books scattered on the floor of a synagogue.

"There have been some pictures published in newspapers and on Internet sites implying that Egypt has neglected its duties towards Jewish temples and this is not true," Hawass told reporters at the Musa bin Maymun (or Maimonides) synagogue in Cairo?s ancient Jewish Quarter.

"The pictures published are not of the synagogues and are aimed at tarnishing the image of Culture Minister Faruq Hosni, whom Egypt has put forward as a candidate to head UNESCO," Hawass said.

"Egypt deals with the Jewish synagogues and antiquities as part of its own," Hawass said.

His claims were backed up by the head of Egypt's Jewish community, Rauf Fuad Tawfiq**, who said pictures showing religious books strewn on a floor were taken in a house once used as a Jewish school and not in the Maimonides synagogue.

"The restoration of the Ibn Maymun temple began over 14 months ago, before Egypt announced the candidacy of Faruq Hosni," he added.

Hosni's candidacy for the post of director general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has been mired in controversy amid charges of anti-Semitism after comments he made in May 2008.

"I'd burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt," he said in response to a question in parliament.

He later retracted his words and apologised.

Israel initially protested but has since lifted its opposition to Hosni, who has been culture minister for more than two decades. A vote on the UNESCO job is to be held in October.

Egypt has 13 Jewish houses of worship. Some of them have already been restored, such as the Ben Ezer synagogue in Old Cairo and the Shaar Hashamayim in downtown Cairo.

Scholar, philosopher and physician Musa Ibn Maymun was born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135 and fled from persecution to Egypt, where he died in 1204.

Read article in full

* referred to by his Muslim name, Musa ibn Maymun
**Jewish groups say they have not heard of this gentleman before


Anonymous said...

وَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَى مُوسَى وَأَخِيهِ أَن تَبَوَّءَا لِقَوْمِكُمَا بِمِصْرَ بُيُوتًا وَاجْعَلُواْ بُيُوتَكُمْ قِبْلَةً وَأَقِيمُواْ الصَّلاَةَ وَبَشِّرِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

Anonymous said...

We inspired Moses and his brother. "Maintain your homes in Egypt for the time being, turn your homes into synagogues, and maintain the Contact Prayers (Salat). Give good news to the believers." (10:87)

Anonymous said...

To the Anonymous inspired by Moses and his brother: This is not from the Bible. Perhaps from the Coran and its believers.

Anonymous said...

Harambam Synagogue is being restorated, not to become a Holy Place of Worship, but to become another great Touristic Site. Just like Ben Ezra Synagogue, restorated by American-Jewish money, which became the greatest touristic Site in Egypt, with millions of tourists paying fees entry.
And what about the Jewish Community Registers ? Are they antiquities too ? Dear Farouk Hosny, what are you waiting for ? That those documents become dust, so you could errase 2500 years of Jewish life in Egypt? After your twenty years as Minister of Culture, are you going to leave without giving to CESAR what belongs to CESAR ? Are you going to perpetuate this shame on you ?

Alexandrine said...

To Anonymous:
What you mention above is false. I am an Egyptian Jew who has visited the Ben Ezra synagogue 3 times since 2004, it has indeed been beautifully restored, however it has not become the GREATEST touristic site in Egypt, as you claim, there are only a handful of people who visit it, and IT IS ABSOLUTELY FREE, NO ENTRANCE FEES ARE CHARGED, there is no comparison whatsoever with the huge amount of tourists visiting the Pyramids or Upper Egypt where you see THOUSANDS of tourists. Furthermore, the Nebi Daniel Synagogue in Alexandrie and Shar Hashamaim Synagogue in Cairo have been restored, I visited them last year, they both look magnificent, and at Shar Hashamaim a library has been set up in the back room where all the books are labeled and orderly lined up on shelves.

Anonymous said...

Dear Alexandrine,
Sorry to deceive you, but you cannot enter Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, unless you call Carmen Weinstein, the so-called President of the Cairo Jewish Community, which counts a handful of old widows and no men at all, and tell her HOW MUCH YOU DONATE. The arab concierge will not let you in before you give him the promised DONATION. Only the library is free, if you know the opening hours.
Even to visit the Jewish cemetery SHE asks for money, and the guard is there to collect it. Ben-Ezra is not a synagogue any more, but a touristic site, and now they collect an entrance fee if you want to go in.
Only Eliahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria is open free of charge, and you can go and pray if you only want to. It is well kept and restorated, not by the Government but by the community budgets.
The point is that there is no more Jewish life in Egypt, but all over the world, where the Jews from Egypt are living today.

Unknown said...

I visited Shar Hashamaim three weeks ago. I walked up to the police guarding the exterior and asked to take photos (Forbidden, of course. I knew that from bad experience. That's common with protected sites. Try the American Embassy. The guards pointed to other attractive buildings in the neighborhood.) Then they let me inside where the Arab custodians, for a little baksheesh, let me snap away. That's common, too. The baksheesh: happens in a lot of photo-restricted monuments. So, yes, it is very much open. Everyone was polite, but you have to ask.

Unknown said...

Oh, I think that Coptic Cairo is a waste of time and effort, and that included Ben Ezra, but which is by far the best attraction there. No money is collected. Metal detector, yeah. Between Ben Ezra and the Nileometer, that's the only worthy stuff at the Mir Girgis metro stop.

bataween said...

Thanks for that, Brian. Have you told Trip Advisor ?