No amount of puny contributions in a cash box at the synagogue is going to fix this appalling situation. Even the government is (apparently) embarrassed and has promised the funds to attempt to resurrect (pardon the pun) the ruined graves. Forget for a moment that this is a cemetery for a people for whom no one gives a damn: This strikes me as the heart of Third World ineptitude, corruption, and cronyism. Who builds a sewage plant next to a cemetery? And then abandons the sewage plant half-way through? And leaves it to rot?
Did the Exodus happen? Ancient Egypt’s massive temple and tomb building projects required a huge number of people slaving in the heat, building for someone else’s afterlife. Were there ever Israelite slaves in Egypt? Did they escape Ramses II by the hundreds of thousands through the Sea of Reeds, across the Sinai Peninsula to conquer Canaan?
According to pretty much every reputable archeologist and biblical scholar in the world – no. There is no evidence that Israelites were ever slaves (en masse) in Egypt, or spent any time in Sinai, or conquered Canaan by force. But so powerfully does the story resonate of the passage from slavery to freedom to national identity that it doesn’t matter. Its message is the foundation of our legal system, of human rights, of western society.
Still, having seen what Ancient Egypt built during the time when the exodus should have taken place (about 1300 BCE) – it’s impossible to imagine that Hebrew slaves – the mouse that roared — could have kicked Pharoah’s butt and not a word or hieroglyph would have been written. Surely the God of the Hebrews would have been taken into the pantheon with that fabulous display of might. But no, the first mention anywhere of Israel (outside of the Hebrew Bible) is in the Merneptah Stele from around 1200 BCE describing Israel as a defeated people laid waste by Egypt as it retreated back to the delta after defeating the Hittites in present-day Syria. (It really has been going on for thousands of years).
Regardless, the Jewish community of Alexandria and Cairo flourished uninterrupted for more than two millennia. At mid-20thcentury there were 80,000 Jews in Egypt. Today there are less than 30.
The Ben Ezra synagogue in the Coptic district of Cairo, dating from the 9thcentury, is the traditional site of Moses in the bulrushes. Its compound also held the famed Cairo Geniza – a treasure trove of documents going back 1000 years, now archived at Cambridge University. As with pretty much every Jewish site in Egypt after 1967, Ben Ezra had fallen into disrepair until it was restored in the 1980s and 90s by an international team of architects led by World Jewish Congress and the Canadian Center for Architecture.
Today it’s a museum. The dark wood inlaid mosaics look exactly like those in the restored nearby churches in the Coptic district. When we visit in February people drift through, most of them locals, some school groups, a few western tourists. I see only one man wearing a yarmulke.
There is very little information available, hardly any books or descriptions for sale or to peruse. There are two people in charge whose primary job is to make sure that no one takes a photo and they are not kidding. Several people have to turn over their phones and are forced to erase photos. The chief honcho is not Jewish (but she might as well be – bossy, loud, insistent – could be from New York) and knows exactly nothing either about the synagogue or its history.
Is the Geniza open?
Is it ever open?
Do you have any information on it?
Yes – it costs $100.
I discover later that this is the book published by Canadian architect Phyllis Lambert on the restoration. There is one copy, dog-eared and wrapped in saran wrap and it does indeed cost $100.
On the counter there is a box accepting contributions for the upkeep of the cemetery.
Where is the cemetery? Can I visit it?
Only if you have papers proving that you’re Jewish.
I point out that Americans do not possess such papers because nobody cares what your religion is. In fact it would be against the law to ask. She looks at me as though I have told her that we eat our children.
If you are collecting money for the upkeep of the cemetery, why can’t people see it?
Come back tomorrow. It’s far away.
And bring the papers that show that you’re Jewish.
Now I’m on a mission to find the Bassatine cemetery but discover that it is in appalling shape and not open to the public unless you are one of the last Jews in need of burial. An ancient cemetery dating to 882 CE, and second oldest in the world after the Mount of Olives, its decline mirrors Egypt’s population explosion as poor people moved in from the countryside surrounding it with densely packed illegal housing. Once dotted with ornate tomb coverings, it has rapidly deteriorated. A wall was torn down to allow construction of a sewage system but the project was never finished. Sewage leaked into the cemetery, several graves were flooded, the wall was unable to be rebuilt and it went from really bad to hopeless. Several marble tombstones were raided for illegal building projects.
No amount of puny contributions
Next, I ask to see the Shaar Hashomayim Synogogue, in downtown Cairo, also known as the Adly Street Temple, built at the turn of the century in the motif of ancient Egyptian Temple meets Art Nouveau, and the last operating shul in the city.
In advance, we are told that we must have “papers” to prove that we’re Jewish and hence are allowed to enter the synagogue. I explain that this does not exist as an American concept. This seems incomprehensible to a country, a society, a worldview that demands that your religion is your identity. I am reminded of the tiny crosses tattooed on the wrists of Coptic men at birth, so they can never be apostates and Islam can never claim them. Always set apart. (If there’s a clash of civilizations, that’s it.)
We drive up to the synagogue to find it barricaded from the street and guarded on all sides. Several windows are cracked and it doesn’t look maintained (but that is typical of everything in Cairo). The guards and guard station are on the other side of the barricade. Our guide does her best to try to talk her way into the guardhouse. Nothing doing. The guards seem nervous and are very abrupt: No, you can’t talk to anyone. No, the manager is too busy. (What manager?) Do not take a photo. Do not park here. Do not loiter and stare at the building.
So, the good news is that the building is really protected. The bad news is that there are no Jews inside or outside to protect.