In just four hours last Friday, Minister of Antiquities and Tourism Khaled El-Enany, top officials, and members of the local and international media travelled between Cairo and Alexandria to attend the Friday prayer in Abdine’s Al-Fath Royal Mosque in Cairo, visit St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria to greet the country’s Coptic Christians, and inaugurate Alexandria’s Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue after the completion of restoration work.
Haroun in the synagogue
“This is Egypt – a land of unique cultural and civilisational diversity combined in one fabric with components that complement each other,” El-Enany told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The restoration of the synagogue delivers to the whole world a message of tolerance and acceptance of others. It reflects the Egyptian government’s keenness to restore Egypt’s monuments and archaeological sites, including Jewish, Coptic and Islamic sites, which represent the country’s heritage.”
“The Egyptian government gives equal importance to all the country’s monuments and heritage sites, whether ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Coptic or Islamic,” El-Enany said, highlighting that many mosques, monasteries and churches around the country had been inaugurated recently after restoration.
During the opening ceremony of the synagogue, the minister thanked all employees of the Ministry of Antiquities and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces, the Arab Contractors Company, and everyone who had contributed to the restoration of the building, the oldest synagogue in Alexandria, for the efforts they had exerted over the last two years to restore this Egyptian monument to join the heritage of humanity.
The façade of St Mark Cathedral
“We are witnessing a sign of Egypt’s human heritage and sending a message to the whole world that Egypt was and always be the country of all religions and regional civilisations, given the diversity of its cultures since the Pharaonic era when one of its great kings, Akhenaten, discovered monotheism,” said Mustafa Al-Fiqi, head of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria.
He added that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had long guided Egypt’s efforts towards promoting religious tolerance and building respect among all Egyptians of all religious backgrounds, describing the inauguration of the Synagogue as a highlight of these efforts.
Hisham Samir, the minister’s assistant for architectural affairs, said that the restoration work at the synagogue was one of the projects in the memorandum of understanding signed between the ministry and the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces in order to consolidate the building’s foundations, walls, floors and ceilings and restore its architecture, stained glass, decorative elements and mobile artefacts, while also installing new lighting and security systems at a total cost of LE68 million.
During the restoration work, archaeological remains and traces of the synagogue’s original altar, stairs, and walls were uncovered, as the original 1354 CE edifice of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue was destroyed in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in order to build a defensive wall from the Kom Al-Dikka area to the Mediterranean.
In 1850, the synagogue was reconstructed with contributions from the Egyptian royal family.
“I’m very proud of what my country has done, and it symbolises our living together. Today, there is no difference between Egyptian Muslims, Christians, and Egyptian Jews,” said Magda Haroun, head of Cairo’s Jewish community, at the opening ceremony.
“The heritage of the Jews is part of the great legacy of Egypt. Preserving it is a national task that every Egyptian should be involved in. The restoration of the synagogue reassures my heart and assures me that the Egyptian state will do its part to preserve our heritage,” Haroun said.
Pierre Arie, an Egyptian Jew from Alexandria, the oldest member of the community, said that “this event is an image of the history of Egypt and is a recognition of the history of the country because it is not a Jewish synagogue but an Egyptian synagogue.”
Gamal Mustafa, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, told the Weekly that there were 1,305 monuments in the sector, including 934 Islamic monuments, 87 Coptic monuments, and 14 Jewish monuments, among them four synagogues that could be used for prayers such as the Synagogue of Ben Ezra in Old Cairo, the Cairo Synagogue in Adli Street in downtown Cairo, the Moussa Ibn Maymoun Synagogue in Islamic Cairo, and the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria.
Yolande Mizrahi, a septuagenarian Jew born and raised in Alexandria, was delighted with the conservation work. “If it had not been for President Al-Sisi, this would never have been done. A lot of things have changed since he has taken over,” she said, recounting memories of going to the synagogue as a youngster to attend Saturday prayers and how the synagogue had been a communal gathering space for Egyptian Jews in Alexandria.
She hoped the opening of the synagogue would attract Jews abroad to pay a visit to Egypt. “I have relatives who left for France, Italy, and other countries in Europe and the United States, and they would like to visit the synagogue,” she added.
The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue has an impressive interior design with green and violet stained-glass windows and towering marble columns. There are brass name plates still affixed to the regular seats of the male worshippers.
The synagogue was built in its current form in 1850 on top of the original edifice dating back to 1354 by an Italian architect. With room for approximately 500 worshipers, it is the larger of the two synagogues remaining in Alexandria and is located on Al-Nabi Daniel Street where the mosque of Al-Nabi Daniel and the St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral are also found.
ST MARK’S COPTIC ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL: A few metres from the synagogue stands St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, its distinguished Italian architectural building welcoming worshippers. It is the historical seat of the pope of Alexandria, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Cathedral was built in the middle of the 19th century on top of the remains of a church founded in 42 CE by St Mark, the Evangelist who is considered to have been the founder of the Church in Alexandria and the first bishop of the city.
St Mark is said to have been arrested in 68 CE and killed and buried under the church he had founded. In 828 CE, his body was stolen from the church by the Venetians to be enshrined in the new St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. However, the head of the saint remained in Alexandria.
It was moved around a great deal over the centuries, and it has been lost for over 250 years. Some of the relics from the body of St Mark, however, were returned to Alexandria from Rome in 1968.
The church was ruined in 641 CE, and in 680 it was rebuilt before being again destroyed in 1219 during the European Crusades and then rebuilt once more. It was bombed during the French Expedition to Egypt and rebuilt and reopened in 1819 during the rule of Mohamed Ali Pasha. It was renovated in 1870.
In 1950-1952, it was pulled down and another, larger building was built on the site in basilica style. Between 1985 and 1990, it was widened on the western side, keeping the two bell towers in their places so that the area of the building was doubled.
In order to enable Egyptian Jews in Alexandria to practise their beliefs, the Coptic Pope originally offered them a piece of church land to build the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue.
AL-FATH ROYAL MOSQUE: In the vicinity of the Abdine Palace in Cairo stands the Al-Fath Royal Mosque welcoming worshipers and visitors.
More than two years ago, the mosque was closed for restoration, as it was suffering from deterioration. Waad Abul-Ela, head of the Projects Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, told the Weekly that the walls had been reinforced, cracks repaired, wooden and marble elements cleaned and refurbished, and the pulpit and mihrab repaired.
New sound, lighting and security systems have been installed along with surveillance cameras and burglar alarms. Friday prayer was held for the first time since 2017 announcing the opening of the Mosque.
The mosque overlooks the gardens of Abdine Palace, and it was formerly known as the Abdine Mosque after its founder Abdine Bek, the amir al-liwaa al-sultani (commander of the sultan’s bodyguard) who founded it in 1729. The mosque was restored by order of former king Fouad in 1918 and inaugurated in 1920.
Gamil Mustafa, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the ministry, said that the mosque has two entrances, one of which is a private royal entrance accessible only from the gardens of the palace. Facing this entrance is a riwaq (colonnade) preceded by a portico on marble columns, from whence a corridor roofed with small domes leads directly to the mosque.
The interior of the mosque is very luxurious as it is covered with a large dome supported by four arches and resting on four columns of red granite with decorated and gilded capitals. The four corners are covered with four small domes. The drum of the main dome is surrounded by a beautiful band of inscriptions, comprising a verse from the Quran, the name of king Fouad, and the date of completion.
The walls are lined with a dado of coloured marble. In the centre of the qibla wall is a mihrab (prayer niche), also lined with coloured marble, with a beautiful marble minbar (pulpit) next to it. The floors are paved with coloured marble in a beautiful geometrical design.
The lighting arrangements in the mosque have been well designed, and they include a huge brass lamp pierced with beautiful designs suspended from the summit of the main dome by brass chains. Other smaller lamps are suspended under the surrounding arches.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.