The Jewish alley of Old Cairo

Farah Montasser, Sunday 21 Jun 2015

Ahram Online visits part of Egypt’s lost heritage, the Jewish alley of Old Cairo, known as Haret El-Yahud

Moshe Bin Maimon

This article has first been published in Ahram Online on 5/11/2011

The journey begins at one of the gates of Old Cairo, Bab El-Fotouh (Renaissance Gate) that dates back to the Fatimid dynasty. To the right, the small street Seknet Borgwan (Borgwan District) that takes you to Darb El-Asfar (Yellow Alley) and Beit El-Seheimi (El-Seheimi House). Just next to Bab El-Fotouh, to the left, is the enchanted El-Akmar Mosque, built in 1120 AD. Opposite the mosque, the entire right side is full of small copperware houses and small antique shops that sell old home appliances that date back to the 1940s and 1950s.

Further down that pedestrian road, El-Moez Street is on the left with Le Riad Boutique Hotel, which opened in the past few years, to the right. "The entire area of Bab El-Fotouh and El-Moez Street has been renovated recently to attract tourists to this area of Old Cairo,” a policeman told Ahram Online.

Leading the way to Haret El-Yahud (the Jewish alley), the policeman stood at the corner of a narrow street, Khoronfoush Street, and pointed right to where the quarter is. Khoronfoush Street marks the first residential area outside the alley, where Jewish families once lived. It is also known as the former home of a six-year-old boy, Gamal Abdel Nasser, former president of Egypt, and his family.

“Being brought up within the Jewish community in 1936, didn’t stop him from forcing the Jews out of country from 1956 to 1967, on a 'Never to Return' agreement," argues communist thinker Youssef Darwish and journalist Jack Hasun in their book Jews Of The Nile. One of the local inhabitants of the small alley says he witnessed the departure of one of his Jewish neighbours. “Abdel Nasser forced the Jews of the alley out, allowing each family 20 Egyptian pounds only at the time, while leaving their fortunes and businesses behind,” said Hagg (Mr.) Assad.

Nasser’s evacuation of Egypt’s Jews , argues Joel Beinin in his book The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, was borne from the embedding within Egyptian society of a large spy network from 1945, prior to Israel’s establishment as a country in 1948 following the defeat of Arabs in the Israeli-Arab War.

The network’s main mission, entitled “Suzanna”, was carried out in 1954. The mission involved bombing the main post office of Alexandria, the American Information Services Office in Cairo, Cairo’s Railway Station, in addition to a number of major cinemas across Alexandria and Cairo. In December 1954, the Egyptian police forces arrested the perpetrators. Following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1955, Great Britain, France and Israel declared war on Egypt in 1956, triggering the idea to evacuate Egypt’s Jews.

Assad opened his carpenter warehouse in 1948 and has lived in the quarter for his entire life. “I had a lot of Jewish friends in the alley. They mostly worked in gold and silver and left their businesses to their young employees,” he told Ahram Online. “Those young employees eventually sold their businesses to new owners,” he stated.

Khoronfoush Street leads to both Haret El-Yahud and Haret El-Shaarani, which “once stood as Midan El-Kholafaa (Rulers’ Square) during the Fatimid dynasty next to the Castle of the West in the Muslim Empire,” says the policeman.  The street takes you a few steps down into Haret Khoronfoush (Khoronfoush Quarter), which is full of small bakeries and local food shops, including falafel and seafood sandwiches, and the famous Egyptian dish, koshari.

The road to the Jewish quarter, known today as Darb El-Masreyeen (Alley of the Egyptians), get narrower and narrower. The Jewish Quarter was renowned as the home of the best jewellers of all Cairo, yet today only a few remain and have nothing to do with Jews.  

From 1930 until 1957, over 70,000 Jews lived in Egypt, including Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Rabbanites, and Karaites. The Jewish Quarter of Cairo was mainly home to the Rabbanites and Karaites who occupied the middle and lower middle classes of the Jewish community in those times. They lived along with Muslims and Christians in the alley. They spoke Arabic and were entrepreneurs, merchants, and jewellers.  

Amongst the famous Egyptian artists living in the Jewish alley were David Haim Levi, 1870-1937 AD, the famous Egyptian musician known as Daood Hosni and the national Egyptian poet Murad Farag, according to some locals of the area.  They belonged to the Karaite sect.

Although the number of Jews in the alley increased during the first half of the twentieth century, they still mostly depended on the funds of the Jewish Community Council, headed by Egyptian Jew Qattawi Pasha, according to Darwish and Hasun.

But with the rise of the Zionist movement and the establishment of Israel in 1948, most synagogues of Egypt, especially within the Jewish Quarter, were burnt down and the Jews of Egypt were deprived from their Egyptian citizenship. Then came Nasser and the brutal relationship with the Jews intensified.  By 1967, most Jewish schools and synagogues were forcefully shut down and their private businesses were nationalised.

Most of the jewellery shops have become Chinese electronic and home supply shops. The quarter feels like the Chinatown of New York and London. Even among the jewellers, Om Sayed, an old lady who sits in her son’s jewellery shop, said, “Sayed bought the shop a few years back and is currently on a business trip to China to increase his entrepreneurship in Old Cairo. “

Om Sayed originally lived in Darb El-Barabra (Barbarian’s Alley), as she recalls it another home for the Jews back in the day. “I used to be a tailor and I had a lot of Jewish female customers and friends here in the alley,” she said. “They were very kind yet clever when it came to business,” she remembers with a beautiful smile on her face. “I do recall the good relationships we had not based on religion or race. We were all Egyptians but sadly they all had to leave,” she says.

“The only one who remained until she died here in her home was Marika, an old Jewish women who used to walk down the alley for the rest of her life after all of her family members and friends had left her,” she states. “I never knew the woman and she never talked to anyone but we were all used to seeing her taking her routine walk up until her death two years ago.”

Her young assistant interrupts her, “No, she had an old male friend who used to accompany her on her walks with his stick, but no one knows who he is,” he says.

Even Hagg Assaad does not recall Marika. “The few Jews who remained here were taken by the government a few years back to live at nursing homes next to the synagogue on Adly Street.”

Going out of the jeweller/Chinese home supplies store, the alleyway takes you, with the help of the locals of course, to the end of the quarter where Moshe Bin Maimon (Maimonides) Synagogue lies. It was built in the thirteenth century and named after the Jewish scholar, physician, and philosopher Moshe Bin Maimon, a.k.a “Rambam” (1135-1204 AD) who used to worship there.

Construction workers, hired by the Supreme Council of Antiquities, revealed the floor plan during the renovation of the synagogue back in 2009. There is a main prayer chamber for men followed by another for women, some bathrooms, the private chamber for rabbi’s gatherings, and its enchanted well. 

It is believed that Maimonides’ tomb is buried underneath the synagogue, according to Darwish and Hasun. Rabbi Berel Wein in his 5000 Years of Jewish History documentary, says that Maimonides was forced at age 13 to flee from Andalusia, where he studied philosophy side by side with Islamic thinker Ibn Rushd (Averroes), because of the hostility of the Muslim rulers; he then resided in Egypt.

In Egypt, Maimonides studied medicine and became physician to some Muslim rulers of the Islamic Empire, including Saladin. Even after his death, it was believed that he granted healing miracles in his synagogue. Memoirs of Egyptian Jews recall that even King Fouad I went to the synagogue for a serious medical treatment as well.

On the way back out of the quarter, one baker pointed out another synagogue in the ally in the tiniest street of all.  The street he pointed at had no synagogues or any other Jewish landmarks. It was occupied only by merchants displaying their products on several wooden carts. The search for a synagogue was pointless in this street until a young man pointed it out. All that remained of this anonymous synagogue was the red brick wall behind his display of Chinese toys for sale. “This is all that is left. We know that behind the brick wall is a synagogue but it has no entry gates,” he says. No one on the street could even tell us its name, when it was built, or even why it is cordoned by brick walls. 

“The only renovation that took place here is at the Moshe Bin Maimon Synagogue, and yet it is constantly closed,” says one of the locals. “For visitors to enter the synagogue, they need to get permission of entry from the Supreme Council of Antiquities claiming their reason of visit,” says a policeman outside the alley, as there are no guards at the synagogue itself.

Over the past few years, the Supreme Council of Antiquities funded the restoration of most significant Jewish landmarks in Cairo. One thought that the council’s attempt was to enrich Egypt’s heritage. However, the quarter seems to have remained the same. If the Jewiish buildings have been restored, they are empty of the people who once filled them. 

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