A closer look at Cairo's Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue

Farah Montasser, Wednesday 24 Apr 2013

Following the former president of Egypt's Jewish Community Council, Carmen Weinstein's funeral, Ahram Online takes a closer look at Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, one of the largest Jewish temples in downtown Cairo

Chaar Hashamaim

At the gate of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, one of the largest Jewish temples of Egypt located in downtown Cairo, its guard instructs "No visitors allowed."

"The synagogue is only open during Jewish celebrations and ceremonies or upon the request of Egyptian authorities," the guard explained.

According to the Jewish Community Council (JCC) of Egypt, this large synagogue is open daily from 10am to 3pm, as is Bin Izra Temple of Old Cairo. "Should you request visiting any other temples, JCC will gladly help," read the JCC message. However, apparently Egyptian authorities have another say.

The synagogue latest shutdown came following the funeral services of the late JCC President Carmen Weinstein, 82, which took place at the synagogue on 18 April.

Madga Haroun, 61, was then elected president of the JCC, according to the official JCC newsletter Bassatine News. A week later, the synagogue was shut down with many security forces cordoning it.

On Adly Street, in downtown Cairo, stands the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, also known as Adly Street Temple and Ismailiya Temple. In English, Shaar Hashomayim means Gates of Heaven. Its architecture resembles the ancient Egyptian temples with plants and Lotus flowers engraved on its outer walls. The synagogue has two main entrances, on its right and left sides, with the Star of David atop each large wooden and black copper door.

Synagogue's history

Shaar Hashomayim was built in 1905 serving Sephardic Jews and the few who still live in Cairo, according to Michael Haag's book "Cairo Illustrated." However, local residents believe the 30 or 40 remaining Jews in Cairo visit the synagogue. They also believe today the synagogue is open to Ashkenazi and Karaite Jews as well.

Jacques Hassoun's "History of Jews of The Nile" also recalls Shaar Hashomayim to be open to all Jews across Egypt throughout the 20th century at a time when Jews blended in the Egyptian society, prior to their eviction in the 1950s and 1960s.

According to the Historical Society of Jews From Egypt website, Maurice Youssef Cattaui Pacha along with his Austrian partner Eduard Matasek "designed the Gates of Heaven in 1899," stated Egyptian author and historian Samir Raafat. Cattaui wanted people to remember Moses was the prince of Egypt long before he became prophet, hence the ancient Egyptian design from the synagogue's exterior.

From the entrance, on the synagogues interior walls are two large marble tablets honouring Egyptian Jews who contributed to the temple, including Cattauis Pacha, Suareses, Mosseris, Rolos, Hararis, Ciurels, Curiels, and Adesses among 91 other public Jewish figures of the 20th century Egypt. The names are written in Hebrew.

The synagogue also features a large library that was once a hall for Jewish weddings and special celebrations. In 1989, former president Hosni Mubarak restored the temple and the adjustment of the library was applied. During the synagogue's 100-year-anniversary celebration in 2007, Weinstein praised Mubarak for his efforts to save Jewish heritage in Egypt.

Shaar Hashomayim is famous for its long server Rabbi Haiim Nahum (1872-1960). In 1923, Cattaui Pacha asked Nahum to become the Chief Saphardic Rabbi of Egypt.

"He is one of the most eminent rabbis in the Middle East - a scholar, lawyer, linguist and diplomat – who served as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Egypt for over 35 years from 1925 until his death in 1960," Professor Sanua Victor at St. John University stressed.

Many writings by exiled Egyptian Jews speak about their faded memories of Egypt and their great temple. In Hassoun's book "History of Jews of the Nile," he recalled voices of two young twin brothers at prayers, who were both born blind and had served in the synagogue for their entire lives.

Hassoun also recalled when Egypt's first president Mohamed Naguib visited the synagogue for the first time as president, a year after the coup d'état in 1953, to celebrate Yom Kippur with Egypt's Jewish community.

Today, Shaar Hashomayim stands closed to the Egyptian public, neglected by authorities, despite the history it carries; as the guard instructed, "You need an approval to enter or await a Jewish ceremony to join."

In Haroun's official statement as President of the JCC, she remarks on the memorial services of her predecessor, "What warmed my heart most is that I saw eager Egyptian youth who came because they were curious to learn about us. Some of them didn’t even know there was a Jewish community."

(All Photos: Historical Society of Jews From Egypt)

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