Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

A Visit to the Maimonides Synagogue | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- There is a ridiculous story being circulated by malicious and biased media organs that claim that a group of Jews had informed UNESCO that the floor of the Maimonides synagogue in the ancient Al-Jamaliyah district of Old Cairo is covered with garbage.

This group of Jews falsely claimed that Egypt does not look after its Jewish artifacts, and said that work to restore the Jewish synagogues had only begun in order to strengthen the position of Arab candidate Farouk Hosny with regards to being appointed head of UNESCO. Of course this campaign itself was only launched for ulterior motives prior the recent UNESCO elections.

On account my of position [as head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities], I had no choice but to visit the Maimonides synagogue with members of the press and news reporters in order to show the reality of what was taking place inside the synagogue. We reached Bab al-Nasr [Gate of Victory] in Cairo…everybody rode through the narrow alleyways of the slums in electric buggies until we reached the Jewish Quarter. This is the area where Jewish Egyptian families lived prior to 1960. There are still around 120 Egyptian Jews living in Cairo, they are looked after by a special Jewish association headed by Mrs. Carmen. Mrs. Carmen worked in the garment industry, and lives amongst Egyptians – both Muslim and Christian – without suffering any religious prejudice. Moreover, many Jewish women in Egypt are married to Muslim men.

The undisputable truth is that all Jewish historical monuments, including synagogues and historical sites are part of Egypt’s larger history. Any attempt to destroy or abuse this heritage would be nothing more than an attempt to remove part of Egypt’s history. Any country which attempts to forget or ignore its own history is committing a crime against its future generations, and will unmistakably face a number of historical problems that cannot be solved other than by reviving the history that has deliberately been excluded.

Egyptian antiquities, whether they are Islamic, Coptic, or Jewish, suffered equally from the impact of the 1992 earthquake that left a number of ancient mosques, churches and synagogues in an architectural state of disrepair. The Egyptian Council of Antiquities found no other choice at the time than to “reinforce” these buildings. This term refers to the process of installing wood and steel support structures on these ancient buildings to prevent their walls, domes, and minarets from collapsing. These support structures remain in place until integrated restoration projects can be undertaken to dismantle them, with the ancient site being restored to its original form.

Many of our priceless artifacts have been affected by the passage of time, with inscriptions and paintings beginning to flake from the walls, not to mention contaminated water leaking from the aged sewage system and eroding the walls of our ancient sites leaving them in a very bad state. However as soon as I was charged with the responsibility of maintaining and preserving our antiquities in 2002, I – along with a group of experts – laid out a national plan to save Egyptian antiquities. We began working to this effect for the Maimonides Synagogue and other synagogues located in Old Cairo.

There are 9 registered synagogues in Cairo, along with a Jewish cemetery in the Al-Bassatin district. These ancient Jewish sites are preserved by the Council of Antiquities, in addition to a synagogue located in the city of Alexandria. These 10 Jewish temples have been part of an integrated restoration project since 2002. The restoration process is always preceded by scientific studies and research carried out by consultant engineers and researchers. These studies take around 2 years to be completed during which a comprehensive study on the site’s soil topography is taken, along with groundwater analysis and other tests. Following this, the restoration process begins, although depending upon the condition of the site in question, this may take years to complete.

There are various types of restoration including architectural restoration and decorative restoration. Decorative restoration pertains to the restoration of decorative ornaments, doors, windows, etc, particularly if the windows of the site in question are made of stained-glass. This also includes the restoration of all elements of the monument’s furniture and fittings.

A handful of individuals have expressed their objections to this restoration of Coptic and Jewish ancient monuments to me. Now how shall we describe this? As ignorance, or stupidity, or both?