Nabi Daniel Street was once the heart of Alexandria's thriving Jewish community. Set back from the shops lining the street, is number 69 - Elayahu Hanavi synagogue. The imposing baroque building can be viewed from the street. In front of its high iron gate security men and police lounge on chairs drinking tea. I hand my passport through the railings to a guard. Several minutes later a key turns in the lock and I step into synagogues peaceful courtyard. For the first time in a long time, I can hear birds singing.
The 130 year old synagogue is the largest in the middle east outside Israel, and was once one of 16 synagogues in the city. Most of them have been torn down or converted to other use. Elayanu Hanavi is an enduring testimony to a community that until the middle of the 20th century once numbered over 40,000. There are now only 20 elderly Jews remaining, some of whom are married to Muslims.
My guide is Rasha Nabi, whose father, Abdul Nabi, is the synagogue’s caretaker. She is a Muslim, and wears a multi layered jhijab which is fashionable with young Egyptian girls. She understands very well the incongruity of her presence in a Jewish house of worship. Her father has taken care of the building and its gardens for 26 years and she has lived in its grounds all her life.
“I love this place," Rasha says, as we walk through the tree filled gardens, “It’s like home to me,”
Inside the bright interior, rows of polished wooden benches stretch from the dais. Each one bears a name etched onto brass plaques reflecting Alexandria’s cosmopolitan history. Jews from Egypt, the Maghreb, France , Greece, Britain, Italy, Armenia all sat together in the grand pillared interior.
“You can’t even smell dust, ” Rasha says proudly. “It’s as if there’s just been a prayer.”
We turn back to the doors of the synagogue as if expecting the congregation to enter. But most of Alexandria’s remaining Jews are too old to travel.
The history of the Jews of Alexandria dates from the foundation of the city by Alexander the Great. They continued to form a very large portion of the population under his successors. A separate section of the city was assigned to them by the first Ptolemies, They set up hospitals, homes for the aged and charity programmes and they ran many of the city’s successful businesses. Today’s ramshackle and run down department stores still bear the names of their Jewish founders; Cicurel, Benizon, Chamla. The creation of the state of Israel, the rise of Arab nationalism and a series of Arab Israeli wars led to their mass expulsion. Properties and businesses were confiscated, bank accounts frozen.
But many of the relatives of those who left, return to find their roots and connect to the city that is their ancestral home.
“It is very emotional when people find the seat their great-grandfather used to sit in,” Rasha says. “I have seen many Jewish tears.”
Two years ago the synagogue was renovated by the Cairo University Ventre for Antiquities and Environmental Studies. At the time, Ali Hilal, project manager at the Supreme Council for Antiquities said the synagogue was the most notable of preservation plans for Egyptian monuments.
Rasha admits that once her fellow Muslims discover what she does and where she lives, she is asked what Jews are like. “I tell them they are like everyone else.," she says." Egypt has had Jewish communities in its major cities for centuries, and we are not anti-Jewish people. It’s Zionism and the state of Israel that is the problem. It’s politics that causes all the trouble. ”
As a Muslim, Rasha believes that Islam is the conclusion to all Abrahamic religions. “It makes sense of it all, but the fundamental basics between Jews, Christians and Muslims are the same. We are brothers and sisters.”
Light pours down from the high windows as we approach the bimah, the table from which the prayers are read. Silver candelabra shine upon the dais and books rest upon the rabbi’s desk. It’s as if everyone has left in a hurry, leaving everything behind as it was. Behind the bimah hangs the curtain of the Torah Ark, behind which the old religious scrolls are kept. It is a long time since a service was held, but visiting Jews often address the empty synagogue with prayers.
“One woman came from America," Rasha says. "Her ancestors had been Egyptian Jews for centuries. She considered herself Egyptian although she has never lived here. She started to pray in Hebrew. She was crying and she kept waving her arms about. Afterwards, I asked her what she was saying. She said, ‘I was calling, ‘Come back. Come back. Come back.' "