Newly restored Alexandria synagogue dating back to the 14th century opens its doors to the dwindled Jewish community of Egypt.
Egypt unveiled the newly restored Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue on 10 January in the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria. One of the largest synagogues in the Middle East, it is also one of Egypt’s oldest Jewish temples. It was rebuilt in the 1850s after the original building, which dated back to 1354, sustained extensive damage during the 1798 French invasion of Egypt.
In 2016, the roof of the synagogue and its staircase collapsed. A restoration project was then launched the following year to save the building. The $4m project took more than two years to complete.
The larger of the two remaining synagogues in Alexandria – Egypt’s second biggest city – it can seat up to 700 people. But there are only a handful of Jewish citizens left in Alexandria, once home to around 40,000 Jews. The country’s 80,000-strong Jewish community dwindled following the creation of Israel in 1948. More Jews left Egypt during the 1956 Suez War and the 1967-1970 War of Attrition under then President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Tall, rose-coloured columns line the interior of the synagogue, along with decorative walls and arches. The synagogue also houses a central library containing ancient copies of the Torah and other religious texts. One of the new features is openings in the floor that allow visitors and worshippers to view the remains of the original structure.
In 2012, the synagogue was closed as a security precaution following nationwide protests to oust longtime Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak. Restoration work has been done on the building’s structure, as well as the lighting, safety and alarm systems.
The synagogue was included in the 2018 World Monuments Fund’s annual list, describing it as at risk, and requiring preservation to “keep alive the memory of a once-flourishing Jewish community”. Located in the heart of downtown Alexandria, it is one of 11 registered Jewish houses of worship in Egypt, with nine others in Cairo.
This restoration project was part of the Egyptian government’s efforts to market the country’s rich historical and cultural heritage. Egypt’s vital tourism sector has suffered a number of blows since the 2011 uprisings, with political turmoil and a string of terrorist attacks.