In an effort to show that Egypt is a land of tolerance and the cradle of Abrahamic religions, Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani conducted a four-hour tour on Friday, during which he inaugurated the historical al-Fateh Mosque in Abdeen Palace and visited the St. Mark’s Church in Alexandria, the oldest Church in Egypt, before crossing the street to attend the main event of the day — the unveiling of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria after three years of restoration.
Speeches from attendees at the event, which included Anani and the Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Mostafa El Feki, confirmed the importance of religious tolerance in Egypt and stressed the lack of religious discrimination throughout Egypt’s history, despite the presence of various religious sects living in close quarters, in an attempt to send a message to the world that Egypt is the cradle of civilization and a country of tolerance and acceptance.
Perhaps this is the main message of organizing the three events in one day, but I see another goal behind opening more than just the Jewish synagogue last Friday — it represents a preemptive response to any attack on spending approximately LE65 million on the restoration of a synagogue that will not host religious rituals regularly, because there are not enough Jews in the city and in all of Egypt to justify regular religious services.
Anani’s response to such criticism was clear when he said: “This is a message to the world that Egypt cares about its entire heritage, whether it is Pharaonic, Islamic, Coptic or Jewish.”
Those who attack costly restoration work on the synagogue forget that it is part of Egypt’s heritage, and the temple not being used for prayers does not mean it should be neglected. This synagogue and the other 11 synagogues in Egypt could serve as tourist attractions that document an important part of Egyptian history.
These criticisms reminded me of what happened during the tenure of Farouk Hosni as Egypt’s former Culture Minister, when he began the restoration of the Maimonides Synagogue (Rav Moshe Synagogue) in Cairo. A similar attack campaign began, with critics expressing doubts about the feasibility of restoration at the synagogue and slamming the allocation of funds to such a project.
But Hosni, known for his daring leadership, was not satisfied with the restoration of one synagogue, calling as well for the establishment of a museum documenting Jewish heritage in Egypt. The Minister’s ambitions caused the attacks to increase, with critics saying that Egypt does not have enough relevant antiquities to justify establishing a museum dedicated to Jewish heritage.
With the opening of Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, I see it’s now time to revive Hosni’s idea. I have spoken with members of the Jewish community on the sidelines of the opening of the synagogue, and they confirmed that there exist rare books and other relics that could form the basis of a museum dedicated to Jewish heritage, which could be built in the basement of the synagogue located in Adli Street (Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue).
I believe that the establishment of such a museum would serve as an eloquent response to critics of the synagogue restoration project, as the museum will draw visitors to the country and place Egypt’s synagogues on the global tourism map.