The Maimonides Synagogue in Cairo reopened this week after nearly two years of restoration work sponsored by the Egyptian government.
The 19th Century synagogue, known by its Arabic name of Musa bin Maimun, is named for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the famous Talmudic sage who was born in 1135 in Cordoba, Spain and also known as Maimonides, or the Rambam. Maimonides, who also was known as a philosopher and a physician, fled from persecution, traveling through Europe until he reached Egypt, where he ended his days in 1204.
Ambassador Yitzchak Levanon and U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey attended the ceremony, as did about a dozen Israeli rabbis. At least 150 people joined the celebration, as Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) affixed a new mezuzah, a gift from his organization, at the entryway to the adjoining yeshiva.
“When I first set foot here only five years ago, the synagogue was in ruins and its roof opened to the sky,” he marveled, praising the Egyptian government for recognizing the importance of maintaining Jewish religious sites as a part of the country's heritage.
Egyptian government officials politely excused themselves from the inauguration ceremony; Culture Minister Farouq Hosni told reporters they did not attend because the ceremony was “purely religious.” However, Zahi Hawass, head of the government's antiquities department, added that Egyptian government officials were expected to attend a formal opening on March 14. Although Egypt signed a peace treaty with the State of Israel in 1979 and has been restoring Jewish religious sites for several years, many Egyptians are uncomfortable with public support for cultural or other projects connected with Jews.
There are 11 synagogues in Egypt, several of which have already been restored, including the Ben Ezer Synagogue in the Old City of Cairo and Sha'ar HaShamayim (“Gate of Heaven”) located downtown in the capital. However, last month, Sha'ar HaShamayim was the target of an attempted bombing. The largest synagogue in Egypt and the only one that still conducts High Holy Day services, Sha'ar HaShamayim is the synagogue attended by Israeli diplomats when they are in town.
There were once thousands of Jews in Egypt, but today there are very few Jews left; much of the community left following the 1948 war when the State of Israel was born, and the subsequent wars waged to annihilate the reborn nation.