Sha'ar HaShamayaim synagogue in Cairo
Sha'ar HaShamayaim synagogue in Cairo Israel news photo: Hana Taragan, Tel Aviv University

The largest synagogue in Egypt – the only one that still conducts High Holy Day services – was the target of an attempted bombing early Sunday morning.

According to an Egyptian police report quoted by the Associated Press, a man attempted to set the structure ablaze early Sunday morning, hurling an explosive suitcase at the synagogue from the fourth floor window of a hotel located across from the building. The attack occurred just after he checked in, at 3:00 a.m.

Once the largest building on the block in downtown Cairo, Sha'ar HaShamayim (Gate of Heaven) was built in 1899 and is the main synagogue in the Egyptian capital. It is also the synagogue attended by Israeli diplomats when they are in town.

In the suitcase were four containers of gasoline, each attached to a glass bottle of sulfuric acid that was intended to shatter on impact, igniting an inferno. The bag also contained cotton strips, a lighter, matches and clothing. It briefly caught fire as it fell onto the sidewalk, but was quickly extinguished. According to the report, the perpetrator, who fled, “may have panicked.” Police are searching for him.

For thousands of years, Egypt was home to a vibrant Jewish community. The famed Jewish physician, philosopher and Talmudic sage, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, worked his way from Spain, where he was born, through Morocco and Israel to Egypt, where he finally settled and became a physician to Saladin and the royal family.

In the last century, many Jewish merchants streamed into the country with their families from Aleppo, Syria, and by 1940, the Egyptian Jewish community numbered approximately 80,000. Most of the Jews left when war broke out between Egypt and Israel upon the birth of the Jewish State, and more left with each subsequent war, leaving only a few dozen elderly members of the community. There are also several synagogues still in existence, all heavily guarded and open only to Jews.

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