The Egyptian government pledged in 2017 to allocate 1.27 billion EGP ($71 million) for the preservation of Jewish heritage. Restoring the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria topped the government’s priorities. It reopened in 2020 at a cost of 60 million EGP. This major undertaking coincided with a decision by the Ministry of Antiquities to register hundreds of Jewish artifacts from the country’s synagogues, a process that began in 2016. Government-sponsored projects under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with an overt emphasis on communal spaces important to religious minority groups have not focused exclusively on Jewish houses of worship and sacred objects. Consecrated in January 2019, the Cathedral of the Nativity is now the largest in the region and among the distinctive architectural feats of the Sisi presidency.
Meanwhile, in February 2023, the Supreme Administrative Court of Egypt found that the Alexandria governorate is not obligated to allocate cemetery space to Bahá’í residents. Bahá’í tenets prohibit both cremation of the deceased and transporting them more than one hour’s distance from the site of death, requiring burial close to this site. Yet only one cemetery in all of Egypt is reserved for Bahá’í burial. Located in Cairo, about 200km from Alexandria, its plots are at capacity.
These developments seem commensurate with the state’s founding narrative. The constitution of Egypt references the stories of Moses and Mount Sinai and the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and describes the Prophet Muhammad as the Seal of the Messengers. This order of revelation—whereby Judaism is understood to have preceded Christianity and Christianity to have preceded Islam, and in which Islam is the last and the most perfect of the “revealed religions”—affords Jews and Christians a special place in Egypt: a Muslim-majority country where affiliation with one of these three groups is both compulsory and automatic, Islamic law and Muslim status are privileged, and Jews and Christians hold some legislative autonomy to organize their communal affairs even as all powers of adjudication rest with state courts. Bahá’ís, who acknowledge Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, also believe in continuous revelation, thereby challenging a key tenet of Egyptian state identity: the finality of Islam. In the early 2000s, Bahá’í petitioners won administrative legal victories that hinged on recognition of their difference from Muslims, Christians, and Jews, yet they continue to face significant barriers to civil registration.
Another complex story about religion and nation comes into view when we consider the broader scope of their entanglement. The massive scale of Sisi-led Jewish heritage initiatives is far from proportional to the country’s demographics. As of 2021, Egypt’s population exceeded 109 million; of that number, Christians are estimated at between 5 and 15 million, Bahá’ís in the low thousands, and Jews at about twenty nationwide, with as few as three in Cairo.1The state collects data about religious affiliation on civil documents that substantiate legal personhood from birth to death, but official numbers regarding the country’s religious topography are not publicly available. More questions are raised than answered, in other words, about who will frequent the spaces restored by the government as the tiny Jewish population rapidly declines. Moreover, government megaprojects that appear to benefit minority religious groups are not necessarily commensurate with their needs. For example, Cairo-area Copts are more likely to attend church services in dense, working-class neighborhoods than travel to the new cathedral; the cost of housing in the new administrative capital, where the Cathedral of the Nativity is located, remains dramatically out of reach for people struggling to make ends meet as the Egyptian pound depreciates by 50 percent against the US dollar and inflation exceeds 25 percent. Local churches that are regularly overcrowded face ongoing risks of electrical failure. Advocates have long criticized administrative and security challenges to the building and renovation of churches, which Egyptian law requires Christians to finance.
The minority religious groups who are named beneficiaries of government-subsidized capital projects are Jews and Christians, a testament to the endurance of the republic’s founding narrative. Bahá’ís have tried in the past two decades to integrate themselves into this narrative. Their efforts include educating the public about the Bahá’í Faith on national and international television, writing in Egyptian newspapers, and participating in the constitutional referendum process. In these and other public appearances, they highlight how the early history of the Bahá’í Faith was intertwined with the history of the Egyptian republic and recount further the many Bahá’í contributions to Egyptian national culture. Bahá’í gains for recognition have nevertheless been modest. Even as their cosmology reveres Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Bahá’í Faith is still a relatively new religion, founded in nineteenth-century Persia, and maintains an administrative center in Haifa in present-day Israel—details that detractors have used to foment doubt about Bahá’í loyalties to the Egyptian state. By contrast, the order of revelation as enshrined in Egyptian national institutions is the prevailing framework for social organization. It remains largely unchanged in the contemporary period—sufficiently flexible to recognize Bahá’í difference but not enough to allow the possibility of religion beyond the Abrahamic traditions.
Although Jews in Egypt enjoy pride of place in the order of revelation, the steep decline in their numbers is a direct result of Egyptian state policies in the mid-twentieth century, which stand in marked contrast to commitments made by Egypt earlier that century to welcome refugees, many of them Jewish. In the modern period, most Jews fled to Egypt from former Ottoman territories amid the Greco-Turkish Wars, the Armenian Genocide, the Russian Revolutions, and the Russian Civil War; they created vibrant communities in Cairo and Alexandria numbering in the tens of thousands by 1935. They further played a pivotal role in the nationalist movement of 1919 that brought about Egypt’s nominal independence from British colonial rule. At the height of their flourishing, Egyptian Jews were estimated to number between 65,000 and 80,000. Yet the founding of the Israeli state in 1948 called into question the status of Jews in Egypt and across the Arab world. Soon after the Arab-Israeli War that year, Egyptian authorities began seizing Jewish property and enacted systematic campaigns of arrest, detention, and deportation. Israel’s victory in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 hastened yet more political turmoil. Jews who had remained in Egypt between 1948 and 1967 were either forcibly expelled or chose to emigrate to Israel, Europe, the United States, or South America. Jews who refused to leave the country post-1967 take considerable pride in their love for Egypt; today their descendants, a handful of women in their seventies, remain staunch critics of Zionism.
The Egyptian government is preserving the remnants of a people who will soon disappear. Jewish heritage projects spearheaded by the Sisi administration have been well received by international nongovernmental institutions as testaments to the country’s rich religious pluralism. But these are monuments to extinction. The push to renovate synagogues and catalog Jewish artifacts is analogous to the Egyptian government’s interest in celebrating the ancient pharaonic past, a civilization so distant and dead it is not mourned though often admired and a central motif in the narrative about Egypt’s extraordinary contributions to humanity. The importance of the pharaonic past to the current Egyptian government was on full display in April 2021, when Sisi commemorated the opening of the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization by transporting twenty-two mummies in boat-like vehicles during a multimillion dollar, forty-five-minute televised procession. Like the pharaonic past, Jewish history has been claimed for Egyptian nationalism. The restoration of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria is but one example of this process, which also includes efforts by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), whose mission is to protect Egypt’s cultural heritage, to undertake planned surveys of Cairo’s Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Karaite synagogues. These projects are undergirded by “the belief that the Jewish community was and still is inseparable from Egyptian society, culture and history.”
The few Egyptian Jews who remain are helping to preserve a past that future generations can visit, explore, and remember—whether these heritage projects are subsidized by the Egyptian government or other sponsors. The restoration of the Lichaa and Menasha burial sites, the last remaining portion of the Karaite Jewish cemetery in historic Bassatin, a neighborhood in southern Cairo, is one example of a privately funded project that parallels state-sponsored preservation of Jewish history. Restoration of the cemetery was made possible through a $150,000 US State Department cultural preservation grant to the ARCE and its partner, Drop of Milk, an Egypt-based nonprofit focused on preserving Egyptian Jewish heritage. Drop of Milk is led by Magda Haroun, elected to the leadership of the Jewish community in 2013 following the death of Carmen Weinstein, its previous leader, known for being a fierce defender and spokesperson for Jews who stayed in Egypt after 1948. Additional funds for beautification of the cemetery grounds were provided by the Karaite Jews of America, members of which attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony in November 2022.
“This cemetery has existed since the days of Ibn Tulun (Governor of Egypt in 868),” said Haroun at the ceremony celebrating the completion of the Bassatin restoration project. “It’s the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world,” she continued. “I call for preserving this heritage not because I’m the head of the Jewish community in Egypt, but because first and before anything else I’m Egyptian. It was God’s will that I was born into a Jewish family. This is the heritage of Egypt. Egypt is a multicultural country, with pharaonic, Roman, African, Muslim, Coptic, and Jewish heritage.”
Beyond the complex history of Egypt’s religious minorities and their relationship to the republic, what counts as heritage worth preserving is an open question. Sisi’s development projects have left few spaces untouched, changing how Egyptians relate to one another, to the dead, and to the natural environment. The removal of over 100 acres of trees in Heliopolis has left long-time residents “feeling disoriented on once-familiar streets.” When the iconic floating houseboats that once dotted the banks of the Nile were razed by authorities to commercialize the waterfront, those who spent an entire lifetime on their boats were unsure where to go next. As the government now demolishes thousands of graves in the City of the Dead, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to make way for new roads and highways, only some historic tombs have been spared, “creating isolated islands, separated from each other.” Whereas some families were given notice to disinter the remains of loved ones, others report looking for remains that had been disturbed; alternate burial plots located across Cairo’s satellite cities were offered to affected families. Meanwhile, the government proposes to create entirely new green spaces and bodies of water in the new administrative capital, a place that observers describe as “a vast construction site.”