CAIRO: “I’m not immortal and I need an eye on it…it is a fortune and a resource for tourism revenues,” said Madga Haroon, one of Egypt’s last Jews, standing beneath stacks of historical documents in an all-but-forgotten synagogue in downtown Cairo.
The Shaar Hashamayim synagogue, long since abandoned as a place of regular worship, goes unnoticed by its neighbors, and its contents, including hundreds of manuscripts, books and copies of the Torah, sit un-read and un-indexed.
Haroon, 64, who has met with Cabinet officials to push restoration of the texts, says that there has been no progress, called on President Sisi to intervene and preserve the documents.
“I do not want to load another burdens on his shoulder; but if necessary I will escalate the matter,” Haroun told The Cairo Post.
Last summer, Haroun met with Ministers of Antiquities and Culture Mamdouh Damaty and Gaber Asfour and former head of Egyptian National Library and Archives (ENLA) Helmy al-Namnam (current Minister of Culture) after a Cabinet request to study restoration of the books, some dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
“After that nothing happed. I do not blame the Ministry of Antiquities as they have no resources [to restore the neglected heritage] as there are other things more important, such as the Pharaonic and Islamic heritage…but it is also a heritage,” she said.
During the Cabinet meeting, Haroun said that she proposed restoring the Al-Khokha Synagogue in the Gharbia governorate, which had partially collapsed, adding that even the walls qualify as antiquities, and could be of interest to tourists, but her proposals were not received.
Haroun told The Cairo Post that she has also spoken with the head of the Biblioteca Alexandrina Ismail Serag al-Dinto discuss digitizing all the documents, but there has been no follow-up.
Digitizing a small library could cost 100 million EGP ($12.5 million) and to restore “a page of a book could take a whole day,” Culture Minister Nammam told The Cairo Post in a previous interview.
Most Egyptian Jews left Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s, settling in Israel or other countries, or converted to Christianity or Islam and stayed in Egypt; there are only an estimated 40 or so Jews left in Egypt, and most places of worship have not held prayers for decades.
Every now and then, Haroun says there are offers from outside Jewish organizations to buy or assist in restoration of the texts, but she says she is not interested.
“Due to my stance against Israel, I will not allow a pin of Jewish heritage go outside Egypt,” Haroun said, adding that “there are people keeping their eyes on the Scrolls of Torah and death and marriage records of the Jews of Egypt, which means they are trying to erase Egyptian history.”
“Jews usually did not throw out papers have the name of God written on them, so they keep them inside the genizah [hidden storage] until being buried in their tombs,” Haroun said.
The genizah of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue was discovered in the 19th century, containing thousands of documents about daily life of Jews in Egypt and other Arab countries, but there has been no indexing of these papers since their discovery.
“When a committee of the ministry of antiquities visited Ben Ezra Synagogue for inventory, I found they had with them neither pens nor paper,” Haroun said.
There is another library located inside the Ben Ezra synagogue, in which books have been damaged by tar dripping from the roof during Cairo’s scorching summers, Haroun said.
Restoring the synagogue should also be a priority because of humidity threatening the integrity of the books, she said.
In addition to her quest for restoration and care of the Jewish texts, Haroun is pushing for an exhibition of the works that may also function as a fund-raiser for the cost of their documentation and care.
Haroun has asked Minister of Antiquities al-Damaty for organizing an exhibition for Jewish heritage as a resource for funds that could help document or restore the neglected antiquities.
Despite a lack of response from the government, Haroun remains optimistic that the Jewish heritage remaining in Egypt can be preserved for generations to come.
“Tourism is not confined to the Red Sea and Hurghada, what about the tourism in Old Cairo and Alexandria?”