Over the last century, the Jewish population of Egypt has greatly fluctuated. In the year 1922, the number of Jews living in Egypt totaled approximately 80,000. In 2004, the number stood at approximately 100.
By visiting Egypt today, you’ll find an active Jewish community despite this very small population.
During ancient times, a large number of Jews settled in Egypt during the Persian Empire, which took place from 550-330 BC. Within the Bible, it is also documented that a large number of Jews took refuge in Egypt after the fall of the Kingdom of Judah and the assassination of the Jewish governor in 597 BC.
Additional waves of Jewish immigrants settled in Egypt during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, from 400 BC to 641 AD. In 882 AD, a very significant Jewish site in Cairo, Egypt, was founded.
At this time, Abraham Ben Ezra, who came to Egypt from Jerusalem during the reign of Ahmed Ibn, purchased what was then a Christian Church for the amount of 20,000 dinars. The Coptic Christians of Cairo were forced to sell to their church to the Jews in order to pay the annual taxes imposed by the Muslim rulers of the time.
Once the building was converted to a synagogue, it became a place of pilgrimage for North African Jews and the site of major festival celebrations. The famous medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides worshipped at Ben Ezra synagogue when he lived in Cairo.
Today, when you visit the Ben Ezra synagogue, what you’ll see is a result of numerous renovations and restorations that have been completed over the centuries. The first structure collapsed, but a new structure was carefully built to resemble the original. The building that remains today has stood since 1892.
While the Ben Ezra synagogue is no longer a place of worship, it is still an important Jewish landmark, and a place that is certainly worth visiting. It is open to tourists and visitors daily, and is considered to be the most significant Jewish site within Cairo, and perhaps all of Egypt.
Jewish monuments within Egypt are somewhat rare, which is a result of the Suez crisis in 1956, and the war between Israel and Egypt that began in 1967. During this time, Jews living in Egypt were expelled from the country.
One of the most famed attractions at the Ben Ezra synagogue is a marble shrine which contains a rock that, according to local tradition, was prayed before by Moses. The synagogue is decorated with geometric and floral patterns, contains two levels, and many tall windows through which the sun beams brightly during the day.
In addition to Ben Ezra, within the area of Cairo you will find two operating synagogues for the current Jewish population of about 25 people. The Adley synagogue, which is located in downtown Cairo, and the Maadi synagogue, which is located in Maadi, a small town to the south of Cairo.
These two synagogues open alternately for Jewish holidays. The Adley synagogue is open to tourists, and also houses a library of Jewish books.
In Cairo you will also find the Israeli Academic Center, which is the result of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty that stipulated each side was to set up a cultural center in the other’s country.