Cairo, the capital of Egypt, has had a Jewish presence in the city that can be traced to a very early date. Today only six Jews are believed to remain in Cairo.
Fustat (old Cairo) was founded in 641 by the Arab conqueror of Egypt, ʿAmr ibn al-ʿÂṣ, near the Byzantine fortress Babylon. It is almost certain that Jews settled there shortly afterward, or possibly even at the time of its foundation. The town was inhabited by native Egyptian Christians and Yemenite Arabs who had come with the conquering army, and it became the capital of the Muslim rulers of Egypt and rapidly developed into a large city and flourishing economic center, which attracted many immigrants.
At first, the Jewish quarter and the oldest synagogues were situated in the ancient Byzantine stronghold. A Christian source indicates that in 882, during the reign of King Aḥmad ibn Tūlūn, the Coptic patriarch was forced to sell a church in Fustat to the Jews and that it then became a synagogue.
Ancient Jewish quarters in Cairo, from the Fatimid period. After E. Ashtor, Toledot ha-Yehudim be-Miṣrayim ve-Suryah.
During the 10th century, many immigrants arrived from Babylonia, present-day Iraq. This resulted in the formation of two Jewish communities in Fustat - the Palestinian (Jerusalemites, or al-Shāmiyyūn) and the Iraqians (Babylonians, or al-Iraqiyyūn). Each community had its own synagogue and received guidance from the leaders of the yeshivot in Iraq and Palestine.
It is thought that the synagogue of the Palestinian community was the former Coptic Church acquired in 882. Some evidence shows, however, that the newcomers from Iraq acquired the Coptic Church, while the synagogue of the Palestinians was pre-Islamic, as reported by Muslim chroniclers. This synagogue would later become known as the Synagogue of Ezra the Scribe, and it was there that the famous Cairo Genizah was discovered. The synagogue of the Babylonian community was in the same area, as was the synagogue of the Karaites, who had a large community in Fustat by the tenth century.
After the conquest of Egypt by the Fatimid army in 969, the newer town of Cairo was founded north of Fustat. The Jews immediately settled there and built their synagogues. It seems that at first the Jews dwelt in two quarters: al-Jawdariyya in the southern part of the town, south of as-Sikka al-Jadīda Street; and in Zuwayla north of al-Jadīda and between it and Khurunfush Street. The Jews were removed from the al-Jawdariyya quarter by the caliph al-Ḥākim at the beginning of the eleventh century, and after that, they were concentrated in the area north of it, which became known as the Jewish Quarter. The Karaites settled in the eastern section of the quarter, where they remained until modern times. At the end of the tenth century, the community of Cairo became the religious and cultural center of all the communities in Egypt. Shemariah b. Elhanan, a pupil of R. Sherira Gaon, founded a Bet Midrash, which continued to exist after his death in 1011 but did not replace the Palestinian yeshivah till the end of the 11th century when the Crusaders occupied Palestine.
The leaders of Cairo-Fustat in the first half of the 11th century were distinguished scholars. In the Palestinian community, they bore the title ḥaver, and in the Babylonian one, allūf. The Palestinian leader Ephraim b. Shemariah and the Babylonian leader Sahlān b. Abraham wrote both religious and secular poetry. They were in close contact with the geonim of the yeshivot in Palestine and Babylon. Maẓli’aḥ b. Solomonha-Kohen, a member of the Palestinian family that directed the yeshivah in Palestine as gaon, arrived in Cairo during the first half of the 12th century. He tried to found a yeshivah that would replace the Palestinian yeshivah. These efforts continued to exist until the end of the century (see Mann, Texts, 1 (1931), 255ff.). During the second half of the century, the yeshivah was headed by Nethanel b. Moses ha-Levi and later by his brother Sar Shalom ha-Levi.
The 12th-century traveler Benjamin of Tudela relates that when he visited Cairo, there were 7,000 Jews there, but this figure seems to be an exaggeration as there were probably not more than 1,500 Jews in Cairo (see E. Ashtor’s notes in JQR, 50 (1959/60), 57ff.). The second half of the 12th century marked the decline of Fustat.
In 1168, the Egyptians set the town on fire to prevent its seizure by the Crusaders; after its destruction, it was not restored to its former state. While some Jews remained in Fustat, many of them left for the new Cairo. It seems that Maimonides lived in Fustat in the years 1171–1204.
Apparently, his son Abraham and his grandson David still lived in Fustat, but the late negidim from the Maimonides family all lived in New Cairo. It would seem though, that Fustat declined only slowly. Under the rule of the Fatimids until 1171 and the Ayyubids from 1171 to 1250, the Jews enjoyed a certain amount of tolerance, but they suffered many persecutions during the reign of the Mamluks from 1250 to 1517. Naturally, the decrees of the sultans against the non-Muslim communities were at first applied with severity in the capital. Sometimes the non-Muslims of Cairo were the only victims of this persecution, while the Christians and Jews in other places were exempted. These activities were most often directed against the Copts, the largest non-Muslim community in the Egypto-Syrian Mamluk kingdom, and were then extended to the Jews.
In 1265, the Christians of Cairo were accused of setting buildings on fire to avenge the defeat of the Franks by the Muslim rulers of Palestine. According to Muslim chroniclers Sultan Baybars (1233–77) gathered the Christians and Jews of Cairo under the citadel walls and threatened to burn them alive unless they agreed to pay a large sum of money, which they finally did over many years.
In 1301, the general persecution of non-Muslims was renewed; those who suffered most were the Christians and Jews of Cairo. Christian and Jewish houses of prayer were closed down, and some of them were not reopened for many years, though one synagogue reopened in 1310. In 1316, the non-Muslim places of worship were again closed, but they were reopened after a short while. A severe persecution of non-Muslims took place in 1354. According to Muslim authors, there were riots in Cairo during which the fanatical mob destroyed all non-Muslim homes that were higher than the Muslim ones.
During the 15th century, the sultans made even greater efforts to prove their piety by persecuting non-Muslims, and Muslim records of that time give much information on the attacks against Jews and Christians. From time to time, searches for wine were carried out in their neighborhoods, and all the barrels found were poured out into the street. The Muslim fanatics often directed their attention toward the synagogues, accusing the Jews of having built additions to the synagogues, which were forbidden according to Islamic law; detailed searches were carried out, and senseless accusations were brought against them.
In 1442, there was a general investigation of all non-Muslim places of worship to ascertain whether any new portions had been added to the buildings. As a result of the accusation that the Jews had written the name of Muhammad on the floor where the ḥazzan stood, the Muslims destroyed the almemar (pulpit) of a synagogue in Fustat and maltreated the Jews. Later, the Muslim judges decided that a Karaite synagogue and a Rabbinate bet midrash in the Zuwayla neighborhood should be confiscated because they had been private houses that had been turned into places of worship without authorization. Finally, the government demanded a solemn promise from non-Muslims that no alterations would be made in any of their community buildings.
During the reign of Sultan Ināl (1453–1461), after rumors had spread that the non-Muslims had built new places of worship, a further investigation took place. It was only rarely, as in 1473, that the Muslim authorities consented even to the repair of places of worship. During the whole of this period, there existed a relatively powerful Karaite community in Cairo whose relations with the Rabbanites were not always good. A great dispute broke out between the two communities in 1465 when a newly arrived group of Spanish Marranos wanted to join the Karaites. The case was brought before the Muslim authorities, and the son of the sultan tried to use the occasion to extort money from the Jews. However, the case was peacefully concluded; the two communities reached an agreement, and the sultan ordered his son not to interfere with the Jews.
The Mamluk rule not only brought harsh legislation and persecution on the Jews of Cairo but also barred most of them from commerce in spices and other Indian and Far Eastern products, which had become the monopoly of a wealthy group of merchants. The economic status of the Jews, who had been a middle class of artisans and merchants under the Fatimids and Ayyubids, was now undermined, even though there remained a small privileged group employed in the royal mint and in banking affairs.
Meshullam of Volterra, who was in Egypt in 1481, reports that at that time there were 800 Jewish households in Cairo, in addition to 150 Karaite and 50 Samaritan families. R. Obadiah of Bertinoro, who visited Cairo in 1488, reports 500 Rabbanite families, 100 Karaite, and 50 Samaritan. According to the Muslim chronicler al-Maqrīzī (d. 1442), there were five synagogues in the new Cairo in the first half of the 15th century: two belonged to the Rabbanites, two to the Karaites, and one to the Samaritans.
At the beginning of the 16th century, many refugees came from Spain. Three distinct congregations were then formed: Mustaʿrabs (native Arabic-speaking Jews), Maghribim (Jews of North African origin), and Spanish. Among these congregations, each of which had its own bet din and charitable institutions, there was occasional conflict, such as the great dispute of 1527 between the Mustaʿrabs and the Maghribim over precedents in the common synagogue. The Spanish exiles surpassed the other communities, both in Jewish scholarship and generally; their scholars were even appointed as rabbis in the other communities. Such was the case with R. Joseph Iskandari, who, although of Spanish origin, became rabbi of the Mustaʿrabs. Generally, in the course of time, the Mustaʿrabs accepted the customs of the Spanish Jews in their prayers, while in time, the descendants of the Spanish exiles became assimilated with the majority of the Jewish population and, to a great extent, stopped speaking Spanish.
During the 16th century, eminent scholars filled the rabbinical positions of Cairo. Most of them were of Spanish origin, but their halakhic decisions were universally accepted. During the first half of that century R. David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra was the foremost rabbinical author in Cairo. R. Moses b. Isaac Alashkar and R. Jacob Berab were his contemporaries. After Ibn Abi Zimra emigrated to Palestine, R. Bezalel Ashkenazi became the recognized authority. During the second half of the century, R. Jacob Castro, R. Ḥayyim Kafusi, and R. Solomon di Trani lived in Cairo.
The Turks, who conquered Egypt in 1517, did not usually interfere with the Jews in religious matters. Nevertheless, there were occasions when they were influenced by the accusations of the Muslim fanatics, as in 1545 when the central synagogue was closed down and not reopened until 1548. Also, Muslim mobs often attacked Jewish funeral processions on their way to the cemetery in Basātīn, some distance from the town. As a result, the dead were sometimes buried without procession, or the funerals were held at night, and at other times Muslim guards were hired. However, the greatest oppression of the Jews was economic.
On the one hand, the Turkish governors delegated financial administration, such as the operation of the mint and the collection of taxes and customs to Jews, but on the other hand, they were jealous of the wealth of these Jewish bankers and from time to time maltreated them. The first such case occurred in 1524, when Governor Ahmed Pasha extorted a large sum of money from Abraham Castro, the director of the mint, and threatened to slaughter all the Jews of Cairo unless they provided him with a large sum of money. However, on the day appointed for payment, he was killed by some soldiers who opposed his plan to rebel against the sultan. This day of salvation was commemorated as an annual Purim Miẓrayim (“Purim of Egypt”).
Often false accusations were brought against the Çelebis (treasury officials of the governors, who were also Jewish community leaders), and several of them were executed. Others were executed without any pretext. Many Cairo Jews who were closely related to these wealthy officials also suffered greatly. The tyranny and extortion of the Turkish governors worsened during the 17th and 18th centuries, and the process of decline and corruption in the Turkish government also had an effect on the condition of the large community in the capital of Egypt.
The standard of Jewish learning fell, even though some of the community’s rabbis were eminent halakhic authorities. The most important rabbis were the following: in the 17th century, Isaac Castro, Samuel Vital (the son of R. Ḥayyim Vital), Mordecai ha-Levi and his son Abraham; in the 18th century, Solomon Algazi; and in the 19th century, Moses Algazi, Elijah Israel, his cousin Moses, and Raphael Aaron Ben Simeon, author of the works Tuv Miẓrayim and Nehar Miẓrayim.
In independent Egypt under Muhammad Ali (1805–48) a new era of development for the Jewish community began. In 1840, Moses Montefiore, Adolphe Crémieux, and Solomon Munk visited Cairo and founded schools in which Jewish youth were educated according to European standards. The economic development of Egypt attracted Jews from other Mediterranean countries, many of whom settled in Cairo. Even so, the number of Jews did not exceed 4,000 until the middle of the 19th century. In 1882, there were 5,000 Jews in Cairo, and by 1897, 10,000, including 1,000 Karaites. In 1917, there were approximately 29,000 Jews. Among these immigrants, there were some Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who founded their own synagogue but also collaborated with the existing community.
The economic situation of the Jewish community improved, and many of its members, such as the Suarez, Mosseri, and Cicurel families, prospered in commerce and banking. The greater part of the community moved from the ancient Jewish quarter and built houses in the newer districts of Zamālik, Heliopolis, and the “Garden City.” The Jews became active in public affairs, and some of them were appointed to the legislative assemblies and government institutions. R. Yom Tov Israel was appointed to the Legislative Assembly by Khedive Ismail Pasha, and Jacob Cattaui became the Khedive’s private banker and the chief revenue officer of Egypt. His son Joseph became minister of finance in 1923, while another son Moses was president of the Cairo community for 40 years. Chief Rabbi Haim Nahoum was appointed a member of the Egyptian Academy of Science in 1925.
The Zionist movement found supporters among the Jews of Cairo. From the beginning of the 20th century, Zionist societies and newspapers were established in the city. In 1900, the weekly newspaper Miẓrayim (“Egypt”) was published in Ladino; in 1907–08, the Yiddish periodical Die Zeit appeared, and in 1908 the French weekly L’Aurore was founded. The last appeared until World War II. In 1919, the French weekly Israel was founded, and in 1939, it amalgamated with the La Tribune Juive, which was published in Alexandria until 1948. From 1934 to 1948, there was also an Arab weekly, al-Shams. The Karaite community published the Arabic weekly al-Kalīm from 1945.
The first Hebrew printing press in Cairo, which was also the first one in the whole Middle East outside of Palestine, was founded in 1657 by Gershom b. Eliezer Soncino. He was the last printer of a famous family of printers; he had previously worked in his father’s press in Constantinople. Two of his books printed that year are known: Refu’ot ha-Talmud, a book of remedies, and Pitron Ḥalomot (“Interpretation of Dreams”) attributed to R. Hai Gaon. A second printing press was founded in Cairo in 1740 by Abraham b. Moses Yatom, who had also previously worked as a printer in Constantinople. He printed only one book, the first edition of Ḥok le-Yisrael, edited by R. Isaac Baruch of Cairo. This work was later reprinted in many editions. The renewal of Hebrew printing in Cairo took place in 1905, and after that year, there were five Hebrew printing presses. They were principally used for commercial purposes, with the printing of books as a secondary activity. Up to World War II, they printed over 50 books, most of which served the needs of the Egyptian communities or were the works of authors living in Egypt.
According to the 1947 population census in Egypt, there were 41,860 Jews in Cairo (constituting 64% of Egyptian Jewry), of whom 58.8% were merchants, and 17.9% were in industry. Although it contained a few wealthy Jews, the Cairo community was poorer than that of Alexandria. After the arrests of Cairo Jews in 1948–49 and the deportations of 1956–57, only 5,587 Jews remained, according to the census of 1960.
In 1968, after the Six-Day War, the population numbered only about 1,500 and by 1970 had dwindled to a few hundred. At the beginning of the 21st century, fewer than 200 remained, mostly elderly and poor. While some inhabited the Jewish quarter in the older part of the town, most Jews lived in mixed neighborhoods, particularly in the new suburb of Heliopolis.
In 1948, riots broke out as a result of the UN decision to partition Palestine, which was a tremendous political defeat for the Arab League. A mob was aroused and joined by shouting gangs of students in attacks on Jews and Jewish property and businesses. In December of the same year, the Arab League met in Cairo to consider its defeat against the background of vast demonstrations. Afterward reports leaked out of Egypt that in August, 150 Jews had been murdered in a particularly violent pogrom during which three rabbis were killed in Cairo’s slaughterhouse. The real estate of many Jews was confiscated and transferred to the administration of a trustee for confiscated Jewish property (this occurred again after the Sinai Campaign in 1956). Many Jewish shops and businesses were damaged during the rioting of January 1952, when property valued at £10,000,000 – including the Jewish school in the ʿAbbāsiyya quarter and the chain of stores belonging to the Cicurel family – was destroyed or stolen. The chairman of the Cairo Community Council, Salvador Cicurel, resigned in protest against the rioting, returning to his post only in January 1953.
Mass arrests of Egyptian Jews began in June and July 1954. Those arrested, numbering about 100, were brought to two concentration camps. Many of the inmates of these camps were subsequently released, and only a minority of 10 to 15 were brought to trial. Much attention was attracted to the trial of 13 Jews charged with spying for Israel. The trial was opened on Dec. 11, 1954, and the court concluded its sessions on Jan. 5, 1955. Two defendants were condemned to death, two others received life sentences, and the rest were sentenced to imprisonment (see Moshe Marzouk; The Lavon Affair).
In late 1956, Cicurel left Egypt and was succeeded as chairman of the Cairo Community Council by Albert Romano. The council administered the institutions of the community, which included schools (four in 1954 containing 700 pupils) and a hospital. The government confiscated the hospital in November 1956 and agreed to pay an annual rent to the council, which was also responsible for the charitable organizations and synagogues. Ashkenazi Jews had their own council, synagogues, and charitable organizations. The 3,105 Karaites living in Cairo in 1947 had dwindled to only a few hundred by 1968. Cairo’s chief rabbi, Haim Nahoum, was also the chief rabbi of the country; upon his death in 1960, he was succeeded by Ḥayyim Duwayk, who left in 1972.
A Rosh Hashanah service was held in September 2019 at Sha’ar Hashamaim synagogue led by the wife of Thomas Goldberger, U.S, chief of mission and chargé d’affaires in Egypt. Approximately 50 people attended, most diplomats or visitors. The Israeli diplomatic staff maintains the synagogue.
In July 2019, Marcelle Haroun, mother of the current president of Cairo’s Jewish community, died at the age of 93. The five remaining Jews are her daughter, Magda, and four granddaughters.
In August 2023, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, where the Geniza originally was located, was reopened after a lengthy period of restoration. Tourism Minister Ahmed Issa said the Ben Ezra Synagogue is “one of the most important and oldest synagogues in Egypt.” It is one of only five synagogues remaining in Egypt.
Mann, Egypt; Ashtor, Toledot; J.M. Landau, Jews in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (1969); Ben-Ze’ev, in: Sefunot, 1 (1956), 7–24; A. Yaari, Ha-Defus ha-Ivri be-Arẓot ha-Mizraḥ, 1 (1937), 53–55, 57–67; idem, in: KS, 24 (1947/48), 67–69; H.D. Friedberg, Toledot ha-Defus ha-Ivri be-Italyah ve-Togarmah, 2 (1956), 45; Cowley, in: Festschrift… A. Freimann (1935), 89f. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, 6 vols. (1967–93); Y. Meital, Jewish Sites in Egypt (1995); E. Bareket, Fustat on the Nile (1999).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Rossella Tercatin, “Cairo Jewish Community Celebrates Rosh Hashanah,” Jerusalem Post, (October 3, 2019);
Marcy Oster, “Only 5 Jews Left In Cairo Following Death Of Jewish Community President,” JTA, (July 9, 2019);
Declan Walsh and Ronen Bergman, “A Bittersweet Homecoming for Egypt’s Jews,” New York Times, (February 23, 2020).
Amy Spiro, “Egyptian synagogue once home to famed ‘Cairo Geniza’ completes extensive renovation,” Times of Israel, (August 31, 2023).