Egypt Virtual Jewish History Tour
Egypt, centered along the banks of the River Nile from the Mediterranean coast southward, is a land rich in both biblical and contemporary Jewish history. A Jewish community continuously functioned in Egypt from the First Temple Period (1000-586 BCE) to the 20th century. In 1948, the Jewish population of Egypt reached as high as 75,000. Today, the Jewish community numbers approximately 16, ten in Alexandria and six in Cairo.
Learn More - Cities of Egypt:
The Hellenistic Period
The Roman Period
Second Temple Period to Muslim Conquest
The Arab Period
The Hellenistic Period
Egyptian Jewry traced its history back to the time of Jeremiah (Letter of Aristeas, 35), but it was not until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E. that the second great wave of Jewish emigration to Egypt began. Alexander’s successors in Egypt, the Ptolemid dynasty, attracted many Jews early in their reign to settle in Egypt as tradesmen, farmers, mercenaries, and government officials. During their reign Egyptian Jewry enjoyed both tolerance and prosperity. They became significant in culture and literature, and by the first century C.E., accounted for an eighth of the population of Egypt. The majority of the Jews of Egypt lived, as the Greeks, in Alexandria, but there were also very many in the ehora, the provincial districts outside Alexandria.
Ptolemy I Soter (323–283) took a large number of Jewish prisoners of war in Palestine and forcibly settled them as mercenaries in Egypt to hold down the native Egyptians (ibid., 36).
On Ptolemy I’s retreat from Palestine many Jews fled with him to Egypt, where they found a haven of tolerance. Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283–44) emancipated the Jews taken captive by his father and settled them on the land as cleruchs or in “Jew-Camps” as Jewish military units. He was remembered by the Jews of Egypt as having instigated the translation of the Septuagint (see Letter of Aristeas ; Bible : Greek translation). Since Manetho ‘s antisemitic work was written in his reign there must have been a fair number of Jews already in Egypt.
Ptolemy III Euergetes (246–221) was said to have been favorably disposed toward the Jews and to have respected their religion. Two facts confirm this. One is the number of Jews who settled in the nome of Arsinoe ( Faiyum ) in his reign, and the other is the synagogue inscription dedicated to him, declaring that he granted the rights of asylum to the synagogues (Frey, Corpus 2 pp. 374–6). There is also a synagogue inscription from Schedia, which was also probably dedicated to him (Reinach in REJ, 14 (1902), 161–4).
Ptolemy IV Philopator (221–203) attempted to institute a massacre of the Jews of Alexandria in 217 B.C.E., but was later reconciled with them (III Macc. 5–6). During the reign of Ptolemy VI Philometor (181–145) a marked change took place. Ptolemy VI won Jewish favor by opening up the whole of Egypt to the Jews, on whom he relied, as well as by receiving Jewish exiles from Palestine such as Onias IV, to whom he granted land to build a temple at Leontopolis (c. 161 B.C.E.; Jos., Wars 1:33). The Jewish philosopher Aristobulus of Paneas was said to have advised him on Jewish affairs, and he appointed two Jews, Onias and Dositheos, to high military posts (Jos., Apion, 2:49). During the struggles of Cleopatra III (116–101) with her son Ptolemy IX Lathyros (116–80) the Jews of Egypt sided with the Queen, thus earning her esteem but alienating the Greek population from them (Ant. 13:287). She appointed two Jewish brothers, Ananias and Helkias, as commanders of her army.
Social & Economic Developments
Most of the Jews who settled in the chora were either farmers or artisans. The Ptolemies did not generally trust the native Egyptians and encouraged the Jews to enter three professions:
(a) the army, where, as other nationalities in Egypt, they were allowed to lease plots of land from the king (called cleruchies), and were granted tax reductions;
(b) the police force, in which Jews reached high ranks (cf. the Jewish district chief of police in Frey, Corpus, 2, p. 370); and,
(c) tax collecting (a government executive job) and sometimes in the chora, tax farming (a government administrative post; see Tcherikover, Corpus nos. 107, 109, 110).
Others were managers in the royal banks or administrators (ibid., nos. 99–103, from middle of second century B.C.E.). In Alexandria there was a greater diversity of occupations and some Jews prospered in trade and commerce.
Early in the third century B.C.E. synagogues were founded in Egypt. They are known to have existed at Alexandria, Schedia (third century B.C.E.), Alexandrou Nesou (third century B.C.E.), Crocodilopolis-Arsinoe (three: third century B.C.E., second century B.C.E., and second century C.E.), Xenephyris (second century B.C.E.), Athribis (two: third or second century B.C.E.), and Nitriae (second century B.C.E.). They were usually called προσευχή or εὐχεῖον (from the Greek euche = prayer), and tablets were often erected dedicating the synagogue to the king and the royal family.
At first the Jewish immigrants spoke only Aramaic, and documents from the third century and the first half of the second century B.C.E. show a widespread knowledge of Aramaic and Hebrew (cf. Frey, Corpus 2, pp. 356, 365). But from the second century on there was a rapid Hellenization. Documents were written in Greek, the Pentateuch was read in the synagogue with the Septuagint translation, and even such a writer as Philo probably knew no or little Hebrew. At first the Egyptian Jews transliterated their names into Greek, or adopted Greek names that sounded like Hebrew ones (e.g., Alcimus for Eliakim, or Jason for Joshua), but later they often adopted Greek equivalents of Hebrew names (e.g., Dositheos for Jonathan, Theodoras for Jehonathan). Gradually Egyptian Jewry adopted any Greek name (even those of foreign gods), and among the Zeno Letters only 25% of the names are Hebrew.
In the chora the Hellenization was not so strong, but there the Jews were influenced by the native Egyptians. Documents testify to Egyptian names among the Jews, and sometimes to an ignorance of Greek (presumably these Jews spoke Egyptian). However, the chora Jews were more observant of the Sabbath and dietary laws than those of Alexandria.
The relations between Greek and Jew was on the whole good under the Ptolemies. The Jews often sought to explain Judaism to the Greeks (cf. Aristobulus of Paneas, Philo, and others). They tried to enter the Greek gymnasium which was a sign of the cultured Greek. Cases of actual apostasy were rare; that of Dositheos, son of Drimylos, who renounced Judaism to enter court, was exceptional (III Macc. 1:3).
It used to be thought that the Jews were given equal rights with the Greeks by Alexander the Great, and that they called themselves Macedonians (Wars, 2:487–88). This has been disproved by papyri where it appears that only Jews or Jewish military units, who were incorporated into Macedonian units, were termed “Macedonians” (compare Tcherikover, Corpus nos. 142 line 3 with no. 143). Since the population registered its name and racial origin, each nationality in Egypt formed a separate group through the Ptolemid period. The Jews, unlike the Greeks, were not granted a politeia (rights of free citizenship), but received a politeuma (a constitution by which they had the right to observe their ancestral laws). Individual Jews were granted citizenship occasionally by the polis or the king, or by managing to register in a gymnasium. These, however, were exceptions. From the papyri of Faiyum and Oxyrhynchus it seems that the majority of Jews did not use the right of recourse to Jewish courts, but attended Greek ones even in cases of marriage or divorce. The head of the Jewish community in Alexandria was the ethnarch , while in the chora elders held sway.
Toward the end of the Ptolemid period Jewish-Greek relations steadily worsened. The Greeks, supported by the Egyptians, were struggling to strengthen the power of the polis, while the Jews supported the Ptolemids, first Cleopatra III (see above), and then Ptolemy XIII and Gabinius in 55 B.C.E. Papyri of 58 B.C.E. recorded some unrest in Egypt of an antisemitic nature (e.g., Tcherikover, Corpus no. 141). Josephus records that Julius Caesar was aided by Jewish clerics in Egypt when Antipater brought reinforcements from Palestine. In return for this Caesar is said to have reaffirmed the citizenship of the Alexandrian Jews in 47 B.C.E. (Ant., 14:131, 188–96).
The Roman Period
The new administration under Augustus at first was grateful to the Jews for their support (cf. the stele of their rights set up in Alexandria; Jos., Ant. 14:188), but generally it relied on the Greeks of Alexandria for help, which fact caused a great rift between the Jews and the rest of the population early in their rule. Augustus disbanded the Ptolemaic army and abolished the tax-collection system about 30 B.C.E. Both of these acts caused great economic hardships for the Jews. Few of them joined or were permitted to join the Roman army in Egypt (an exception being a centurion of 116 C.E., in Tcherikover, Corpus no. 229). Jewish tax collectors were mostly replaced by Greek government officials. The cursus honorum was closed to Jews unless they renounced their religion, which most refused to do (an exception being Tiberius Julius Alexander, prefect of Egypt). Jewish civil rights (politeuma) were endangered by Augustus’ revision of the constitution of Egypt. Three classes were created:
(a) the upper class of Romans, priests, Greek citizens of Alexandria, Naucratis, and Ptolemais, and those who had registered in the gymnasium;
(b) Egyptians, the lowest class, who paid a burdensome poll tax; and
(c) the middle class metropolitae (i.e., half-Greeks who lived in the chora), who paid the poll tax at a reduced rate.
Augustus placed the Jew in the lowest class, forced to pay the tax. This was a blow to Jewish pride, for besides those few individual Jewish families who had received the distinction of Greek citizenship, the vast majority of Jews could no longer register in the gymnasia and had to pay the poll tax.
From that time began a long struggle by the Alexandrian Jews to confirm their rights. The works of writers such as Josephus (Contra Apionem) and Philo (Vita Moysis 1:34) contain a defense of Alexandrian Jews’ rights. The Greeks in turn approached Augustus suggesting that they would keep all non-Greeks out of the gymnasia, if he, in turn, would abolish the privileges of the Jews. Augustus refused and confirmed the Jewish ancestral rights, to the intense anger of the Greeks. Augustus abolished the post of ethnarch of Alexandria in 10–12 C.E., replacing it by a gerusia of elders.
The Greeks of Alexandria seized their opportunity with the rise of the pro-Hellenic emperor, Caius Caligula in 37 C.E. The following year they stormed the synagogues, polluted them, and set up statues of the emperor within. The prefect, Valerius Flaccus , was embarrassed and dared not remove the images of Caesar. The Jews were shut up in a ghetto and their houses plundered. Philo, who wrote In Flaccum and De Legatione on the affair, headed a Jewish delegation to Caligula to complain, but was dismissed with derision. On the assassination of Caligula in 41 C.E. the Jews of Alexandria took vengeance by instigating a massacre of the Greeks.
The new emperor, Claudius , issued an edict in favor of the Jews in 41 C.E., abolishing the restrictions imposed at the time of the pogrom of 38 C.E., but he banned the Jews from entering the gymnasia, and refused them Greek citizenship. Much antisemitic material was written at this period in Egypt, e.g., Apion ‘s works, and the Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs .
Consequently the Jews closed their ranks and became more self-conscious of their Jewish heritage. Such works were written as III Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon . The Jews also tended to live closer together, though no ghettos were imposed.
In 66 C.E. the Alexandrians, in debating about a delegation to be sent to Nero, presumably to complain about the Jews, discovered several Jewish spies among themselves. Three were caught and burnt alive. The Jews rose in revolt and tried to burn the Greeks in their amphitheater, and Tiberius Julius Alexander, the prefect, crushed them mercilessly, killing more than were slain in the pogrom of 38 C.E. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. Onias’ Temple at Leontopolis was destroyed and the fiscus judaicus imposed. However, the Egyptian Jews had to pay more than other Jews, because the Egyptian calendar provided that they pay in the first year of the fiscus (71 C.E.), two years in arrears instead of one year, as other Jews. It is estimated that they paid that year 27 million Egyptian drachmae in taxes.
In 115 the great revolt of the Jews of Egypt, Cyrene, and Cyprus occurred (see Trajan ). The revolt was immediately crushed in Alexandria, by Marcus Rutilius Lupus, but it continued in the chora with the help of the Jews of Cyrene (in centers as Thebes, Faiyum, and Athribis). Marcius Turbo was sent by the emperor to deal with the situation, and crushed the revolt in 117. Much of Alexandria was destroyed and the revolt resulted in the virtual annihilation of Egyptian Jewry. From that time on Jews almost vanish from the chora. In Alexandria the great synagogue was destroyed, large tracts of Jewish-owned land in Heracleapolis and Oxyrhynchus were confiscated, and Jewish courts were suspended. The causes of the revolt suggested are the antisemitism of the local Greeks, and the “messianic” movement centered around Lucuas of Cyrene. The revolt spelled the end of Jewish life in Egypt for a long time. From 117 to 300 only a few Jewish names occur among the peasants in the chora.
Second Temple Period to Muslim Conquest
The defeat suffered by the Jews, both in Ereẓ Israel under Bar Kokhba and in the quelling of the rebellion in Egypt during the years 116–117 C.E. almost crushed the Jewish communities in Egypt, especially in Alexandria. The evidence from the papyri of the presence of a large, cohesive community in Egypt, found rather abundantly before 70 C.E, diminishes, until after the year 200 C.E. it becomes almost negligible. The territory of Egypt was still a marked battleground for imperial ambitions and rebellions during this later period of the Roman Empire. The revolt of the Βουκολοι (herdsmen) and its aftermath, finally settled by the emperor Septimus Severus (194 C.E.), left the country with its agriculture almost ruined and burdened with heavy taxes. During the latter half of the third century Egypt was again racked with internal dispute. Finally, Diocletian brought a period of relative peace to the land, reorganizing the territory into three, and later four, provinces. The later history of Egypt under the Byzantine emperors is closely tied up with the growth and predominance there of hitherto persecuted Christianity.
Centered as it was in Alexandria, Christianity in Egypt inherited some of the classical antisemitism of the city. Clement of Alexandria mentions (Stromata, 3:63; 2:45.5) the fact that there existed in the primitive church there two “Gospels,” an “Egyptian Gospel” and a “Hebrew Gospel” – evidence of the dichotomy in the early church between gentile and Jewish Christianity, the latter being characterized in Egypt by a Gnostic tendency. By 150 C.E., however, both Orthodox and Gnostic Christianity found themselves allied with regard to the Jews. Basilides, an Alexandrian Gnostic at the end of the second century, tried to stress in Gnostic terms that Christianity is to be completely dissociated from its Jewish ancestry. An early work called the Epistle of Barnabas (c. 135 C.E.) argued for the abrogation by God of the Old Covenant (Old Testament) and the preference for an allegorical and “spiritual” interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, a tendency later adopted by Clement of Alexandria and the exegetical school of the Alexandrian, Origen (d. 253 C.E.). Another early work, found only in citations, the Kerygma Petrou, accused the Jews of angel and star worship.
Some of the knowledge of the Jews in these times is derived from Christian sources. The martyrologies of the time, as a matter of style, brought in the Jews as the accusers. Generally though, as Baron reports (Social2, 2 (1952), 188), the early Christians got along with their Jewish neighbors. Indeed, toward 300 C.E., Jewish names begin to appear more frequently in the papyri, giving witness to a renewal of activity. There are even some Hebrew fragments found at Oxyrhynchus which speak of rashei (“heads”), benei (“members”), and ziknei (“elders”) of the keneset (“the community”; Cowley, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 2 (1915), 209ff.). An interesting feature of the Greek papyri of this period is the appearance of the name “Sambathion” among both Jews and non-Jews, giving testimony to the great respect given the Sabbath among the Egyptians (for a fuller discussion cf. Tcherikover, Corpus, 3 (1964), 43–56). It is true that the Jews did support the Arians in their disputes with orthodox Christianity, and patristic literature placed the Jews together with the heretics and pagans as the hated enemies of the church. This attitude later became codified into law by the Codices of the emperors Theodosius and Justinian. A pogrom and expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria by the patriarch Cyril occurred in 415 C.E. Whether or not this expulsion was fully carried out is still a moot point, since later Christian literature points to the fact that Jews were still living there (M. Chaine, in Mélanges de la Faculté orientale de l’Université Saint-Joseph, Beyrouth, 6 (1913), 493ff.). The Persian conquest seemed to be especially helpful to the Jews in Egypt, since they were able to receive those Jews persecuted in Syria by the emperor Heraclius. The Arab conquest in 632 saw the beginning of a new regime.
The Arab Period
There is little information available concerning the condition of the Jews from the Arab conquest in 640 until the end of the tenth century. In Fostat, founded by the conqueror of Egypt, ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ, a relatively large community was established, while the Jewish population probably also grew in other Egyptian cities. Ahmad ibn Ṭūlūn (ninth century), the first independent ruler of Egypt under the Muslims, seems to have favored the Jews. The historian al-Masʿūdī relates that he had a Jewish physician. Documents found in the Cairo Genizah of Fostat give evidence of the commercial ties between the Jews of Egypt and those of Kairouan (Tunisia) during the second half of the tenth century.
The Jews of Egypt also renewed their relations with the major academies of Babylonia. It is significant for the high standard of Jewish learning in Egypt itself that Saadiah Gaon (born in Faiyum in 882) acquired his widespread culture there. At that time many Babylonian Jews settled in the principal Egyptian cities and established communities with their own synagogue and bet din. They also maintained a close relationship with the academies in their country of origin. Students traveled there to study, and religious and judicial queries were addressed to the heads of the Babylonian academies. The Palestinian and Syrian Jews who settled in Egypt acted in the same manner. They established Palestinian communities and synagogues, and they recognized the heads of the Palestinian academies, to whom they gave their material support, as their spiritual leaders. The activities of Saadiah Gaon prove the presence of large numbers of Karaites in Egypt at the time. It seems that during the ninth and tenth centuries, there was still a variety of sects in Egypt. The work Kitāb al-Anwār wa-al-Marāqib ("The Book of Lights and Watch Towers") by al-Kirkisānī , in 936 (L. Nemoy (ed.), 1 (1939), 12), mentions a sect which observed Sunday as a day of rest instead of Saturday. Members of this sect lived on the bank of the Nile, some 20 miles from Fostat (Bacher, in: JQR, 7 (1894/95) 704).
A change in the condition of the Jews occurred with the conquest of the country by the Fatimids in 969. After the conquest by this dynasty of Shiʿites which was in rivalry with the Abbasīd caliphs, Egypt became the center of a vast and powerful kingdom, which, at the end of the tenth century, included almost all of North Africa, Syria , and Palestine . The union of all these countries brought a period of prosperity in industry and commerce from which the Jews also benefited. Of even greater importance was the characteristically tolerant attitude adopted by the Fatimids toward non-Muslim communities. They did not insist on the observance of the decrees of discrimination, such as the wearing of a distinctive sign on the garments; they permitted the construction and repair of non-Muslim houses of prayer, and they even accorded financial support to the academies in Palestine. In the court of al-Muʿizz (d. 975) and his son al-ʿAzīz (975–996), a Jew converted to Islam, Yaʿqūb Ibn Killis , occupied an important position and was finally appointed vizier. He was the first to hold this post under the reign of the Fatimids in Egypt. There were also Jewish physicians in the service of al-Muʿizz. The third Fatimid caliph, al-Ḥākim (996–1020), founder of the Druze sect and a controversial personality, departed from the policy of tolerance toward non-Muslims, which was characteristic of his dynasty, during the second half of his reign. At first, he ordered that the Christians and Jews mark their clothes with the ghiyār ("distinctive sign"; see Jewish Badge ); later, he issued orders for the destruction of their houses of prayer. He also prohibited Christians and Jews from riding horses and purchasing slaves and maidservants. Many Christians and Jews converted to Islam in order to escape these degrading decrees, while others emigrated to different countries, such as Yemen and Byzantium . However, after some time, al-Ḥākim revoked his decrees and authorized the converts to return to their former religion.
In 1036, the grandson of al-Ḥākim, al-Mustanṣir, ascended to the throne. A Jewish merchant, who had previously sold al-Mustanṣir's mother to the caliph al-Ẓāhir, then wielded much influence in the court. This merchant Abu Saʿd (in Hebrew, Abraham b. Yashar) was also named "al-Tustari" after his city of origin in Persia. He and his brother, Abu Naṣr Ḥesed, endeavored to protect their coreligionists by all available means. According to one opinion, Abu Saʿd and his brother were Rabbanites, while according to another they were Karaites . In 1047 Abu Saʿd was killed, as was his brother, Abu Naṣr, some time later. The economic stratification of Egyptian Jewry during the Fatimid period was very diversified. According to the lists of taxpayers and of charitable donators (such as the one published by E. Strauss in Zion, 7 (1941/42), 142ff.), the majority were engaged in various trades and a minority in commerce. At that time, the transit trade of products from India and the Far East became an important source of income in Egypt and the Jews played an active role in this commerce. The Fatimid government encouraged these commercial ties with India and protected the seaways and overland routes. The friendly attitude of the Fatimids was also expressed by the granting of a large degree of autonomy to the merchants.
At the beginning of their rule, the office of nagid was established. The first nagid seems to have been a physician in the service of the caliph al-Muʿizz. In later generations, the office of nagid was also filled by men employed in the court, especially as court physicians. The Fatimid dynasty began to weaken at the end of the 11th century, but the condition of the Jews did not worsen. A Jewish family which during several generations produced scholars and physicians held high positions at the royal court at that time. Judah b. Saadiah was probably court physician and from 1065 acted as nagid. He was followed by his younger brother Mevorakh , who was also court physician and nagid from 1079–1110. During his period of office David b. Daniel b. Azariah, a scion of a family of Babylonian exilarchs, arrived in Egypt. David made an effort to secure the leadership of the Jewish population and succeeded in deposing Mevorakh for a short while. Moses, the elder son of Mevorakh, was nagid from 1110–1140. At that period a Christian favorite of the regent al-Afḍal endeavored to remove the Jews from government service (see Neubauer, in JQR, 9 (1896/97), 29–30). Fragments from the Genizah mention another enemy who plotted against the Jews until Yakhin b. Nethanel, who was influential in the royal court, succeeded in saving them. On the other hand, Abu al-Munajjā , one of the Jewish courtiers, was responsible for the administration of the "Eastern" province. In the middle of the 12th century Samuel b. Hananiah was court physician. He was a distinguished scholar and also acted as nagid from 1142 to 1159. His poems in honor of his guest, Judah Halevi , are well known.
During this period the Jews of Egypt prospered in every sphere. Benjamin of Tudela , who was in Egypt in c. 1171, gives much information concerning the prevailing conditions in the communities he visited. On the basis of his information and other relevant data, the number of Jews in Egypt at that time has been estimated at between 12,000 and 20,000 (see Neustadt-Ayalon in Zion, 2 (1937), 221; Ashtor, in JQR, 50 (1959/60), 60 and JJS, 18 (1967), 9–42; 19 (1968), 1–22). After the death of Samuel b. Hananiah, there was a crisis within the Jewish community of Egypt. An ambitious individual named Zuta , who succeeded in being appointed nagid for a short while during the lifetime of Samuel b. Hananiah, exploited his connections to secure the office for a second time, after Samuel's death, and later a third time. As a result of Zuta's activities, the prestige attached to the office of nagid declined and for a long time there was no new appointment. At that time the heads of the Fostat academy became the leading authorities of Egyptian Jewry; an academy had existed in Fostat from at least the end of the tenth century. During the reign of al-Ḥākim the academy in the Egyptian capital was headed by Shemariah b. Elhanan , who had studied in Babylonia in his youth. He was succeeded by his son, Elhanan b. Shemariah . During the first half of the 12th century, Maẓli'aḥ b. Solomon Ha-Kohen , a member of the family of the Palestinian academy heads, arrived in Egypt. He founded an academy in Fostat, whose leaders were referred to as geonim. They appointed dayyanim and gave authority to their activities. The authority of these geonim was recognized even outside Egypt, especially in South Arabia and Aden . In the early 1150s Abu Saʿīd Joshua b. Dosa headed the academy in Fostat.
With the end of the Fatimid dynasty, orthodox Islam again became the official religion in Egypt. Saladin (Salāḥal-Dīn) and his successors made their religiosity conspicuous and, among other actions, Saladin renewed the discriminatory decrees against the non-Muslim communities. However, both he and his successors were by no means fanatical and they did not persecute non-Muslims. His successors, the Ayyubids , who reigned in Egypt until 1250, followed the same policy. Communal life was well organized and cultural activities were maintained. During this period a number of scholars from Christian countries settled in Egypt and took an active part in the communal life. They included Anatoli b. Joseph and Joseph b. Gershon from France, who became dayyanim in Alexandria. Moses Maimonides spent most of his life in Cairo, where he played a leading role in the life of the community. His son, Abraham b. Moses , acted officially as nagid after the death of his father in 1205 until his own death in 1237. He had an independent mind and was also a halakhic authority, as can be seen from the numerous legal questions which were addressed to him.
In the middle of the 13th century the Mamluks came to power in Egypt. The entire political regime was changed and a decisive change in the condition of the Jews also took place. These rulers were the leaders of the foreign Turkish soldiery of which the army was exclusively composed, and they tried to enhance their position and to curry favor with the Muslim native population by emphasizing their piety and by introducing a series of measures directed against the non-Muslim communities. The first Mamluks declared total war against the Crusaders. They found it necessary to encourage religious fervor in order to succeed in their efforts. Thus, the Mamluk rule was accompanied by a series of decrees and persecutions against the Christians and Jews, which continued until the Mamluks were deposed by the Ottomans. The ancient discriminatory laws were brought back into prominence and new ones were also instituted. These activities were primarily directed against the Copts, the most powerful non-Muslim community in the Mamluk kingdom, but even so the Jews suffered considerably. On the other hand, Jewish communal organization in Egypt was not abolished and its autonomy was mostly maintained. The decrees against non-Muslims were introduced during the first generation of the Mamluk rule. In 1290 Sultan Qalāwūn issued an order which prohibited the employment of Jews and Christians in government and ministerial departments. This order was reissued during the reign of his son and successor, al-Malik al-Ashraf Khalīl (1290–1293).
In 1301, there was a large-scale persecution. The Christians were compelled to cover their turbans with a blue cloth, the Jews with a yellow one, and the Samaritans with a red one. The authorities renewed the prohibition of riding horses and also forbade the building of houses higher than those of the Muslims. On this occasion the Jewish and Christian houses of prayer in Cairo were closed down. In 1354 there was an even graver persecution. The cause for it was again attributed by Arab historians to the haughtiness of the Christian officials. There were attacks on non-Muslims in the streets of Cairo and the government instituted a severe control over the habits of Muslim converts. At that time the economic situation of the Jews took a turn for the worse; under the Mamluks the system of monopolies was consolidated. Private industry was generally ruined and the commerce of spices, the most important part of Egypt's external trade, was taken over by the monopolized "Kārimī" merchant company in which only a few members were Jews. During this period the Jewish population was led by negidim of Maimonides' family. Maimonides' grandson, R. David b. Abraham , was nagid from 1238 to 1300. In various documents the negidim are referred to as heads of academies but the exact nature of the academy is in question. During the second half of the 13th century, the literary activities of Egyptian Jewry continued to flourish, as in the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods. Tanḥum ha-Yerushalmi , the well-known Bible commentator, and his son Joseph , a competent Hebrew poet, lived in Egypt at this time.
At the end of the 14th century, a second dynasty of the Mamluks, the Cherkess, came to power. The Mamluk rule then increased in violence and the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian decrees grew in frequency. The oppression and extortions of the sultans were severer than in former times. There often were internal conflicts within this Mamluk faction, and as a result the soldiers, unrestrained, rioted in the streets and attacked the citizens. In order to appease the embittered people, the sultans issued a multitude of decrees against the non-Muslims. While the first sultan of the Cherkess Mamluks, Barqūq (1382–1399), as well as his son and successor Faraj (1399–1412), acted leniently toward the non-Muslims, the third sultan, al-Muʾayyad Sheikh, oppressed the non-Muslims by various means. The discriminatory decrees were renewed, and there were searches for wine in the non-Muslim quarters. During the reign of the Cherkess Mamluks the autonomous organization of the communities in Egypt remained unharmed and as previously, they were led as before by the negidim. The last of Maimonides' descendants to act as nagid was R. David b. Joshua . For reasons that are not known R. David was compelled to leave Egypt in the 1370s. He was replaced by a man named Amram . At the end of the Mamluk period, Egyptian Jewry was led by the negidim R. Nathan Sholal and his relative R. Isaac Sholal , who emigrated to Palestine after the conquest of Egypt by the Ottomans.
The travelers Meshullam of Volterra, who arrived in Egypt in 1481, and R. Obadiah of Bertinoro , who came there seven years later, provided information about the size of the communities in the descriptions of their travels. The numbers which are found in their writings emphasize the decrease in the Jewish population, which was concomitant with the general depopulation and was partly a result of the oppression under Mamluk rule. According to Meshullam there were 650 families, as well as 150 Karaite and 50 Samaritan families, in Cairo, 50 families in Alexandria, 50 in Bilbeis, and 20 in al-Khānqā. Obadiah mentions 500 families in Cairo, besides 150 Karaite and 50 Samaritan families, 25 families in Alexandria, and 30 in Bilbeis. From this it can be deduced that there was probably a total of 5,000 persons in all the communities visited by the two travelers. By then the immigration of Spanish Jewry to the oriental countries had begun. Even before the expulsion, groups of forced converts arrived in Egypt. Immediately after the expulsion, the Jews who had not converted arrived and the Jewish population in Egypt increased. In those centers where an important number of newcomers settled separate communities were established. The arrival of the Spanish immigrants had a beneficial effect on the cultural life of Egyptian Jewry. Their numbers included scholars of renown who engaged in educational activities and who were appointed as dayyanim. Among the scholars who arrived in Egypt during the first generation after the Spanish expulsion were R. Samuel ibn Sid , who was a member of the bet din of the nagid in 1509, R. Jacob Berab , who is mentioned in a document of 1513 as a dayyan of this same bet din, and R. Samuel ha-Levi Ḥakim , who was a prominent halakhic authority and acted as dayyan at the beginning of the 16th century in Cairo. The negidim welcomed the Spanish refugees.
The Ottoman Turks
When Egypt was conquered by the Ottomans in 1517, there was a decisive turn in the history of the country and the Jews living there. A wide choice of commercial possibilities was offered to the Jewish merchants, as well as an introduction to a variety of other trades. At the height of their power, the Ottomans were very tolerant and the Jews held key positions in the financial administration and in the collection of taxes and customs duties. Almost all the Turkish commissioners and governors who were sent to Egypt turned over the responsibility of the financial administration to Jewish agents, who were known as ṣarrāf-bashi ("chief treasurer"). It is evident that the agents greatly profited by holding these positions. After two generations of prosperity, the political and economic decline of the Ottoman empire manifested itself and affected the rank and file of the Jewish population who sank into poverty and ignorance. Thus, Ottoman rule caused a distinct polarization in the status of Egyptian Jewry. The corruption of the governors, who were often replaced and whose ambition was to enrich themselves or to rebel against the sultan in Constantinople, and their acts of violence, extortion, and cruelty brought suffering on the Jews. One of the first Turkish governors, Ahmad Pasha, who was appointed in 1523, extorted a large contribution from Abraham Castro , director of the mint. He then ordered him to mint coins carrying his name, as if he were an independent ruler. When the Jewish official fled to Constantinople, Ahmad imposed an enormous contribution on the Jews, who were fearful of his vengeance if they did not provide the sum by the appointed time. However, on the day of payment, Ahmad Pasha was killed by soldiers loyal to the sultan and the anniversary was thereafter celebrated as Purim Miẓrayim ("Purim of Egypt," i.e., Cairo).
In 1545, the governor Dāʾud Pasha ordered the closure of the central synagogue of Cairo. All the efforts to obtain its reopening were in vain; the synagogue remained closed until 1584. After the conquest of Egypt by the Turks, Jews of Constantinople were sent to Egypt to act as negidim. The first of them was R. Tājir, who was followed by R. Jacob b. Ḥayyim Talmid . When this nagid came to Egypt, a dispute broke out between him and R. Bezalel Ashkenazi, who was then the leading rabbi in Egypt. As a result of this dispute, the office of nagid came to an end in about 1560. From then onward the Jewish finance minister in the service of the governor was recognized as the leader of the Jewish community in Egypt. He was referred to by the Turkish title of chelebi (çelebi = "gentleman"). Many of these Jewish ministers were executed by despotic governors. Masiah Pasha, who was appointed in 1575, chose Solomon Alashkar , a well-known philanthropist whose efforts were directed toward the amelioration of Jewish education among the Jews of Egypt, as chelebi. His activities continued for many years, until Karīm Hussein Pasha executed him in 1603.
The standard of Jewish learning improved with the arrival of the expelled Spanish Jews. During the first generation of the Turkish rule, the leading rabbi in Egypt was R. David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra. He instituted several regulations in the Jewish communal life, and, among others, he abolished the system of dating documents according to the Seleucid era, which was still in practice in Egypt. In the 1520s the renowned halakhic authority R. Moses b. Isaac Alashkar also lived in Egypt, where he acted as dayyan. However, he emigrated to Palestine and died in Jerusalem in 1542. Later David b. Solomon Abi Zimra also emigrated to Palestine and Bezalel Ashkenazi became the spiritual leader of Egypt's Jewish communities. During the second half of the 16th century, R. Jacob Castro was the most prominent Egyptian rabbi. These rabbis acted as dayyanim, gave responsa, and educated distinguished pupils. R. Isaac Luria , the famous kabbalist, was one of Bezalel Ashkenazi's pupils.
The Jews of Cairo and Alexandria were at that time divided into three communities – the Mustaʿrabim (Arabic-speaking i.e., indigenous Jews), the Spanish (immigrants), and the Mograbim (settlers of North African, Maghreb origin). There were occasional disputes between the communities and the rabbis and communal leaders exerted themselves to restore peace.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Ottoman government became harsher and the upper class of wealthy Jews, who were employed by the governors and ministers, suffered especially. About 1610 the position of chelebi was filled by Abba Iscandari, a physician and philanthropist. In 1620 with the arrival of a new governor, the Albanian ("Arnaut") Husain, the Muslim enemies of the chelebi, jealous of his wealth, slandered him before the governor and he was executed. Jacob Tivoli replaced him as chelebi until he was executed by Khalīl Pasha. In 1650, when Silihdar Ahmad Pasha was appointed governor of Egypt, he brought with him Ḥayyim Perez, a Jew, whom he appointed chelebi. In the same year natural catastrophes and a plague occurred in Egypt; the sultan summoned the commissioner and the chelebi to Constantinople and had them both executed. A year later another governor, Muhammad Ghāzī Pasha, was sent to Egypt. He appointed Jacob Bibas as chelebi, but after a time became jealous of his wealth, killed him with his own hands and buried him in the garden of his palace. In 1661 the governor Ibrāhīm Pasha appointed the exceedingly wealthy Raphael b. Joseph Hin as his chelebi. The latter actively supported Shabbetai Ẓevi , the pseudo-messiah, who had visited Cairo twice. In 1669 Karākūsh Ali Pasha was appointed governor of Egypt, became jealous of Raphael Hin's wealth, accused him of various crimes, and had him publicly executed. The title of chelebi was then abolished and the Jewish agent of the Egyptian governor, who stood at the head of his community, was henceforth known as bazīrkān (from Persian bāzargān "merchant"). In 1734–35, a serious popular riot killed many of Cairo's Jewish community which, as a result, became much less effective in Egypt's administration and economy. The severity of Ottoman rule and the economic decline lowered the cultural level of Egyptian Jewry. During this period the community ceased to be led by renowned rabbis, as in the 16th century, even though some of them were excellent talmudic scholars such as Abraham Iscandari, Samuel Vital , the son of R. Ḥayyim Vital , Mordecai ha-Levi , and his son Abraham during the 17th century, and Solomon Algazi during the 18th century. Nevertheless, the Shabbatean movement brought some activity to the stagnant community. In 1703 the Shabbatean propagandist Abraham Michael Cardoso settled in Egypt, where he became physician to the Turkish governor Karā Ahmad Pasha. At times scholars and authors came to Egypt from other countries and acted as dayyanim and rabbis for a number of years. Such was the case of David Conforte , author of Kore ha-Dorot who came in 1671.
The transition from an Ottoman province to a virtually independent unity was accompanied by a difficult struggle during which Jews also suffered considerably. In 1768 when Turkey became embroiled in war with Russia, Ali Bey, the governor of Cairo, proclaimed himself the independent governor of Egypt. He also made an effort to impose his authority on Palestine, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula. In order to provide for the tremendous expenses of his wars, he levied a heavy contribution on the Jews, which they were compelled to pay within a short period (see Ben-Ze'ev in Zion (1939), 237–49). The reforms of Muhammad (Mehmet) Ali (1805–1848) and later the opening of the Suez Canal (1863) brought a new prosperity to commerce and the other branches of the Egyptian economy. As a result of the changes in all spheres of life, the Jewish population grew. Jews from European countries settled in Egypt and schools where education was dispensed along modern lines were introduced. Alexandria again became a commercial center and its Jewish community expanded until it was equal to that of Cairo. The census of 1897 showed that there were 25,200 Jews in the country. Of these, 8,819 (including approximately 1,000 Karaites) lived in Cairo, 9,831 in Alexandria, 2,883 in Tanta , 400 in Port Said, and 508 in al-Manṣūra . There were also small communities in other provincial towns, numbering a total of 4,600 Jews. The immigrants from European countries founded their own communities, even though they recognized the authority of the rabbis of the existing ones. Thus, in the middle of the 19th century there were communities of Italian and Eastern European Jews in Alexandria, while in Cairo the immigrants from Italy and Turkey united in one community. The relations between Muslims and Jews were normal and there were only rare cases of disturbances resulting from religious hate. In 1844 there was a blood libel against the Jews of Cairo and this was repeated in 1881 and in 1901–1902. In 1840, after the blood libel of Damascus , Moses Montefiore and Adolphe Crémieux came to Egypt and established Jewish schools in cooperation with R. Moses Algazi . In Alexandria, rabbis who distinguished themselves by their western education were appointed, and social activities were encouraged in the community. The numerical increase, the improvement of cultural standards, and the development of social activities continued throughout the first half of the 20th century.
After World War I Sephardi Jews from Salonika and other Ottoman towns, as well as Jews from other countries, settled in Egypt. According to the census of 1917 there were 59,581 Jews in Egypt, of which 29,207 lived in Cairo, and in 1937 their numbers reached 63,550, of which 34,103 lived in greater Cairo and 24,829 in Greater Alexandria. With the improvements in the economic and intellectual standards, the Jews took an active part in public life. Some financiers were appointed as members of Parliament and ministers. Joseph Cattaui was a member of parliament in 1915 and minister of finances and communications in 1923 (the year Egypt became officially independent), and Aslan Cattaui was a member of the Senate during the 1930s. Some, such as Yaʿqūb (James) Ṣanūʿ , had even been associated with the Egyptian nationalist movement. On the other hand, Zionist organizations were created at the end of the 19th century in the larger towns such as Cairo, Alexandria, Manṣūra, Suez, Damanhūr , and al-Maḥalla al-Kubrā. As a result of the expulsion of large numbers of Palestinian Jews to Egypt during World War I, the attachment of Egyptian Jewry to the Palestinian population and to the national movement strengthened. The reinforcement of Jewish consciousness found expression in the publication of Jewish newspapers in various languages. In 1880, a Jewish weekly in Arabic, al-Ḥaqīqa ("The Truth"), began to appear in Alexandria. In 1903, a weekly in Ladino, Miẓrayim, was founded in Cairo. From 1908 to 1941 a French weekly, L'Aurore, appeared in Cairo, and in 1919 another weekly, Israël, was founded in Cairo. This newspaper was amalgamated in 1939 with the Alexandria weekly La Tribune Juive, which was first published in 1936. It appeared until 1948, as did the Arabic weekly al-Shams ("The Sun"), founded in 1934.
According to the Egyptian census of 1947, 65,600 Jews lived in Egypt, 64% of them in Cairo, 32% in Alexandria, and the rest in other towns. Egyptian Jewry was thus among the most urban of the Jewish communities of Asia and Africa. In 1947 most Egyptian Jews (59%) were merchants, and the rest were employed in industry (18%), administration, and public services (11%). The economic situation of Egyptian Jewry was relatively good; there were several multi-millionaires, a phenomenon unusual in other Jewish communities of the Middle East.
Most Egyptian Jews received some form of education, and there were fewer illiterates among them than in any other Oriental community in Egypt then. This was due to the fact that Jews were concentrated in the two great cities with all kinds of educational facilities. There were no restrictions on accepting Jews in government or foreign schools. In November 1945 riots, organized by the "Young Egypt" group led by Aḥmad Ḥusayn, ended in attacks on the Cairo Jewish quarter. A synagogue, a Jewish quarter hospital, and an old-age home were burned down and many Jews injured or killed. This was the first disturbance of its kind in the history of independent Egypt.
The year 1947 was the beginning of the end of the Egyptian Jewish community, for in that year the Companies' Law was instituted, which required that not less than 75% of employees of companies in Egypt must be Egyptian citizens. The law affected Jews most of all, since only about 20% of them were Egyptian citizens. The rest, although in many cases born in Egypt and living there for generations, were aliens or stateless persons. After the State of Israel was established, persecution of Jews began became more severe. On May 15, 1948, emergency law was declared, and a royal decree forbade Egyptian citizens to leave the country without a special permit. This was applied to Jews. Hundreds of Jews were arrested and many had their property confiscated. In June through August 1948, bombs were planted in Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish businesses looted. About 250 Jews were killed or wounded by the bombs. In 1949, when the consular law courts which tried foreign citizens were abolished, many Jews were affected.
The condition of the Jews gradually worsened until, in July 1949, the new government headed by Ḥusayn Sirrī Pasha began to release detainees and return some of the frozen Jewish assets which had been confiscated, also allowing some Jews to leave Egypt, In January 1950, when the Wafd government under Nuqrāshī Pasha was overthrown, all Jewish detainees were released and the rest of their property restored to them. The condition of the Jews slightly improved, although they were forced to donate large sums of money to the soldiers' fund, and leaders of the community were coerced into publishing a declaration against the State of Israel. During the anti-British riots on Black Saturday (January 26, 1952), many foreign citizens were injured, and the loss of Jewish property on that daywas estimated at EL9,000,000 ($25,000,000). About 25,000 Jews left Egypt between 1948 and 1950, some 14,000 of them settling in Israel. When persecution lessened, Jewish emigration decreased.
After the deposition of King Farouk in July 1952, the new government headed by General Muhammad Naguib was favorably inclined toward Jews, but when Naguib was overthrown and Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in February 1954 there was a change for the worse. Nasser immediately arrested many Jews who were tried on various charges, mainly for Zionist and communist activities.
In 1954, about 100 Jews were arrested, but most attention was attracted by the trial of the 13 charged with being members of an Israel intelligence network. Two of those charged died, and Moses Leo Marzuk , a Karaite surgeon and Samuel Bekhor Azar, a teacher, were sentenced to death, while the rest were condemned to various terms of imprisonment (see. Cairo Trial ).
Arrests of Jews continued. They were also forced to donate money to arm the military forces, Chief Rabbi Haim Nahoum explaining that it was a national duty. In addition, strict supervision of Jewish enterprises was introduced; some were confiscated and others forcibly sold to the government.
Immediately after the Sinai Campaign (November 1956), hundreds of Jews were arrested. About 3,000 were interned without charge in four detention camps. At the same time, the government served notice on thousands of Jews to leave the country within a few days, and they were not allowed to sell their property, nor to take any capital with them. The deportees were made to sign statements agreeing not to return to Egypt and transferring their property to the administration of the government.
The International Red Cross helped about 8,000 stateless Jews to leave the country, taking most of them to Italy and Greece in chartered boats. Most of the Jews of Port Said (about 100) were smuggled to Israel by Israel agents. The system of deportation continued into 1957. Other Jews left voluntarily, after their livelihoods had been taken from them, until only 8,561 were registered in the 1957 census. Most of them lived in Cairo (65.3%) and Alexandria (32.2%). The Jewish exodus continued until there were about 3,000 in 1967 of whom only about 50 were Ashkenazim, since most members of this community had left or been deported.
With the outbreak of the Six-Day War in June 1967 the few remaining Jewish officials holding public posts were discharged and hundreds of Jews were arrested. They were beaten, tortured, and abused. Some were released following intervention by foreign states, especially Spain, and were permitted to leave the country. Among the detainees were the chief rabbi of Egypt, R. Ḥayyim Duwayk, and the rabbi of Alexandria, who were held for seven months. Several dozen Jews were held in detention until July 1970.
Fewer than 1,000 Jews still lived in Egypt in 1970, when they were given permission to leave Egypt but without their possessions. Subsequently, only some four hundred Jews (1971) remained in Egypt. Thirty-five thousand Egyptian Jews live in Israel and there are about 15,000 in Brazil, 10,000 in France, 9,000 in the United States, 9,000 in Argentina, and 4,000 in Great Britain.
Egypt was the only Arab country in which the Zionist shekel was clandestinely distributed for the Zionist Congress of 1951 after the establishment of the State of Israel. There was a well-developed Zionist underground movement in Egypt, and some of its members were arrested. After the mass exodus from Egypt, most of the synagogues, social welfare organizations and Jewish schools were closed; the Jewish newspaper, La Menora (published in French and edited by Jacques Maleh from February 1950 to May 1953), was closed down after Maleh had been deported. The Jewish representatives in the Senate and the House of Representatives (Aslan Cattaui and his brother René) lost their seats. The Cairo and Alexandrian communities had official committees, but there was no nationwide organization, the chief rabbi of Cairo simply being recognized as the chief rabbi of Egypt.
The peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt brought some information and a certain renewed activity with regard to the small Jewish community remaining in Cairo. The total number of Jews in Egypt was approximately 400, and it was an aging community.
There was only one synagogue in Cairo, the 70-year-old Shaarei Ha-Shamayim synagogue, normally attended by a handful of old men and women. There was no rabbi, the last having left in 1972. In December 1977, over 120 persons, Israeli citizens and Jewish journalists who had come to cover the peace talks in Cairo, attended the services. The members of the Israeli delegation were unable to attend, but they went to services the following Friday night. There was also a synagogue in Alexandria, the Eliyahu Ha-Navi synagogue. With only 150 Jews remaining in the city they succeeded with difficulty in holding services on Sabbaths and Festivals only.
In May 1977, at the request of Lord Segal of Wytham, 11 scrolls of the Torah from the Great Synagogue of Alexandria – of the 50 in the synagogue – were sent to Great Britain through the good offices of President Anwar Sadat .
Jewish rights were restored in 1979 after the Camp David Peace Accords. Only then was the community allowed to establish ties with Israel and world Jewry. However, these ties remained weak, despite Israeli tourism to Egypt, because the community is almost extinct.
On November 4, 2018, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi stated that Egypt is willing to “build houses of worship” for Jews just as it does for other religions. A month later he ordered the government to devote approximately $72 million to restoring Jewish heritage in the country. In January 2020, renovations were completed on the last surviving synagogue in Alexandria.
According to Haisam Hassanein, “On December 6, 2018, editor-in-chief Khaled Salah of al-Youm al-Sabaa—a news outlet with close ties to Egypt’s security services—tweeted praise for Chanukah, calling it a victory for monotheism against ‘paganism’ and advising his audience to read about the Jewish festival’s central historical figure, Judas Maccabeus. This coincided with the first public Hanukkah celebration in decades at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, attended by members of Egypt’s tiny Jewish community alongside an American delegation.”
As of 2013, the Jewish community in Egypt numbers only a few dozen and is quickly fading into extinction. In May 2013, the Egyptian government announced that it would be canceling its annual $14,000 stipend to the Jewish community which has been part of the state budget since 1988. The stipend had been used to pay for renovations to the Bassatine cemetery, the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in the world behind only The Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem. The funds also helped to pay for security.
Egyptian terror group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, after pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group in November 2014, posted a video on social media of their members vowing to eliminate Jerusalem and “cleanse Egypt of Zionist collaborators.” On December 1, 2014, the group claimed responsibility for the carjacking and murder of American oil worker William “Bill” Henderson in August.
In December 2014 an Egyptian court placed a ban on a yearly festival that attracts hundreds of Jewish individuals from all over the Middle East. The annual festival celebrates the birth of Abu Hatzira, a legendary Moroccan Rabbi revered for his kindness and known for performing miracles. Abu Hatzira was also the grandfather of famous Kaballist known as “the Baba Sali”. The festival was banned by an Egyptian court because the celebration involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages, dancing, and casual intermingling of the sexes. The celebration takes place at Abu Hatzira’s tomb and as part of the ruling the court also ordered that the tomb be taken off of Egypt’s list of antiquities, cultural sites, and monuments lists. The festival was called off in 2012 due to security concerns surrounding the Arab Spring.
In response to outstanding payments owed to them by a Palestinian utility company, on March 25, 2015, Egyptian authorities cut off the power supply to much of Southern Gaza. Residents of Khan Younis and Rafah took to the streets to protest these power outages, expressing anger at Egyptian President el-Sisi and his government. These protestors were the unintended victims of the ongoing fight between the Egyptian government and extremist groups such as Hamas.
Stranded Palestinians returned to the Gaza Strip from Egypt when Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing for the first time in 80 days on May 26, 2015. Although Egypt opened the crossing to let people out from Egypt into Gaza, they did not allow anyone from Gaza to travel into Egypt, denying hundreds of Palestinian individuals medical attention. Egyptian officials said that the border crossing would stay open through May 27.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi appointed an ambassador to Israel in June 2015, following a significant three year lapse in diplomatic relations between the countries. Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi recalled the previous ambassador to Israel in 2012 in protest of Israeli treatment of Palestinians in Gaza.
Militants affiliated with the Islamic State staged multiple simultaneous and coordinated attacks on June 30, 2015, in Egypt’s Northern Sinai. The attacks killed more than 50 individuals, most of the victims being members of the Egyptian security forces. These attacks came the day after a prominent Egyptian prosecutor who had done work investigating the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist organization was killed by a car bomb in Cairo. Officials estimated that 300 Islamic State members were involved in the attack, armed with heavy weaponry and IED’s. While attempting to fight off the militants during the attacks, the Egyptian army managed to kill approximately 40 Islamic State members. In response to these terrorist attacks the Egyptian government called in helicopters and war-planes to aid in the fight against the terrorists, and the IDF pledged to grant all Egyptian reinforcement and equipment requests. According to experts, this attack was the most well-coordinated and complex attack carried out by the ISIS affiliated group in the Sinai.
The Egyptian government broke ground on a project aimed at stifling the construction of smuggling tunnels by Hamas militants in late August 2015. Bulldozers began digging fisheries along the Gaza border which will serve two purposes: providing fresh fish for the residents, and making tunneling from Gaza to Egypt an impossible task. In total the Egyptian government plans to dig 18 fisheries on the border, which will house mullet and shrimp. During the following week, four Americans and two international peacekeepers were severely injured by explosive devices in the Sinai Peninsula. In response to this attack, the United States sent at least 75 additional individuals to the Sinai Peninsula to assist the peace-keepers there. This group included a surgical team, an infantry platoon, and surveillance professionals.
The Israeli embassy in Egypt was re-opened on September 9, 2015, after a closure due to security concerns during the Egyptian revolution that began in January 2011. On September 9, 2011, angry and violent protestors descended upon the Israeli embassy in Egypt, forcing the Diplomats and other officials inside to evacuate immediately. The embassy remained vacant for four years. Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, stated at the re-opening ceremony on September 9, 2015, that, “Egypt will always be the biggest and most important state in the region. This event taking place in Cairo is also the beginning of something new.”
The Egyptian’s fight against militants in the Sinai claimed the lives of eight Mexican tourists during the weekend of September 13, 2015. A caravan of vehicles carrying 15 Mexican tourists and an unknown number of Egyptians was attacked by Egyptian security forces hunting militants. Twelve people including eight Mexicans and four Egyptians were killed in the attack, and six of the Mexican tourists were injured. Egyptian officials claimed that the convoy was driving through a restricted area that was being monitored by the security forces, but local residents rebuked these statements. A spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism stated that the tour company, “did not have permits and did not inform authorities,” before embarking on their journey into the Sinai.
On September 20, 2015, Egypt began the process of flooding the smuggling tunnels between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Water from the Mediterranean Sea was pumped in, as Palestinian tunnel workers tried desperately to remove it. The Egyptians flooded the smuggling tunnels while Palestinian workers were still inside, prompting outcry from the local community. The Egyptian government announced that they had uncovered 20 more smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt on December 7, 2015, and these tunnels were promptly destroyed.
On October 28, 2015, Egyptian President al-Sisi extended the state of emergency for Rafah declared almost exactly one year ago to the day, due to continued violence.
For the first time since the State of Israel’s creation in 1948, Egyptian representatives at the United Nations voted in Israel’s favor, in October 2015. Egypt was one of 117 countries who voted in favor of Israel joining the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Affairs. The Egyptian representative refused to comment before or after the vote.
Israeli official Ayoub Kara met with Egyptian government representatives at a border-crossing on November 30, 2015, to discuss mutually defeating regional terrorism and increasing tourism between the two countries.
During December 2015, Egyptian war planes flew through Israeli airspace, with permission, on their way to bomb targets of the Islamic State affiliate in Sinai. These flights took place in coordination with the IDF and IAF, and this is believed to be the first time that Egyptian war planes have entered Israeli airspace since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The Egyptian military had previously flown unmanned drones over Israeli territory to fight terrorists in Sinai.
Egypt appointed Hazem Khairat as Ambassador to Israel in June 2015, after they recalled their last Ambassador in 2012 in protest of Operation Pillar of Defense. Khairat is the former Egyptian ambassador to Chile, and was welcomed to Israel as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s guest at his weekly cabinet meeting on January 3, 2016. Khairat presented his Diplomatic credentials to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on February 24, 2016, officially confirming him as Cairo’s first ambassador to Israel since 2012.
Gunmen affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood opened fire on a group of 45 Arab-Israeli tourists outside the Barcelo Three Pyramids Hotel in Cairo on December 7, 2015. No injuries were reported, and only one gunman out of an estimated 20 was arrested on the scene.
Members of the Hamas militant group crossed the border to Egypt and began fighting alongside the Islamic State in Sinai during late 2015 and early 2016, according to Egyptian officials. The Hamas members arrived in small groups, via the last secretive tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai.
Egyptian Parliament member Tawfik Okasha was removed from his position on March 1, 2016, by a 2/3 majority vote of his peers. Okasha had met with Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Haim Koren, in his home after extending a personal invitation via his television talk show. The meeting was met with disdain from Egyptian citizens as well as Okasha’s colleagues, who contended that the meeting damaged Egyptian relations with neighboring countries and was contrary to Egyptian parliamentary policy which opposes normalizing relations with Israel.
Egypt temporarily opened its Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on May 10, 2016, for the first time in three months. The Rafah crossing has for the most part remained closed since 2013.
The al-Sisi government approved textbook The Geography of the Arab World and the History of Modern Egypt was introduced to Egyptian classrooms in May 2016, and features more inclusive and friendlier language towards Israel. The Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv reviewed the updated textbook and found more explicit support for peace with Israel, including an increased emphasis on the economic advantages of peace, than was found in the textbook’s predecessor. While the previous Egyptian standard history textbook (published in 2002) dedicated 32 pages to conflict with Israel and only three to peace, the new one condenses the conflicts down to 12 pages and allots four pages to discussing peace. Egyptian 9th grade students are now required to memorize the provisions of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and write on the advantages of peace between the two groups. Another change is the inclusion of a photograph of the signing of the 1979 treaty.
The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities’ Projects Sector approved a restoration and development plan for the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in July 2017, allocating 40 million Egyptian Pounds for the project. The Synagogue, known as the Jewish Temple in Alexandria, was closed in early 2017 after a large part of the ceiling collapsed.
Egypt announced on October 29, 2014, that they would be instating a buffer zone in the North-East Sinai along the Gaza border, after months of small terrorist attacks culminating in a car bomb exploding after ramming into a Northern Sinai checkpoint, killing 33 Egyptian soldiers. Militant Islamic terror group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has taken responsibility for these attacks. The proposed buffer zone is intended to stop weapons and fighters from flowing into Egypt from Gaza, will include water-filled trenches, and will span the entire 13km length of the Egypt-Gaza border. On October 26 Egyptian President al-Sisi declared a national state of emergency: instituting a national curfew from 5pm-7am and closing the Rafah border crossing, violating the terms of the peace agreement that ended 2014’s Gaza War. The Egyptian government told individuals who live along the border that they had 48 hours to evacuate their homes on October 30, so that they can be demolished to build the buffer zone. As of January 2015, at least 1200 homes had been demolished to make room for the installation of the buffer zone. After the building of the buffer zone, Egyptian President al-Sisi ordered that a “new Rafah” is to be built on the rubble of the old homes that were levelled. Al-Sisi ordered the Egyptian Specialized Council for Community Development to develop a plan for an “integrated urban community to achieve sustainable development for the people of Rafah,” and also to develop a compensation plan for those affected by the installation of the buffer zone. After the discovery of new smuggling tunnels that were longer and more advanced than previously discovered ones, on November 17 Egyptian officials announced that the buffer zone would be doubled in size.
The second construction stage of the buffer zone began in early January 2015, with the aim of eventually expanding the buffer zone from the current width of 500 meters to 2,000 meters. According to the Egyptian army the buffer zone operation is becoming more effective over time, and is forcing more and more members of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to flee to Libya. As of March 19, 2015, the Egyptian army had demolished 1,020 homes in the border town of Rafah to construct their buffer zone. The Egyptian government had paid out $19.7 million in compensation to the displaced families, including $209 each to rent apartments for three months, and $97 per square meter of their demolished home. In May 2015 it was revealed that during the construction of this buffer zone, the Egyptian government discovered and destroyed 521 tunnels running from the Gaza Strip into Egyptian territory.
Buildings, homes, and facilities within the survey area for the third stage of the buffer zone began evacuation proceedings on August 14, 2015, following the completion of the first two phases. In total the three zones will form a 1,500 meter buffer zone from the Gaza border. The third portion of the zone construction involved the demolition of 1,215 homes and 40 government facilities and businesses, which the owners received compensation for.
Egyptian authorities announced an additional 500 meter expansion of the buffer zone separating Egypt from the Gaza Strip in October 2017.
ANCIENT EGYPT: A.H. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (1961); J.A. Wilson, The Burden of Egypt (1951 = The Culture of Ancient Egypt, 1958); J. Wilson (tr.), in: Pritchard, Texts, passim. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1 (1973); J. Baines and J. Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt (1980); D.B. Redford, "Egypt and Western Asia in the Old Kingdom," in: JARCE, 23 (1986), 125–143; N. Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt (1992); K. Kitchen, "Egypt, History of (Chronology)," in: ABD, vol. 2 (1992), 321–31; D.B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (1992); D. Franke, "The Middle Kingdom in Egypt," in: J.M. Sasson (ed.), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 2 (1995), 735–38; W.J. Murnane, in: ibid., 691ff; J. Assman, The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, trans. Andrew Jenkins (1996); M. Bietak, "Hyksos," in: D.B. Redford (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 2 (2001), 136–43; W.J. Murnane, "New Kingdom: An Overview," in: ibid., 519–25. HELLENISTIC PERIOD: Frey, Corpus 2, 356–445; Tcherikover, Corpus; idem, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1961), index S.V. Egypt: E.R. Bevan, The Legacy of Israel (1953), 29–67; idem, House of Ptolemy (1969); M. Radin, The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans (1915), index S.V. Egypt; Baron, Social2, index S.V. Egypt, Alexandria; J. Lindsay, Daily Life in Roman Egypt (1968). FROM END OF SECOND TEMPLE TO MUSLIM CONQUEST: Baron, Social2, 2 (1952), index; Graetz, Gesch 3 (1905–65), index, S.V. Alexandrien, 4 (1908), index, S.V. Alexandrien. JEWS IN EGYPT FROM ARAB AND OTTOMAN CONQUEST: Mann, Egypt; Mann, Texts; idem, in: HUCA, 3 (1926), 257–308; Rosanes, Togarmah; Zimmels, in: Bericht des juedisch-theologischen Seminars, Breslau (1932), 1–60; Neustadt, in: Zion, 2 (1937), 216–55; S. Assaf, ibid., 121–4; idem, Be-Oholei Ya'akov (1943), 81–98; Noury Farhi, La Communauté juive d'Alexandrie (1946); Ashtor, Toledot; idem, in: HUCA, 27 (1956), 305–26; idem, in: Zion, 30 (1965), 61–78, 128–157; idem, in: JJS, 18 (1967), 9–42; 19 (1968), 1–22; S.D. Goitein, in: JQR, 53 (1962/63), 93–119; idem, Studies in Islamic History and Institutions (1966), 255–95, 329–60; idem, A Mediterranean Society, 1–6 (1967–1993), passim; Lewis, in: Eretz Israel, 7 (1964), 70–75 (Eng. pt.); idem, in: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 30 (1967), 177–81; Abrahamson, Merkazim, passim; J.M. Landau, Ha-Yehudim be-Miẓrayim (1967, Eng., Jews in Nineteenth Century Egypt, 1969); S. Shamir (ed.), The Jews of Egypt: a Mediterranean Society in Modern Times, (1987); N. Robinson, in: J. Fried (ed.), Jews in the Modern World, 1 (1962), 50–90; J.M. Landau, "Abū Naḍḍāra an Egyptian Jewish Nationalist," in: JJS,3 (1952), 30–44; 5 (1954), 179–180; idem, "Ritual Murder Accusations in Nineteenth-Century Egypt," in: A. Dundes (ed.), The Blood Libel Legend, 197–232; idem (ed.), Ha-Yehudim be-Miẓrayim ha-ʿOthmanit 1517–1914 (1988); CONTEMPORARY PERIOD: D. Peretz, Egyptian Jewry Today (1956). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Hassoun, Juifs du Nil (1981); idem, Juifs d'Egypte; images et textes (1984); G. Kraemer, Minderheit, Millet Nation? Die Jueden in Aegypten, 1914–1952 (1982) T. Mayer, Egypt and the Palestine Question, 1936–1945 (1983); M.M. Laskier, The Jews of Egypt, 1920–1970 (1992); V.D. Sanua, A Guide to Egyptian Jewry in the Mid-Twentieth Century (2005).
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