Judaism in Egypt

History of Judaism in Egypt

Judaism is the third official religion in Egypt, together with Islam and Christianity. One of the first known monotheistic religions, likely dating to between 2000-1500 B.C. Judaism is the native faith of the Jewish people. Based upon the belief in a covenant of responsibility between a sole omnipotent creator God and Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism’s Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh. Divine revelation of principles and prohibitions in the Hebrew Scriptures form the basis of Jewish law, or Halakhah, which is a key component of the faith.

While there are extensive traditions of Jewish halakhic and theological discourse, there is no final dogmatic authority in the tradition. Local communities have their own religious leadership. Modern Judaism has three basic categories of faith: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform/Liberal.

These differ in their views and observance of Jewish law. The Orthodox representing the most traditional practice. Reform/Liberal communities are the most accommodating of individualized interpretations of Jewish identity and faith. Egyptian Jews constitute both one of the oldest and youngest communities in the world.

The book of Genesis and book of Exodus describe a period of Hebrew servitude in ancient Egypt. During decades of sojourn in Egypt, the escape of well over a million Israelites from the Delta. A three-month journey through the wilderness to Sinai. This episode is not correlated by any historical evidence. Certainly, there were some Hebrew slaves in ancient Egypt. Native Egyptian kingdoms were not heavily slave-based.

Judaism at Elephantine Island:

In the Elephantine papyri, a community of Jewish soldiers was stationed there. As part of a frontier garrison in Egypt for the Achaemenid Empire. Established at Elephantine in about 650 BC during Manasseh’s reign. These soldiers assisted pharaoh Psammatik I in his Nubian campaign. Their religious system shows strong traces of Babylonian polytheism. Something which suggests to certain scholars that the community was of mixed Judaeo-Samaritan origins. They maintained their own temple functioning alongside that of the local deity Khnum. The documents cover the period 495 to 399 BC.

Egypt's Official Religions - Judaism
Elephantine Island in Aswan

Related tour: Tour To Elephantine Island, Sehel Island And Tombs Of Nobles In Aswan

The Hebrew Bible also records that a large number of Judeans took refuge in Egypt. Just after the destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 597 BC, and the subsequent assassination of the Jewish governor Gedaliah. The numbers that made their way to Egypt are subject to debate.

Jews during the Ptolemaic era

Further waves of Jewish immigrants settled in Egypt during the Ptolemaic era, especially around Alexandria. Jews served in the administration as custodians of the river. An inscription recording a Jewish dedication of a synagogue to Ptolemy and Berenice was discovered in the 19th century near Alexandria. The Ptolemies assigned the Jews a separate section. To enable them to keep their laws pure of indigenous cultic references.

There was a Jewish community of some importance in the city of Oxyrhynchus (modern Behnesah) during the Roman era, who may later converted to Christianity. The Hellenistic Jewish community of Alexandria translated the Old Testament into Greek. This translation is called the Septuagint. This translation became the source for the Old Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, and Coptic versions of the Christian Old Testament.

Related topic: Famous Synagogues in Egypt 

Alexandria & Judaism:

Alexandrian Jews received a great blow during the Byzantine Empire rule and the rise of a new state religion, Christianity. It was the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria (so-called Alexandria Expulsion) in 414 or 415 AD, under the leadership of Saint Cyril. The expulsion then continued in the nearby regions of Egypt and Palestine followed by a forced Christianization of the Jews.

Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria
Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria

In 629 the Emperor Heraclius I had driven the Jewish population from Jerusalem. This was followed by massacres of Jewish residents throughout the empire- in Egypt aided by the Coptic population. Who may have been trying to settle old grievances against the Jewish groups, dating from the Persian conquest of Amida at the time of Emperor Anastasius I.

The Treaty of Alexandria (November 8, 641) which sealed the Arab conquest of Egypt, expressly stipulated the Jewish residents were allowed to remain in that city unmolested. At the time of the capture of that city, Amr Ibn Al Aas, in his letter to the Caliph, relates that he found there 40,000 Jews.

Jews during the Fatimid period:

Jews from North Africa came to settle in Egypt after the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 969. These Jewish immigrants made up a significant amount of the population of all the Jews living in Egypt. Due to the discovery of the Cairo Geniza documents at the end of the 19th century, a lot is known about Egyptian Jews. From private records, letters, public records, and documents, these sources held information about the society of the Egyptian Jews.

The rule of the Fatimid Caliphate was in general favorable for the Jewish communities. The foundation of the Talmudic schools in Egypt is usually placed at this period. Saladin‘s war with the Crusaders (1169-1193) does not seem to have affected the Jewish population with communal struggle. Now most Egyptian Jews during the Mamluks period, were members of the Karaite sect. This was a 1st-century anti-Pharisee movement that rejected the teachings of the Talmud.

Following the Ottoman occupation in 1517, the Jewish community grew. Jews became active in the maritime trade with Europe. The organizational structure remained as before but the “Nagids” (the community leaders) were sent from Turkey. Since the middle of the 16th century, the Jewish finance minister of the Pasha (the Ottoman governor) also headed the Jewish community.

Jews in modern Egypt:

During the British colony of Egypt, and under king Fuad I, Egypt was friendly towards its Jewish population. Although between 86% and 94% of Egyptian Jews did not possess Egyptian nationality whether they had been denied or opted not to apply. Jews played important roles in the economy and their population climbed to nearly 80,000.

The impact of the well-publicized Arab-Jewish clash in Palestine from 1936 to 1939, together with the rise of Nazi Germany, also began to affect the Jewish relations with Egyptian society. Despite the fact that the number of active Zionists in their ranks was small. By the 1940s, the situation worsened. Sporadic pogroms took place from 1942 onward. The Jewish quarter in Cairo has severely damaged in the 1945 Cairo pogrom. As the partition of Palestine and the foundation of Israel drew closer, hostility towards the Egyptian Jews strengthened.

Jews in Egypt After the foundation of Israel:

After the foundation of Israel in 1948, and the subsequent 1948, Arab-Israeli war, in which Egypt participated. Difficulties multiplied for Egyptian Jews, who number 75000. By 1950, nearly 40% of Egypt’s Jewish population had emigrated. About 14000 of them went to Israel, and the rest to other countries.

After the Suez crisis in 1956, some 25000 Jews, almost half of the Jewish community left for Israel, Europe, the USA, and South America. Some 1000 Jews were imprisoned. Similar measures were enacted against British and French nationals in retaliation for the invasion.

After the Six-Day war in 1967 more confiscations took place. The result was the almost complete disappearance of the 3000-year-old Jewish community in Egypt. Most Egyptian Jews fled to Israel.

According to a report, the Jewish community was estimated at less than 200 people in 2007, less than 40 in 2014, less than 18 in 2017, and 100 people in 2018.

In March of this year 2020, Alexandria Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Egypt was reopened after undergoing preservation and renovation, which is more meaningful to the country’s Jewish community.

In Cairo, the 800 years old Ben Ezra Synagogue has been restored and serves as a tourist attraction for Jewish visitors from all over the world. The only functioning synagogue in Cairo is Hashamain, which is maintained by the Israeli diplomatic staff.