Restoring a Part of Egypt's Jewish History

Tucked away behind tiny narrow streets in Old Cairo is Harat Al Yahoud, the Alley of the Jews, a small area where Egyptian Jewish families once lived and worked, comprising part of the intellectual and business classes in the 1950s.

But after the Six Day War in 1967, anger toward Israel grew and some of the Jews were forced out of Egypt. Now, only 80 live in the country.

But in the Alley of the Jews, a reminder of their existence remains. It is the old synagogue of Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, named after one of the greatest medieval Twelfth-century Jewish scholars and declared an antiquity in Egypt in the 1980s.

VIDEO: Synagogue in Egypt being restored
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Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), explains that it is ''the most important Jewish temple" because "he [Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon] was a great physician and philosopher. He was the special physician to the great Arab leader, Salahuddin."

"The temple is unique, there is a part which is for prayer, another part that people will come by to ask for cure," Hawass said. It is the reason why today, work is underway in earnest to restore the building to its full glory.

Seventy percent of the restoration work has now been completed, but the synagogue still looks like a construction site complete with scaffolding, a cement mixer and workers wearing hard hats.

Dr. Ayman Hamed, who has overseen the project since it began in 2007, pointed to pictures of what the site previously looked like, telling ABC News, "It was a dump area because the roof had collapsed. It was full of rubbish, a deserted place, no cared about it. Without windows, everything was a mess.''

As Hawass noted, this is not the first time that conservation work has been attempted.

"In [the] 1960s the Jewish temple was neglected and the Jewish community restored it badly, we have to clean the bad restoration and do the good restoration that we do now," he said.

It took a year to conduct studies on the structure before the real work could begin. Part of the synagogue had been flooded, which meant that the water levels were high, threatening to erode the building.

Hamed and his team immediately installed a water pump system, which is still operational today. A network of pipes can be seen through crevices beneath the building.

Critics Say Synagogue Restoration Is Politically Motivated

This may sound just another restoration project, but for the Egyptian government the work on the synagogue is hugely symbolic because the country is publicly acknowledging its Jewish heritage.

Some critics believe the restoration is politically motivated, but Hawass disagrees.

"Some people may say, why are you restoring the synagogues when the Israelis are killing the Palestinians? Some people are saying you are doing this because of Faruk Hosni at the UNESCO. This is not true the Jewish synagogues are part of our history and it's very important to restore this part," he said.

For the people working on this project there are no distinctions between religions.

May, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, works on polishing one of the synagogue's original wooden doors, said the workers see it as a place of worship.

"It doesn't matter if this is a synagogue or not, this is a place of worship. I've done work in churches, mosques, I have no problems working here at all," she said.

And there has been no public opposition to the restoration project. Hamed explains that "people are used to working with many monuments, different monuments. Egypt is very sophisticated, [has] layers of history so people are used to monuments."

Hamed says they are due to complete the work ahead of schedule next year, and the synagogue is expected to open in late March, on the day Rabbi Ben Maimon was born.

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