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Bassatine Jewish Cemetery at Cairo, Egypt

If other Jewish cemeteries in Egypt, such as the Mazarita cemetery of Alexandria serve as a symbol of neglect, then the ancient Bassatine cemetery of Cairo serves as a symbol of desecration. It seems as the Jewish population of Egypt dwindles and ages, the cemetery crumbles at the same rate. The now walled cemetery is surrounded by a make-shift ghetto of homeless squatters. The Star of David branded at the cemetery gate is the only clue for visitors entering that this is not simply a dump; trash heaps rise just beyond the gates. Once one has moved further beyond the entrance, the desert landscape, despite the occasionally littered trees and flowers, becomes a monotonous backdrop for the overwhelmingly countless rows of above-ground tombs, that have often been partly transformed into rubble. The graves, which seem to be littered with sand themselves, begin to bleed into the desert as one looks farther into the massive site. 


 

Description

(Collection of images from Bassatine cemetery)

The Cemetery: 

The cemetery at the Mount of Olives in the Old City of Jerusalem is the only resting place that surpasses the Bassatine cemetery, just east of Old Cairo, in the list of the eldest Jewish cemeteries in the world. Established in the late 9th century, the cemetery lies on an eighty-four acre plot of desert land granted by Sultan Ahmed ibn Touloun [1], founder of the Tulunid Dynasty of Egypt and Syria [2]. A vast majority of the cemetery has been lent, over time to Rabbinical Jews, though the original plan for the space included equal allotment for both Rabbinical and Karaite individuals [3]; these two groups differing in their respective acceptance and rejection of the Talmud. The site is linked with two synagogues, the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in downtown Cairo, as well as the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fostat, or Old Cairo [4]. The cemetery has a remarkable connection to the Ben Ezra Synagogue in particular, due to the fact that fragments of the Synagogue's geniza, referred to as the Cairo Geniza, were uncovered in Bassatine [5].  

The cemetery has been the subject of periods of intense degradation, which has varied from countless stolen marble slabs that cover above-ground graves (particularly frustrating, as these slabs functioned as the only identifier of the vast majority of the individual's buried here), to general abuse by thousands of poor Egyptian squatters, largely due to the absence of a surrounding wall prior to 1991. Luckily, the cemetery has had the occasional friend, the most notable of which, being Carmen Weinstein [6]. Weinstein, leader of Cairo's Jewry from 2004 to 2013, took an interest in various projects devoted to lending a new light to Jewish historical and cultural centers, after watching her community dwindle in the years following the 1948 war and the declaration of the state of Israel [7]. Her work on Bassatine in particular began in 1978, and her tasks included employing cemetery guards, thwarting vandalism, working to remove squatters from the property, and to remedy the general decay that plagued the site. Weinstein remained steadfast even when the enemy of the cemetery was not simply Egyptian citizens, but rather the government, which in 1988 devised a plan for a road that partially ran through the cemetery, endangering hundreds of graves. Weinstein, and other groups such as the World Sephardic Federation aided in thwarting this plan, and the Federation in particular, funded the wall that now covers over half of the site [8]. Today, Weinstein's resting place is Bassatine [9], reminding those who visit of her duty to the site. 

Now that less than one dozen Jewish women form the community of Cairo [10], the fate of the cemetery falls largely into the hands of the Egyptian government. 

Jews of Egypt:

“It is difficult to think of Jewish history as in any way separable from Egypt”

            -Simon Schama

The significance of the region of Egypt in piecing together the story of the Jews cannot be overstated. At the birth of Judaism, glory and transcendence was found in a rejection of Egypt, and the memories of foreign enslavement for those future Israelites who, as the first testament explicates, had been freed from this land both by Moses and the law that had been bestowed upon him by YHWH. As the Bible has it, Jews could not be molded until their exodus from Egypt had been completed, and thus, “to go back to Egypt…was a fall, a descent to brazen idolatry” [11]. But, even so, for many Jews, this retreat to Egypt felt unavoidable when tragedies such as the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel (aka Samaria) by the Assyrians or that of the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians took their toll. It thus becomes clear that the land of Egypt has never really been free of a Jewish population; the young identity of the Jewish community that was developing on the Nile island of Elephantine was just as valid and essential as that development occurring amongst the Jews that had remained in Israel and Judea. A symbol of this is found in the Temple erected in Elephantine. Though Jeremiah, the “weeping” prophet’s apprehensions concerning a return to Egypt rung clear with statements such as “’it shall come to pass that the sword which you feared shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt…and there you shall die’”, it is impossible to ignore the long history of refuge that this region has supplied. When Israel suffered, its Jews could find and be welcomed into established Jewish colonies which popped up in the ancient Egyptian cities of Tahpanhes, Memphis, and Pathros, for example [12].

Due to the endless presence of Jews in Egypt, the region has served as an immense treasure trove for Jewish historians, perhaps most notably so for scholar Solomon Schechter who, in the late 19th century, stumbled into a world of Jewish life, not only in Egypt, but in all of the Middle East, throughout medieval times [13]. As a result of the Jewish tradition which keeps Jews from discarding any documents that have YHWH written on them[14], the Ben Ezra Synagogue located in current day Cairo, Egypt has become a massive archive of diverse Hebrew writings[15]. Its contents date from the 9th century and continue for around a thousand years. The manuscripts are in no way limited to religious text and scripture, rather they give an intimate look into the daily dealings of a Jewish community in Egypt (much of it involving life under a Muslim Caliphate), from children’s homework, to business documents (revealing Cairo as a bustling, and leading economic center of the Middle East), pleas for divorce, and so on [16]. The significance of these 10,000 manuscripts is striking. First of all, many of the documents prove the lack of authority that the Pact of Umar held in many cases [17]. For example, writing about the complexity of Jewish fashion directly opposes the rules based on Dhimmi dress in the Pact [18]. Secondly, business documents reveal how Jews and Muslims really did live intimately among one another, and that this coexistence obviously must have been peaceful enough to allow seemingly unfettered synagogue adherence. Lastly, the Cairo Geniza serves as an example of combatting the notion that Jewish history has always retained a lachrymose nature. These documents are windows into periods of mundane daily life prompted by periods of tolerance and extensive, integral relationships between Jews and Gentiles.

With the continued emphasis on the fact that Egypt isn’t quite itself without its Jewish population, and the Jewish community isn’t quite itself without Egypt, the reality of the current state of Egypt’s Jewry is both unfortunate and doleful. Following the 1948 war that involved Egypt and a newly declared state of Israel, Egypt’s Jewry could not continue to thrive as it had previously. Throughout approximately four years of conflict between Arab states and the state of Israel, 20,000 Jews fled Egypt. Occasional Egyptian aggression against its Jewish population, exemplified through the imprisonment of hundreds of Jews due to President Abd al-Nasser’s suspicion that they may be spies for Israel during both the Suez crisis of 1956 and the 1967 war, prompted a continued flow of Egyptian Jews to Israel [19]. Today, less than forty Jews remain in Egypt, most of which being elderly woman. Furthermore, with the recent death of the community leader, Nadia Haroun, a once flourishing minority is grasping desperately for survival [20].

Cairo, Egypt

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