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An Egyptian monument to a Judeo-Moroccan mystic is set amidst the rural pastures of Northern Egypt. Ya'akov Abuhatzera, known as the Abir Ya'akov (Prince Jacob), was a native of the southern Moroccan city of Erfoud. Late in life, he journeyed across North Africa to die and be buried in Israel, but only made it as far as the Nile Delta village of Damanhur. His tomb in the run-down local cemetery attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. A coalition of Egyptian Islamists and far-left activists, however, have launched a national campaign to permanently ban Jewish visitors. Some of this coalition have even issued death threats. Why are Muslim Brotherhood members of the Egyptian parliament so infuriated over a small Jewish shrine? How was it that a Moroccan rabbi was buried in a small town in Egypt's Nile Delta? And why do thousands of Jews from around the world try to make an annual pilgrimage to his forlorn tomb? The answers to these questions reveal a tense contemporary example of access being denied to a cherished Jewish heritage site.
Abir Ya’akov: Today, Ya'akov Abuhatzera is perhaps best known via his grandson the “Baba Sale” (Yisrael Abuhatzera), whose photo is ubiquitous in Israel and displayed at many Israeli falafel stands. His tomb in Netivot, Israel, attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims every year. But long before the Baba Sale was even born, the grandeur of the Abuhatzera rabbinic dynasty was defined by the Abir Ya'akov, who wrote twelve books of commentary and developed a mystical following at the edge of the Sahara (hear a song composed in his memory). His ancestors originally hailed from Jerusalem, moved to Damascus, then settled in the southwestern Morocco region of Tafilalet. Yaakov continued the family dynasty, becoming chief rabbi of Erfoud and developing a reputation across North Africa.
Damanhur: In 1879, at an advanced age, the Abir Yaakov left his community to die in Israel. He passed through Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya before arriving in Damanhur, a town outside Alexandria. The Jewish community in this agricultural town formed in the mid-1800s, numbered in the low hundreds, and had faced a series of pogroms in 1871, 1873, and 1877 after false accusations of ritual murder. The Abir Ya'akov lodged with local community leader Moshe Sarousi and soon became well known in villages surrounding Damanhur. He died at age 75 on January 4, 1880 (20 Tevet on the Hebrew calendar), and his grave soon became a pilgrimage destination for Jews and also some Muslims. By the 1930s, after all Jews had moved away from Damanhur, a community organization was formed to maintain the cemetery and synagogue.
Shrine: Parcels of farmland surround the Damanhur Jewish cemetery, which has a 24-hour police presence. A few dozen faded concrete tombstones surround the Abir Ya'akov shrine. The current building is a renovated version of the original, which was a domed structure surrounded by a stone fence and trees. The original red stone can be seen in places underneath the cracked yellow plaster of the current shrine, which is a basic, rectangular, one-room structure of about 600 square feet and having ten small windows. The Abir Ya'akov’s tombstone, with an Aramaic inscription, is surrounded by three unmarked tombs—his students, according to some traditions. A candelabra, often filled with hay for reasons that are unclear, hangs from the ceiling, and a corner shelf is used to hold candles.
Hiloula: “Hiloula” is an Aramaic term referring to a celebration at the tomb of a mystic or rabbi, typically done on the anniversary of the person’s death. Until the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Israelis were unable to visit Damahur, celebrating the Abir Ya’akov’s hiloula in absentia. Since 1980, thousands of Jews (as well as Muslims) have made pilgrimages to the tomb (click here for a video), with the annual hiloula on the 20 Tevet. Waves of prayer groups enter the small shrine enjoying a festive meal, singing songs of praise and congregating around the tomb. Vistors touch the grave stone. Others bend to kiss the tomb. Some even have the custom of placing a bottle of water, arak, or oil atop the tomb, believing the sanctity (or “baraka”) of the rabbi will be transferred first to the liquids, then to the person who consumes them.
Controversy: Inter-religious tension existed in Damanhur even when the Jewish community was quite small, as evidenced by the series of 19th Century pogroms. Since 1980, thousands of Jews arrive at the village every year, with some hiloula visits attracting up to 25,000 people. While visits generally went smoothly in the 1990s, political strife and rising Islamist movements have made the tomb a center of international controversy. In 2004, an Egyptian court revoked the Ministry of Culture’s designation of the tomb as an antiquity site and legally banned the annual hiloula. Still, a temporary court order would allow pilgrims to visit. In January of 2007, a “secret pilgrimage” featured over 600 Israelis.
Campaign: To press their demands, Muslim Brotherhood and far-left activists in Egypt forged an unlikely coalition called “You Will Never Pass Over My Land” that has collected over one million signatures to enforce the ban on Jewish visitors. They have organized dozens of demonstrations, launched an online campaign dubbed “Noabohasera,” called for “stones to be thrown at pilgrims, and even threatened to kill Jewish visitors. In 2009, the pilgrimage was blocked and five would-be pilgrims were reportedly turned away. One campaigner even claimed: “The Jews invented the story of Abu Hazirah as a pretext to make their celebrations in Damanhur.”