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The Workforce and Marcelle in Abassya, Cairo, Egypt, 1944

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The workforce and Marcelle in 1944 worked as typist  in the Abassya British military camp, Cairo, Egypt, 1945

The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People, courtesy of Didier Frenkel

Photo period:
1944
ID Number:
23034436
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Cairo

In Arabic: القاهرة‎ 

Capital of Egypt

It is almost certain that Jews settled in Fostat at the time of its establishment in 641 by Arab occupation, and they built their synagogue in the ancient byzantine citadel. In the 10th century Jews arrived from Babylon and founded two communities - the Babylonian and the Palestinian. After the Fatimids established the new city of Cairo (969), north of Fostat, the local Jewish community became the most famous in Egypt. Jews continued to dwell in Fostat (old Cairo) until it was burned by the Egyptians (1169) in an effort to prevent its capture by the crusaders; the famous "genizah" was found in the ancient synagogue of Fostat at the end of the 19th century.

Maimonides, his son Abraham, and his grandson David lived in Fostat. The heads of the Palestinian community in the b. Moses ha-Levi, and his brother Sar Shalom ha-Levi. Persecutions took place during the rule of the Mamluks (1250-1517), who persecuted non-Muslim communities in general and the large Christian Coptic minority in particular. Synagogues and churches were destroyed and closed and fanatical Muslims plotted against Jews for many reasons. It is said that Sultan Baybars gathered the Jews and the Christians under the citadel walls and threatened to burn them alive unless they agreed to pay a large sum of money (13th century). Mamluk rule forbade Jews to trade in spices and other imports from the Far East, and their economic situation worsened. Most of them were tradesmen and manufacturers and a privileged group still continued to deal in money and banking.

Meshullam of Volterra reports 800 Jewish households in Cairo in 1481 as well as 150 Karaite and 50 Samaritan families. According to an Arab historian, there were five synagogues in Cairo. In the beginning of the 16th century, many refugees from Spain came to Cairo. There were two distinct groups of Jews: maghrebim (Jews of North African origin), and Sephardim, each with its own bet din and charitable institutions; and there was occasional conflict between them. The Sephardim surpassed the other communities and were appointed as rabbis for the musta'rabs, who adopted the customs of the Spanish Jews in their prayers. The descendants of the exiles assimilated with the Jewish majority and forgot their Spanish language. Among the great Spanish scholars of the 16th century were R. David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, R. Moses b. Isaac Alashkar, R. Jacob Berab, R. Bezalel Ashkenazi, R. Jacob Castro, and R. Solomon di Trani.

The Turks, who conquered Egypt in 1517, did not interfere in Jewish religious affairs. They badly treated the rich Jews, however, most of whom occupied official appointments, such as the operation of the mint and the collection of taxes; many of them were condemned to death on various pretexts. In 1524 the governor Ahmed Pasha extorted a vast sum of money from the director of the mint - Abraham Castro - by threatening to slaughter all the Jews. However on the day of payment Ahmed Pasha was murdered by a group of his own soldiers and the danger was averted. This day of salvation was commemorated as an annual Purim Mitzrayim (Purim of Egypt). The extortion and tyranny worsened in the 17th and 18th centuries with the decline of Ottoman rule.

Among the sages of the Jewish community of Cairo a special mention should be made of Chayyim Vital from the kabbalists of Safed, Mordecai ha- Levi, Solomon Algazi; and in the 19th century Moses Algazi, Elijah Israel, and Raphael Aaron b. Simeon.

A new era for the Jewish community in Cairo started with the rise of Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) to Egyptian rule (1805). Moses Montefiore, Adolphe Cremieux, and Solomon Monk (the secretary of the Jewish consistoire of France) visited Cairo, and founded modern schools; and after the economic development of Egypt Jews from other Mediterranean countries settled in Cairo. In 1882 there were 5,000 Jews in Cairo and after 15 years, 11,500, including 1,000 Karaites. In 1917 the Jewish community numbered 25,000, among them many refugees from eastern Europe. Jews prospered in commerce and banking and even took part in public affairs and government institutions. R. Yom Tov Israel was appointed to the legislative assembly and Jacob Cattaui became the chief revenue officer of Egypt; his son Joseph was minister of finance (1923) and another son Moses was president of the Cairo community for 40 years. In 1925 Chief Rabbi Haim Nahoum joined the Egyptian Academy of Science.

During early 20th century there were a number of Jewish newspapers in Cairo, among them Mitzrayim (Ladino, 1900), Die Zeit (Yiddish, 1907-08), and the weekly magazines l'Aurore (French, 1908), and Israel (French, 1919). In 1934 there was an Arabic weekly magazine, Al-Shams. The Karaites also published a weekly magazine of their own called Al-Kalim.

In 1947, 41,860 Jews (64% of Egyptian Jewry) lived in Cairo, 58.8% of whom were merchants, and 17.9% worked in industry. Although it contained a few wealthy Jews, the Cairo community was poorer than Alexandria. After the arrests of Jews in 1948-49 and the persecutions of 1956-57, only 5,587 Jews were left. After the Six-Day War this number decreased to about 1,500, and by 1970 only a few hundred remained, especially in the new mixed quarter of Heliopolis. Massive arrests began in June-July 1954; about 100 Jews were concentrated in two camps and fifteen of them brought to trial. In the spy case which ended in 1955, Moses Marzouk and Samuel 'Azar were condemned to death by hanging and others received life sentences. (They were released and sent back to Israel after the Six-Day War.) In 1956 the head of the community Salvador Cicurel left Egypt and was succeeded by Albert Romano. In November 1956 the government confiscated the hospital. After the death of R. Haim Nahoum, Chayyim was elected as chief rabbi in 1960; he left Egypt in 1972.

In 1997 there were 100 Jews living in Egypt, most them in Cairo.