Sister Shuls: Eliyahu Hanavi in Alexandria, Egypt
In “Sister Shuls,” we travel virtually to other synagogues whose exuberant architecture has a kinship with our landmark home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
So far in our cyber searching for Sister Shuls, we’ve traveled to Prague, Budapest, Mumbai and Florence. This time we’ve landed in Alexandria, Egypt at the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue.
A synagogue has stood on this site since the 14th century. In 1798, that original building was bombed by Napoleon. The Eliyahu Hanavi we see today is the replacement – built in 1850 by Italian architects. One of the largest shuls in the Middle East, it seats 700 people and once served a Jewish community of 40,000. Today it is one of only two remaining synagogues in a city that was once home to a dozen.
Like the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Eliyahu Hanavi has an architecturally eclectic façade. Ours at Eldridge Street combines a Gothic rose window with Moorish keyhole windows and Romanesque repeated arches and heavy stonework. If the Alexandria synagogue were in Europe or the U.S., its style might be called 19th century Egyptian Revival. But since it’s actually in Egypt, it’s hard to give its style a name. The building combines the tall central tower and angular roofline associated with Egyptian buildings with an Italian-looking balustrade, two rows of arched windows and the partial frame of a Gothic rose window at the center. Very eclectic, indeed!
Inside, both synagogues have a cavernous open space, with columns reaching up to a high vaulted ceiling. Both spaces use the stately look of marble to elevate the space – but only one shul’s columns actually use the material! At Eldridge Street, the columns are wood – reportedly repurposed ship masts – and are painted with a faux marble finish. The early congregation stretched their decorating dollars by using lots of painted-to-look-like-the-real-thing finishes. At Eliyahu Hanavi, however, the columns are actual marble!
A close look at the benches at Eliyahu Hanavi reveals brass plaques with the names of regular worshipers. At Eldridge Street, pews are similarly marked, but with painted numbers that designated the seats of individual congregants. The best seats – and the lowest numbers – were up front near the ark and bimah. Some of our benches also carry brass plaques on the top edges. Those were added in the 1990s and 2000s and are markers of generous donors to our 20-year, $20-million restoration effort.
Although there had been a robust Jewish community in Alexandria since the time of Alexander the Great, in modern times it has all but disappeared. In the 1940s, it numbered around 80,000.Today, the community stands at fewer than 20. After Israel was founded in 1948, rising nationalist feelings increased tensions in Egypt. The Arab-Israeli wars made it worse for remaining Jews, as did harassment and Egyptian President Nasser’s forced expulsions.
As the community of worshipers at Eliyahu Hanavi got smaller and smaller, the building fell into disrepair. When a portion of the roof and a staircase collapsed in 2016, it was in some ways fortunate because it called attention to the deteriorating building. The next year, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities dedicated 40 million Egyptian pounds for emergency repair. Likewise, when Professor Gerard Wolfe brought preservationists to the Eldridge Street Synagogue in the 1970s, it spurred a restoration effort.
Egyptians see Eliyahu Hanavi and Alexandria’s historic Jewish community as a symbol of their nation’s historical plurality. It’s a touchstone to a time when diverse national and religious communities lived and worked side-by-side, even if their more recent history has been problematic. At Eldridge Street, we see our site similarly. It’s a marker of a time when the Lower East Side was one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. Ourbuilding has always sat in the midst of a diverse and changing immigrant neighborhood. Although the Jewish population on the Lower East Side has all but vanished, just like in Alexandria, there’s much to be learned from their legacy.
Do you know a shul you’d like to see side-by-side with Eldridge Street? Let us know in the comments.
Nancy Johnson is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Archivist and Exhibition Curator.