Egyptian authorities confiscate valuable Jewish archives in Cairo

The antiquities authority threw the material into dozens of sacks and drove away over the objections of the Jewish community.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Egyptian authorities have confiscated a newly discovered cache of Jewish archives from an old Cairo cemetery, angering the Jewish community that demands a role in documenting the rare find, Kan Radio’s “This Morning” program reported Thursday.

According to Jewish law, fragments of religious texts, usually with God’s name on them, must not be thrown out in the trash; rather, they should be buried with the proper respect in what is called a “genizah.”

This collection, which has yet to be dated, was found last month in a newly uncovered burial plot in the al-Basatin Jewish cemetery. Historians believe it to be the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in the world, dating back to the ninth century, and so the find could be of tremendous historical and cultural importance.

“It’s possible that there are treasures from ancient Jewish history here, and therefore a more professional approach is required,” said Prof. Yoram Meital of Ben-Gurion University, a historian who works in the field of preserving Egyptian Jewish culture who was interviewed on a separate program on the network.

“Genizah [materials] are excavated like antiquities by professional teams of archaeologists who are manuscript experts….It’s very delicate work,” he said.

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Instead of painstakingly documenting the papers together with their owners, namely the Jewish community, staff from the Egyptian Antiquities Authority broke into the cemetery, according to the report. Over a period of two days, the piled everything into dozens of huge sacks and drove off with them.

Members of Cairo’s tiny Jewish community tried stopping them, saying that a rabbi had to oversee the work, but they were ignored, the report said.

“We have to be involved in the issue,” a source close to the community told the network. “”We want the genizah because it is Jewish documents that can be related to Jewish families. These are community and private documents. It does not belong to the government.”

The source came up with a reason for the authorities’ action, surmising that in recent years, Egypt has become concerned about their antiquities being taken out of the country.

The source added that the community contacted the U.S. embassy in Cairo, asking for its intervention in the matter. The American connection stems from the funding that Washington has provided, along with private benefactors, to clean and preserve the remains of the once-large cemetery, only part of which has survived until today.

Tons of garbage have been removed and a new wall was built to protect the site.

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This work was being done in full coordination with the Egyptians, which gives Meital hope.

“In recent years, the Egyptian authorities have actually helped preserve Jewish heritage…. It’s not too late,” he said. “We estimate that the government has an interest in not shattering the image of inter-religious tolerance that it has been working on, and good treatment of the Jews.”

The most famous genizah collection in the world was also found in Cairo, in an attic of an ancient synagogue in the capital. Excavation began at the end of the 19th century, eventually yielding some 400,000 Jewish manuscript fragments that trace a 1,000-year history of the Jewish community, from the ninth to 19th centuries. It is considered the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world.