“Who gave you the right to abandon your prophets?”

Jewish Sites of Ruins and Memory in Egypt

This article is dedicated to the cultural heritage of Jews from Egypt,1 that worked to reaffirm a collective Egyptian Jewish history and identity by preserving Egyptian Jewish architecture, primarily religious buildings, which were falling into disrepair, most often through lack of maintenance, abandonment, sale or damage. This “patrimonialisation” is driven by various actors, who nowadays constitute, in Egypt and in various diasporas, the diffracted constellations of vanished worlds and promote their “dormant” buildings and religious artefacts as living traces of a past that can no longer be associated with current practices performed by any social group in Egypt. These actors, however, do not share a same vision of how to preserve, in the short or in the long term, these emblematic sites of diasporic Judaism, witnessing both the disappearance of a world and the possibility, through the presence of its material traces, of identifying part of a past that can still be written and evoked. This paper explores the paradoxical trajectory of Jewish heritage in Egypt, between promotion, co-option, abandonment, forgetting and rejection. Caught between diverse interests and intertwined stakes, heritage became a concrete trace of the physical exclusion of the Jews (expelled from the country) and at the same time an emblem of their symbolical inclusion, given Egypt’s claim of tolerance of its many communities.

issue 16 / December 2019 by Michèle Baussant