|BASSATINE NEWS the ONLY Jewish newsletter reporting directly from Egypt|
|A Community Chronicle put out by the Jewish Community Council (JCC) of Cairo since 1995|
MAGDA HAROUN NEW JCC PRESIDENT
18 APRIL 2013
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The Bassatine Jewish cemetery lies between the center of Cairo and the suburb of Maadi. This land - then part of the desert - was donated in the 9th century by Sultan Ahmed ibn Touloun to the Jewish community of Egypt then represented by Saadia ben Joseph also known as Said al-Fayoumi, an Egyptian Jew who wrote in Arabic and was regarded internationally as the outstanding Jewish literary and political figure in the middle ages. Many celebrities from among the Jews of Egypt are buried there, but it is also a last resting place for thousands of others who, over the centuries, fled to Cairo from European terror and whose graves are a further testimony to Egyptian tolerance and hospitality.
Bassatine comprised 120 feddans (a feddan = 4,200 sq.m.) to be divided equally between the Rabbinical and the Karaite Jews. The part belonging to the Karaites has almost completely disappeared except for two large vaults. As for the part belonging to the Rabbinical Jews (60 feddans), this has suffered considerable damages. Yet, more than half of it has been saved through the personal efforts of Ms. Carmen Weinstein. The process of recuperating as much as possible of the rest is under way.
After 1967, most of the marble slabs covering the individual graves were stolen. Most of the vaults, some of the land without graves and some with graves, were squatted on by the migrants from Upper Egypt as well as by desitute Cairenes. This invasion was made possible through the fact that the cemetery was not enclosed by a wall. Moreover, roads have been driven through it as it continued to be used as a quarry for marble and construction stone.
In 1978, Carmen Weinstein took upon her own responsibility the task of recuperating what could be saved of the cemetery. Yet in spite of her worldwide appeals through the media and the enlisting of various personalities, she met with lukewarm response and indifference particuarly from the Cairo Jewish community then headed by Mtre Youssef Dana.
The local community was uninterested in saving or upkeeping the cemetery since it could neither be sold or rented out. The only recognition came from the Paris-based Association Pour la Preservation du Patrimoine Culturel Juif d'Egypte headed by Dr. Jacques Hassoun and composed of ex-Egyptian Jews. At first they helped with donations to keep two guards and, after three years, sent a lump sum towards the building of a protective wall around the cemetery. No additional funds were forthcoming from that day.
Weinstein continued her efforts and hired a guard paid for by her own personal funds over a period of 10 years. Together with spasmodic cooperation and assistance from the police and well-wishers - mostly non-Jews - she was able to preserve a large part of the cemetery free from squatters. This was quite a feat particularly since the latter kept multiplying geometrically as Egypt's population and housing crisis continues to remain unsolved. (Reportedly, there are 14 million in Greater Cairo alone!)
In 1988, the government decided to build a "ring road" around Cairo. Part of that road was to cross right in the middle of the cemetery, endangering 300 graves. Bassatine was suddenly catapulted into the forefront of the international media. Rabbis, reporters and heads of missions flocked to the cemetery and viewed it with dismay. They spent thousands of dollars on plane fares and hotel accommodations alone but failed to contribute one dollar towards the building of a wall so as to encompass what Weinstein had managed to save of the cemetery!
In 1990, a group of squatters, led by a hoodlum, invaded the southern part of the cemetery. They were ousted following the intervention of the Special Police Force who advised Weinstein to start building the protective wall post haste. A sudden rise in the dollar value enabled her to purchase the necessary Egyptian pounds at a favorable rate and start construction using the money advanced by the above mentioned Paris based association.
In 1991, the World Sephardic Federation sent additional funds which allowed the construction of a 3-meter high, 2,000 meter long wall encompassing about 35 feddans, more than half the cemetery. It was not an easy task as squatters had to be fended off the land and these were mostly composed of drug peddlers, former or escaped convicts and thieves. This was done with the help of the law enforcement agencies, lawyers, officials from both the municipality and the Cairo governorate and whichever high ranking official Weinstein thought could be of help.
There was also the problem of removing rubbish mounds and refuse accumulated over the years entailing additional expense.
The wall is now completed. Carmen Weinstein, meanwhile, has also recuperated a vault within the precinct of the wall from a squatting mechanic who for the past 20 years had used it as a workshop. These were turned into offices and an exhibition gallery plus a small room for the safekeeping of recovered marble slabs.
The cemetery is today accessible through two large iron gates with the Magen star encrusted therein. Trees were planted in some of the alleys inside the cemetery. And while most of the hacked graves have been realigned and put in place, a great deal still remains to be done.
1. Complete the realignment of graves within the wall.
2. Complete the tracing of the alleys within the cemetery and planting more trees along the alleys and along the entire perimeter of the wall from inside the cemetery.
3. Pay for two students (one Israeli or American Jew and a native Egyptian from the Hebrew section of Cairo University) to: a) draw up a plan of the graves and transcribe the Hebrew inscriptions engraved on the tombs translating them into Arabic and English.
b) Catalogue the graves which are unmarked or with missing slabs so that visiting relatives can identify them whenever this is possible. Graves are sometimes identifiable in relation to neighboring ones or certain landmarks.
4. The raising of funds so that a monthly sum of at least $ 350 (for starters) be applied against cost of maintenance plus the appointment of a daytime employee knowledgeable in Arabic and English and preferably Hebrew. A night guard must also be recruited and water for the trees be provided for.
5. Funds must also be raised in order to pay off squatters in the other parts of the cemetery and in the contiguous areas where private Jewish tombs or vaults still exist. This entails legal fees and the enlisting of police support.
In view of terrorist acts enacted in Israel by extremist Jews such as what took place in Hebron/al-Khalil in 1994, Egyptian opposition papers drummed up a serious anti-Jewish campaign seized upon by many of the squatters. Negotiations remain the best alternative to have them removed from the cemetery and the outlying vaults. This entails both compensation and key money. As one by one these vaults are liberated, protective walls have to be built around them or cementing the entrances whichever the case might be.
Several vaults have already been recuperated in this manner including that of Haim Cappuci, the Moise Cattaui Pasha mausoleum, the Rodrigues vault, the Ventura and the Ades enclosures and the Naggar graveyard. These feats were accomplished (in part) thanks to donations sent by Mr. Clement Soffer from New York who was assisted by the Brooklyn community.
As a visitor to the Bassatine cemetery, we hope you will consider with the utmost urgency the above plan of action. Te local Jewish community today numbers in the two digits and cannot, and should not, be relied upon. The final salvation of this cemetery will have to come from outside sources.
Following the recent, unilateral and unwarranted sale by the president of the Jewish community of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, Port Said and the declared intention to sell the land adjoining the Maadi Synagogue, Carmen Weinstein contacted Dr. Abdel Halim Nur al-Din of the Antiquities Department urging him to declare all remaining Jewish landmarks and synagogues, even those below 100 years old - a requirement for listing in Egypt - including this cemetery as "listed monuments" thus keeping them beyond the reach of predators, squatters and other "interested" parties. No decision in this matter has yet been taken by the said department.
The Bassatine cemetery ranks second in importance amongst the Jewish world-wide cemeteries after that of the Mount of Olives. The sanctity of the dead is of real and primordial consideration.
To keep this cemetery is to keep alive the Jewish presence in Egypt since first that came to be in Pharaonic and Biblical times. It is to keep alive the memory of a Jewish community that had successfully achieved full respect, recognition and great consideration in this land. To this day, its members are remembered with great emotion and nostalgia even though the community has dwindled today to less than 100 persons. Not too many other Jewish communities in the world, past or present, have enjoyed a comparable record.
Thank you for your consideration
Note: The campaign to preserve the Jewish Cemetery of Bassatine was launched single-handedly, more than a decade ago, by Carmen Weinstein. It is mostly thanks to her efforts that you are here [visitors to Bassatine] today. As you can see, the road is still long. Your contribution therefore, however small, may help shorten it. Thank you
1. Char Hachamayim (Ismailia Temple) , Adly Street.
2. Ashkenazi Synagogue, al-Noubi Street off al-Geish Street
3. Kubbeh Synagogue, Misr-Sudan Street, Kubbeh Gardens
4. Hanan Synagogue, Daher
5. Heliopolis Synagogue next to Old People's home.
6. Meir Y. Biton Synagogue, Orabi and Road 13, Maadi
7. Midrash Synagogue, Beit Mosseri, Haret al-Yahood
8. Ben Ezra Synagogue, Old Cairo
Visits to certain Synagogues require prior arrangement with the office of the president of the Jewish Community Council of Cairo (JCC) office.
ON BEHALF OF THE
A.S.P.C.J.E (Association pour la Sauvegarde du Patrimoine Culturel Juif d'Egypte) and its President
|Soffer, Clement||New York|
|BENIACAR, Emond & Theodora||Australia|
|BENSOUSSAN, Mr. & Mrs.||France|
|CHEHEBA, Maurice||New York|
|COHEN, Henri Rene||Geneva|
|DAHAN, Chaoul||New York|
|DANON, Marie Antoinette||Paris|
|FEIBELMAN, Mr. & Mrs.||Paris|
|FISCHER, Mrs. M.||France|
|GARON, Steven||New York|
|HASSOUN, Pascale Lestienne||Paris|
|JABES-CRASSON, Vivian Edmond||Paris|
|MAZZA, Leon||Los Angelos|
|MISRAHI, Myriam "Mimi"||Paris|
|NEWHOUSE, Caroline,||New York|
|PEREIRE, Mrs. Levy||Paris|
|SALAMA, Doctor & Mrs||France|
|STOLOFF, Victor||New York|
and those who gave their valued support, energy, constant help and their time:
|BEN ELISSAR, Nitza|
|DAYEM, Mtr. Mossaad abdel|
|DAYEM, Mtr. Yussri abdel|
|HOSNY, Eng. Mostafa|
|RODENBECK, Dr. John|
|SHAMIR, Dr. Shimon|
|WEINSTEIN , Glorice|
|DWEK, Amb. Ephraim|
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C O N T A C TJewish Community Council (JCC) of Cairo
# 13 Sabil El Khazindar Street
Midan al-Geish, Abbassia, Cairo
tel: +20 2 2482-4613 - tel/fax +20 2 2736-9639
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Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fostat (Old Cairo)
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