Eliahou Hannabi Synagogue of Alexandria and the Jewish community

December 24, 2017

Alexandria was born as a metropolis, it received flowed of people from all over the world. It had lots of languages, colors, cultures and lots of creeds. As the library of Alexandria used to collect books and knowledge; the city used to collect people and people shaped communities. Each community had its own culture, traditions and faith. Since its foundation in 331 BCE Alexandria has been a factory of Religion.

“If a man makes a pilgrimage round Alexandria in the morning, God will make for him a golden crown, set with pearls, perfumed with musk and camphor, and shining from the east to the west.” Ibn Dukmak

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Alexandria grew into a pro-European city in addition to its oriental routs. The prospect of wealth resulting from trade and construction in the city, added to the cotton boom, as well as the wars, revolutions and ethnic and religious strife that racked Europe and the Mediterranean, drove foreigners from all countries and religious backgrounds to seek security and prosperity that the port offered [1]. Each background had distinctive traditions and rituals that needed a sacred places to gather its worshipers. Among them there were Muslims, Christians and Jews. As the mosque is the center of activities for Muslims and the church for Christians, the Synagogue, then, was the center of the Jewish life.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Jewish population numbered around 18000 persons and was to rise to high of 40000 just before the mass emigration of 1948-1950 [2]. It is said that half of the Alexandrian Jewish community was of Egyptian origins while the other half consisted of three groups: The Ladinos of Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia; the Europeans of Italy and eastern Europe; and the Arabs of Maghreb. However the Jewish community composed of craftsmen, joiners, compositors, peddlers, haberdashers, labourers, tailors, fishermen, greengrocers, brokers, kosher butchers, bankers and civil servants. In addition to them there were the aristocracy of the community and the Jewish bourgeoisie like: Chamla, Cicurel, Hannaux, Benizon, Mosseri, Curiel, Smouha, Toriel, Sachs, Saltiel, Rolo and Menasce. But no matter their social statuses were; the synagogue was their gathering place.

Eliahou Hannabi Synagogue of Alexandria, photo source: The author

The word “Synagogue” comes from the Greek and means an assembling together. But the earliest actual place of worship of the Jews is known as the tabernacle, which mainly means the movable tent. “It is said that Maimonides (Mousa abou Ammar ibn Maimon Abid Allah) arrived with his family in Alexandria in 1165, where he was respectfully received by the rabbis Meshoullam and Anatoli. He probably remained in the city for about a year before moving on to Fustat (in Cairo now). It is notable that in his correspondence with two rabbis he gives several mentions of the Eliahou Hannabi synagogue, which still exists to this day.” [2]

In addition to ten small synagogues like Menasce which still existing, Alexandria held 8 grand synagogues; Azouz is one of the oldest, Zaradel 1384, Green 1911, Sasson 1911, Eliahou Hazan 1930, Castro 1920, Chaareh Tefila 1918, and Eliahou Hannabi.

The existing structure of Eliahou Hannabi synagogue is a traditional Sephardic congregation, one of the largest synagogues in the Middle East and the only functioning one in Alexandria. The building sits within a courtyard that once contained the Jewish school (now Egyptian high school for girls), the mikvah, the various communal offices and other old buildings, which are now rented out to Egyptians. The synagogue is considered both historically and archaeologically important. The building as we know it today was built on the ruins of the old synagogue that was build in the 14th century and destroyed by Napoleon’s army. It is said that in 1830, Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt (1805-1848) was walking through Alexandria and witnessed a group of Jews praying among the ruins of the synagogue. Then he decided to donate a large sum of money for the reconstruction of the synagogue and called on the service of certain Italian architects. The Jewish community of Alexandria started rebuilding the new synagogue with the aid of Sir Moses Haim Montefiore (1784-1885), and it is believed that the construction started on 1836 and continued till 1850. At the beginning of the 20th century Eliahou Hannabi became the major synagogue of Alexandria where celebration of Jewish holidays and weddings were conducted.

Eliahou Hannabi Synagogue of Alexandria, photo source: The author

Historically, synagogues were built in the prevailing architectural style of their time and place. As the designers of Eliahou Hannabi synagogue were Italian architects; the exterior of the oblong-shaped structure is designed in the Neoclassical architectural style, whilst the interior design is mixture of both Byzantine and Gothic style that appears in the vaulted ceiling. The synagogue and prayer sanctuaries are facing east towards Jerusalem.

The large prayer hall is built in the form of a Basilica which is divided into three elongated sections. In the middle there is a nave surrounded by two galleries to the right and the left and are carried on white marble Ionic columns where we find the Ezrat Nashim (Women’ seats) and choir of the synagogue. The interior of the synagogue is relatively simple and functional, upon entering the main hall we find a rows of wooden seats (700 seats), each one carries the name of its owner on a small brass sign board. The most striking object, located in the center of the synagogue, is the Bimah or Tebah by Sephardim; a raised platform on which the Torah is read. And several steps behind, one ascends to the second prominent fixture of the synagogue interior which is the Aron ha-kodesh or Hekhal by Sephardim, the holy ark, wherein the Torah scrolls are kept and the curtain in front of the ark is known as the parokhet. Another dominant feature of the synagogue is the eternal light. In the synagogue there are candlesticks each of 5 branches and total of 72 lighting objects in addition to eight wooden Menorahs each of 9 branches. There are also major Jewish emblems which are the interlacing triangles and the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments).

Eliahou Hannabi Synagogue of Alexandria, photo source: The author

The architects of the synagogues are always following a tradition that the structure should be the highest among the surrounding buildings which is believed was the case in the construction time. Despite being the building a unique piece of the Alexandrian architectural heritage; it is in a deteriorated conditions as result of decades of neglect and lack of maintenance which recently urged the Egyptian authorities of antiquities to dedicated millions of pounds for the comprehensive restoration process.

The study of the Synagogue is the study of the history of Jews in Alexandria and Egypt in general. No period of this community existence is conceivable without the synagogue as a place of public worship and religious instruction.


  1. Bibliotheca Alexandrina. (2012). Voices from cosmopolitan Alexandria, volum 1.
  2. Ilbert, R. and Yannakakis, I. with Hassoun, J. (1997). Alexandria 1860-1960: the brief history of a cosmopolitan community. Harpocrates.