Anyone walking along 'Adly Street in downtown Cairo will discern a building (Fig.1) which at first glance looks like those described by Cynthia Myntti in her book, Paris Along the Nile: Architecture in Cairo from the Belle Epoque, 1 as a product of colonialist construction in Cairo in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Close inspection reveals a facade decorated with [End Page 31] a vast quantity of elements in bas-relief stone carving which are stylistically eclectic, while over it all hovers the spirit of Pharaonic art. On entering the building the viewer is exposed to a whole mélange of styles: Neo-Baroque, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Neo Pharaonic (Fig.2). It is only through the characteristic furnishings and Hebrew inscriptions that one realizes that this is in fact a synagogue, a place of Jewish worship.
Sha'ar Hashamayim (The Gate of Heaven), Cairo's most impressive synagogue, was built in the Ismailiyya Quarter. It is a landmark in the history of the wealthy, educated, Jewish elite in late nineteenth century Cairo.2 However, it also forms an integral part of the process of development of urban Europeanized3 Cairo as it took shape during the nineteenth century under the Khedives' regime and from 1882 under British rule. This process was mainly dictated by European architects who took different forms and styles inspired by the past and used them all together in the same area, structure or space. While for 1,200 years there had been a clearly identifiable, Cairene-Muslim style, now a new multicultural cosmopolitan one had come into being. Thus a building in the Gothic style would be erected next to one in Romanesque or Classical style, or a Baroque-inspired building next to Pharaonic, Arab, Moorish or Mamluk structures. Moreover, beyond the rejuvenated forms and the use of a system of architectural motifs and elements that were timeless and syncretic, the decorative trends of the time were influenced either by Art Deco or the German Jugendstil, which venerated and glorified decoration for its own sake.
Once liberated from the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt became an autonomous province (vilayet).4 Under the Khedives' regime there was an [End Page 32] increasing involvement of European powers and trading companies in the country. Egypt was now exposed to Western civilization: study in Europe was encouraged, and vast numbers of foreign immigrants with Western skills and connections were absorbed (by 1900 there were some 125,000 foreigners in Cairo). All this brought about considerable economic prosperity, not only for the Egyptians but also for the Jews of Egypt in the course of the nineteenth century, and particularly during its last twenty-five years. Jewish families, mainly those from the Sephardi community, attained influential positions in commerce, finance, banking and government. Consequently, a process of what Gudrun Kramer terms "social and spatial mobility"5 began, and Cairo's affluent Jews started leaving the Jewish neighborhoods (harat al-yahud) of the Fatimid city and moving into the new, modern ones like Ismailiyya, and later into the European quarters of Heliopolis, Zamalek, Giza and Garden City.6
The improved economic situation of the Egyptian Jews brought with it not only a significant rise in their overall standard of living, but also the adoption of European culture. From 1882 onwards, as a result of an increased foreign presence under British rule, we can see the consolidation and reinforcement of the liberal, universal and cosmopolitan elements of European culture in Egypt and as a consequence also the strengthening of Egyptian Jewry's emancipation. It is against this backdrop that we should see the construction of numerous synagogues in the new neighborhoods of nineteenth and twentieth century Cairo. These are synagogues whose architectural styles attest to the history of the local Jews and faithfully reflect their number, group affiliation and economic status.7
The present article will look at the Sha'ar Hashmayim synagogue as the confluence of three...