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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in Cairo 02: Mamluk rule 1250-1517

Persecution of non-Muslims - karaites - monopolization of Middle East and Far East trade - influx of Spanish Jews

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): vol.5,
                          col.28, Ezra synagogue, inner view
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): vol.5, col.28, Ezra synagogue, inner view
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): vol.5,
                          col.28, Ezra synagogue, carved door
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): vol.5, col.28, Ezra synagogue, carved door

from: Cairo; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 5

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)



[Persecutions of non-Muslims: above all under Mamluk rule]

<Under the rule of the Fatimids until 1171 and the Ayyubids from 1171 to 1250 the Jews enjoyed a certain amount of tolerance, but they suffered many persecutions during the reign of the Mamluks from 1250 to 1517.

Naturally, the decrees of the sultans against the non-Muslim communities were at first applied with severity in the capital. Sometimes the non-Muslims of Cairo were the only victims of this persecution, while the Christians and Jews in other places were exempted. These activities were most often directed against the Copts, the largest non-Muslim community in the Egypto-Syrian Mamluk kingdom, and were then extended to the Jews.

In 1265 the Christians of Cairo were accused of setting buildings on fire to avenge the defeat of the Franks by the Muslim rulers of Palestine. According to Arab historians, Sultan Baybars (1233-77) gathered the Christians and Jews of Cairo under the citadel walls and threatened to burn them alive unless they agreed to pay a large sum of money, which they finally did over many years.

In 1301 the general persecution of non-Muslims was renewed; those who suffered most were the Christians and Jews of Cairo. Christian and Jewish houses of prayer were closed down, and some of them were not reopened for many years, though one synagogue reopened in 1310. In 1316 the non-Muslim places of worship were again closed, (col. 27)

but they were reopened after a short while. A severe persecution of non-Muslims took place in 1354. According to Arab authors, there were riots in Cairo during which the fanatical mob destroyed all non-Muslim homes that were higher than the Muslim ones.

During the 15th century the sultans made even greater efforts to prove their piety by persecuting the non-Muslims, and Arab records of that time give much information on the attacks against Jews and Christians. From time to time searches for wine were carried out in their neighbourhoods, and all the barrels found were poured out into the street.

The Muslim fanatics often directed their attention toward the synagogues, accusing the Jews of having built additions to the synagogues, which were forbidden according to Islamic law; detailed searches were carried out and senseless accusations were brought against them.

In 1442 there was a general investigation of all non-Muslim palaces of worship to ascertain whether any new portions had been added to the buildings. As a result of the accusation that the Jews had written the name of Muhammad on the floor where the hazzan [[cantor]] stood, the Muslims destroyed the almemar ("pulpit") of a synagogue in Fostat and maltreated the Jews.

Later, the Muslim judges decided that a Karaite synagogue and a Rabbanite bet midrash [[house of learning]] in the Zuwayla neighbourhood should be confiscated because they had been private houses that had been turned into places of worship without authorization. Finally, the government demanded a solemn promise from non-Muslims that no alterations would be made in any of their community buildings.

During the reign of Sultan Inal (1453-1461), after rumors had spread that the non-Muslims had built new places of worship, a further investigation took place.

It was only rarely, as in 1473, that the Muslim authorities consented even to the repair of places of worship.


During the whole of (col. 28)

this period there existed a relatively powerful Karaite community in Cairo whose relations with the Rabbanites were not always good. A great dispute broke out between the two communities in 1465, when a newly arrived group of Spanish Marranos wanted to join the Karaites. The case was brought before the Muslim authorities and the son of the sultan tried to use the occasion to extort money from the Jews. However, the case was peacefully concluded; the two communities reached an agreement, and the sultan ordered his son not to interfere with the Jews.

[Mamluk rule for monopolization of spice trade and Indian and Far Eastern products]

The Mamluk rule not only brought harsh legislation and persecution on the Jews of Cairo, but also barred most of them from commerce in spices and other Indian and Far Eastern products, which had become the monopoly of a wealthy group of merchants. The economic status of the Jews, who had been a middle class of artisans and merchants under the Fatimids and Ayyubids, was now undermined, even though there remained a small privileged group employed in the royal mint and in banking affairs.

[1481: Jewish population estimates: Jews, Karaites, and Samaritans]

*Meshullam of Volterra, who was in Egypt in 1481, reports that at that time there were 800 households in Cairo, in addition to 150 Karaite and 50 Samaritan families. According to the Arab historian al-Maqrizi (d. 1442), there were five synagogues in the new Cairo in the first half of the 15th century: two belonged to the Rabbanites, two to the Karaites, and one to the Samaritans.

[since 1492: Spanish Jewish refugees influx to Egypt and assimilation to Arab language]

At the beginning of the 16th century many refugees came from Spain. Three distinct congregations were then formed:
-- Mustaravim (native Arabic-speaking Jews)
-- Maghrebim (Jews of North African origin)
-- and Spanish.

Among these congregations, each of which had its own bet din [[court]] and charitable institutions, there was occasional conflict, such as the great dispute of 1527 between the Mustaravim and the Maghrebim over precedents in the common synagogue. The (col. 29)

Spanish exiles surpassed the other communities, both in Jewish scholarship and generally; their scholars were even appointed as rabbis in the other communities.

Such was the case with R. Joseph Iskandari, who, although of Spanish origin, became rabbi of the Mustaravim. Generally, in the course of time the Mustaravim accepted the customs of the Spanish Jews in their prayers, while in time the descendants of the Spanish exiles became assimilated with the majority of the Jewish population and to a great extent stopped speaking Spanish.

[Cultural activities]

During the 16th century eminent scholars filled the rabbinical positions of Cairo. Most of them were of Spanish origin, but their halakhic decisions were universally accepted. During the first half of that century R. *David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra was the foremost rabbinical author in Cairo. R. Moses b. Isaac *Alashkar and R. Jacob *Berab were his contemporaries. After Abi Zimra emigrated to Palestine, R. Bezalel *Ashkenazi became the recognized authority. During the second half of the century, R. Jacob *Castro, R. Hayyim Kafusi, and R. Solomon di Trani lived in Cairo.> (col. 30)

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Cairo, vol.5,
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Cairo, vol.5, col.27-28
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Cairo, vol.5,
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Cairo, vol.5, col.29-30

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