- Era Modern
- Project Director Samy Ibrahim
- Location Cairo
- Affiliation The Drop of Milk Association
- Project Sponsor Antiquities Endowment Fund
- Project Dates 2017-2018
Of the many paths to understand the rich, complex Jewish history of Egypt, one of the most revealing must have been on a December day in 1896 when a British scholar climbed a rickety ladder into a dusty attic room at a Cairo synagogue. What Solomon Schecter of Cambridge University said he found was astonishing: Ancient manuscripts over 10 centuries of history, from the Crusades to his own time – disorganized, debris-covered piles of everything from scholarly works and religious treatises to personal letters, receipts, poems and shopping lists: the paper of everyday life. Among the most precious were thousands of letters, manuscripts and other documents from 950 to 1250.
The momentous contents of this storage room, plus more documents gathered by Schecter and other scholars and explorers, came to be known worldwide as the Cairo Geniza. The name relates to the temple rooms used to store rather than discard any worn-out documents that mention the name of God. Most temple genizot eventually bury such documents in cemeteries. For many documents linked to Schecter, however, that burial never occurred, and a mystery arose as intricate and nuanced as the Cairo history of the faith.
The room where Schecter worked for months into 1897 and from which he eventually removed the trove of documents was in Ben Ezra Synagogue, the oldest Jewish temple in Egypt and one of the oldest extant Jewish houses of worship in the world. According to the local tradition, the synagogue was erected on the location where Moses prayed to God, as it said in Exodus 9, 33. Whatever the legend, a Jewish temple apparently has stood on the spot since the ninth century, a fact relevant to a recent, ARCE-funded survey of Ben Ezra and Cairo’s 10 other remaining synagogues.
For Egypt, a nation known for discoveries relating to the age of the pharaohs, the revelations from the medieval treasures related to Ben Ezra are much more than a window into its later history. The hundreds of thousands of fragments, letters, books and even sheet music are another Egyptian contribution to knowledge about the development of both Western and Eastern civilizations.
Recent scholarship supports the idea that some of the “Cairo Geniza” documents now found in museums worldwide came from places beyond Ben Ezra, including material from other synagogues. Indeed, the dusty room from which Schecter removed documents into 1897 was fewer than five years old, the result of a renovation of an older temple in which some, perhaps many, of the documents he found had originally accumulated over centuries of deposits, moves and restorations. Before Schecter entered the newer chamber, some of the documents may have traveled there from other synagogues and sources, in much the same way that documents not recovered by Schecter himself are now described by the famous Cairo Geniza label. Certainly, many documents he recovered in that original mission had previously been removed, stored or even temporarily trashed during the synagogue’s renovation, losing the context of origin and discovery important to archaeologists.
“The label ‘the Cairo Geniza,’ while not preventing us from accurately assessing the content of the manuscripts, can be distorting,” writes scholar Rebecca J.W. Jefferson in the Fall 2018 Jewish Quarterly Review, “because it can preclude us from truly appreciating the breadth of Jewish material culture in Cairo in all its varied manifestations.”
Those manifestations permeate the ARCE-funded survey of Cairo’s synagogues. Today, Ben Ezra is largely a visitors’ attraction, in part because all that remains of Cairo’s once glorious Jewish community, which numbered around 42,000 lives in 1947, is four women. Against this backdrop, Cairene Jewry’s immovable assets, foremost among them its historic synagogues, are facing what could become a transformation partially funded by the ARCE grant. The exceptional initiative from Magda Haroun, the head of Cairo’s tiny Jewish community, and her deputy, Samy Ibrahim, is the Cairo Jewish Synagogues Study (CJSS) – an innovative project to document those remaining synagogues so their future can be assessed. These temples—both ancient and modern—open a window onto a minority that flourished in the Land of the Nile for thousands of years.
In 2017, the ARCE grant launched the first step of the plan to survey Cairo’s Sephardic, Ashkenazic and Karaite synagogues, their architectural qualities and the objects integrated into their sanctuaries. Some were cleaned of local debris that accumulated since their decades-ago abandonment. Amid a careful evolution of local and national attitudes, the survey supports the belief that the Jewish community was and still is inseparable from Egyptian society, culture and history.
When Persians and later Romans conquered Egypt, Jews thrived or survived as partners, oppressed minorities or somewhere in between. Throughout it all, diverse Jewish communities reflected historic migrations of people to, within and from Egypt, plus regular shifts of status influenced by local, national or continental predicaments. This trend of migration and exodus continued into the nation’s modern history, from British rule and independence to more contemporary conflicts, including two world wars, the founding of Israel, regional conflict and Egypt’s evolving role in Arab-Jewish relations. In Cairo, these shifts accompanied the development of the city itself, including the relocation of Jewish life from older to newer neighborhoods and the transition of Jewish roles in social and economic development that affected synagogues like Ben Ezra.
The Geniza’s Home
As the city’s oldest synagogue, Ben Ezra proudly touts its status among the oldest Jewish temples standing. Controlled by an informal collaboration between the local Jewish community and the Egyptian government, the recently updated synagogue has not been used for prayer since 1992, although the temple is popular with tourists and local visitors. The synagogue’s design, furniture and carpeting feature ornaments and symbols prevalent in churches and mosques throughout the East. In 1889-1892, the current synagogue was rebuilt on the site of a previous, demolished structure, which itself arose from older structures that date to a Coptic church thought to have existed at the same location. Some even think the original temple was built in part with material from a nearby Roman ruin.
In this and other ways, the landmark reflects the diverse cultural and architectural history of Cairo and Egypt. The rectangular building’s flat roof is ringed by pedestals that display figures resembling the lotus flower – a spiritual symbol from both ancient Egypt and other religions. Inside, amid marble columns, the first floor houses the ezrat yisrael (men’s section), and aron ha-kodesh (holy ark) – the receptacle of the Torah scrolls. Crafted of wood, the ark is laced with golden engravings and mother of pearl to reflect the finest traditions of Islamic art. Perched nearby is an arch of alternating black and white bricks – a style prevalent in Eastern, Muslim and Christian prayer houses. The bimah (an elevated platform from which the service is led) is composed of white marble. Unlike Cairo’s other synagogues, Ben Ezra contains a marble-clad mastaba platform carved with gilded texts, including a reference to the Biblical Moses. The floor is paved with square stone tiles; on the ceiling and walls are marvelous frescoes with arabesque designs and colored geometric patterns.
On the second floor, the ezrat ha-nashim (women’s section) is reached by a wooden staircase in the courtyard. Ten marble pillars support the gallery’s ceiling and stone arches, which are alternately painted black and white. The capitals of these pillars take the form again of lotus flowers – a motif in Egyptian architecture since Pharaonic times. Storerooms are found on either side of the eastern wall; the now-empty chamber to the left harbored the geniza. Items supposedly were deposited into the repository through a hatch on the western wall. However, one visitor who saw the predecessor synagogue’s geniza before the 1889-92 renovation described a document-stacked room accessible only from the roof.
The documentary riches from what Schecter called the Cairo Geniza are now spread among museums worldwide, although many remain at Cambridge. The records include legal disputes, engagement agreements, day wage payments to janitors, fragments of various ancient books, records of foreign trade from around the region and into India and China, thousands of personal letters and even testimony about various atrocities during the Crusades. With a lull in deposits after 1300, the document deposits resumed when Spanish Jews migrated several hundred years later. Even if the label Cairo Geniza reflects material from beyond Ben Ezra, the resulting scholarship and knowledge have proven invaluable to Jewish history and broader historical revelation. Studies on geniza materials continue, including efforts by universities and libraries worldwide to digitize their caches, make them more widely available and promote scholarly synergies, including at The Frieberg Genizah Project or the Cambridge Digital Library.
Maimonides and the Neighborhood of the Jews
Cairo was established by the Fatimids in the latter decades of the 10th century, spurring many inhabitants of nearby Fustat (the old capital) to move to the new city. Different Jewish streams centered on Cairo’s Zuwaila quarter, which was consequently dubbed “the Neighborhood of the Jews.” Over eras, Jewish influence ebbed and rose until the turn of the 20th century, when the neighborhood’s 12 synagogues thrived during what could be called a golden age of Cairene Jewry. Today, only two of those temples remain.
“The Rabbi Moshe” Synagogue is named after Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1135-1204), whose enormous influence as a rabbinical authority continues to this day. His Guide to the Perplexed is considered one of the most important philosophical works from the past eight centuries. Maimonides also earned a reputation as a teacher and gifted doctor and scientist.
Maimonides was among the Jewish refugees from what would become Spain who joined the vibrant Jewish communities in Morocco and, later, in Egypt, where he became nagid (spiritual leader) of the Cairo Jews. After the family fortune was lost when his brother disappeared (probably drowned in a shipwreck) on a trading mission to India, the rabbi turned to medicine and became so famous he was named court physician to the vizier of Sultan Saladin. Connecting the heritage of one Cairo synagogue to another, a letter his brother wrote to Maimonides about a trip to India is now part of the Ben Ezra-related Cairo Geniza collection at Cambridge.
The Maimonides synagogue’s present structure resembles a building that was renovated at the end of the 1800s, but the temple deteriorated after its 20th-century abandonment. Between June 2008 and March 2010, the compound was renovated from the foundation up. This ambitious project entailed pumping out ground water and installing a system to prevent further water damage.
The location of the yeshiva (study hall) where Maimonidies is thought to have studied and taught is accessed from a passageway near the synagogue’s front yard. This ancient wing of the compound is a quasi-subterranean expanse of just over 430 square feet (40 square meters). A wooden dome in the center of the ceiling allows light through several windows, with niches to the right and center. Documents indicate that Maimonides himself was temporarily laid to rest in one of the niches before his remains were later transferred to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.
Not far away, the Capoussi Synagogue is named for Haim Capoussi (d. 1631), who was among the Cairo Jewish community’s most prominent rabbis. From an architectural standpoint, the unique temple calls to mind synagogues in Venice and Padova, but its egg-like dome (photo P-5) reflects Byzantine elements common to Coptic churches. The present building was renovated near the end of the 19th century, and its current condition requires a comprehensive renovation from the foundation to the top.
Toward the Future
The abrupt changes in Egypt at the turn of the 20th century included the immersion of migrating Ashkenazic Jews from Russia, Romania and Central Europe. In Cairo, the Ashkenazic community’s offices and lone synagogue were set up near bustling al-‛Ataba Square. This temple was damaged by rioters in 1945, but the structure was rebuilt and re-opened its doors five years later.
Yet another development was the significant increase of migration of Jews from Cairo’s old neighborhoods to the center of town. The Jews of central Cairo integrated themselves in the cosmopolitan environment that informed the country’s large cities during the inter-war period. Some of these “downtown Jews” regularly attended a synagogue near their homes, including Sha‛ar ha-Shamayim (Gate of Heaven) Synagogue. Inaugurated in 1905, this magnificent temple occupies an expansive compound on one of central Cairo’s main streets.
At the same time, most of Cairo’s Karaites gradually relocated to the 'Abassiya sector. Karaism is based on the Jewish Bible instead of the Rabbinic law that evolved from Talmudic literature. As such, the Karaite community adopted its own unique customs focusing on the Moshe Dar‛i Synagogue.
Except for Ben Ezra and a few other exceptions, these Cairo synagogues lie empty and relatively unused except for an occasional holiday ceremony. The ARCE-funded survey is an initial step toward consideration for further restoration and other uses that reflect Cairo’s Jewish heritage and, more broadly, the role of this important minority in Arab and Muslim societies.