JWR Wandering Jews
Jewish World Review April 15, 1998 / 19 Nissan, 5758

Cairo diarist

Ben-Ezra synagogue, Cairo Minyan-less masterpiece

By Barbara Kingstone

"YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE to walk from here," my guide Sami tells me as we leave our vehicle and head toward the short tunnel into Old Cairo, once the Jewish district of town.

Through a narrow maze of walkways, the cobblestones give way to unpaved streets covered with sand, while the old walls seem to encapsulate pedestrians. Children are hurrying by, old women draped in black are huddling together, telling what seems like the most precious of secrets. A dog sleeps in the afternoon heat and store-keepers beckon you to "come and just take a look" at their wares.

Another turn leads us to a low stone archway.

"We're not far now," Sami tells me. It's a reassuring thought since the heat of the day and the confines of the area combine to make the ten-minute walk long and exhausting.

Soon, a new labyrinth appears and we head down a slightly wider street. From the distance, one sees a wrought-iron gate embellished with a Star of David. Beyond is the Ben-Ezra Synagogue, a Sephardic temple built in about 1897. It's the oldest of its kind in Egypt and named after a 12th-century Jerusalem rabbi.

The shul is best known as the site of the Cairo Geniza, a storeroom that housed a treasure trove of some 200,000 Hebrew manuscripts dating back to the 10th century. Most were uncovered by British rabbinical scholar Solomon Schechter. Today, some 140,000 fragments are at the Taylor-Schecter Genizah research unit in the main library of Cambridge University, England, where Schechter was a professor. Another 20,000 are at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. These sacred and secular documents are considered the most important collections of medieval Hebraica in the world.

Surrounding the synagogue are 4th-Century Roman walls, called the "Fortress of Babylon." Legend has it that under this building is a spring where Pharoah's daughter found Moses in the reeds.

Once a large and thriving community of 75,000 Jews, the Jewish quarter in Old Cairo now is completely devoid of Jews. The 42 families left in Cairo have chosen to live in the city centre.

It was after the 1967 war that the Arabs severely damaged Ben-Ezra Synagogue. Now the building is being completely renovated thanks to a large donation from a Canadian architect, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, director and founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. The building's exterior is a mix of Jewish, Christian and Islamic architecture. Workmen are actively restoring its huge interior.

Inside, Islamic-style carpets cover the floors. Quite unexpected is the basilica-like layout with a nave and aisles in Coptic Christian fashion. A white marble memorial featuring a set of steps has gold inscriptions of the Ten Commandments. And ten wood columns have been painted in a faux marble technique which may have been close to the original but some-how looks jarringly modern. The ceiling and walls are heavily decorated, and the bima (pulpit) is in off-white alabaster.

Beneath the synagogue, the guide tells me, is the mikvah, the women's ritual bath.

"Come outside and I will show you," he says as he leads me around to the back of the building. To illustrate the well-like mikvah's depth, he drops a stone.

It is very deep, indeed.

The synagogue's Torah scroll dates from 1350 CE. It was stored by the government, then returned when renovations were completed.

Also renovated was another building on the grounds, I'm told. It turns out to be the Jewish school.

Just before leaving, I take the final opportunity to stand under the forty-five-foot-high vaulted roof. The majesty of this monument to Jewry, with its long and troubled history, is very humbling. Yet, while the Ben-Ezra shul is a marvel to look at, there is no regular minyan nor a resident rabbi to be found between these hallowed walls.

Courtesy of The Wanderer, a quarterly magazine of Jewish heritage and travel. For subscription information, please contact The Wanderer via e-mail or write to: The Wanderer, 188 Balmoral Ave., Toronto ON Canada M4V 1J6.


© 1998, The Wanderer