The Ben Ezra Synagogue in the Coptic section of Old Cairo, one of the only surviving remnants of the once glorious Jewish Egyptian community, stands on the place where, according to local legend, Pharaoh’s daughter retrieved baby Moses from the bulrushes along the Nile River.
There are many other legends associated with the synagogue, including one that identifies it as the site where Jeremiah gathered the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple when they were expelled from Jerusalem. The synagogue is most famous, however, for its genizah, an enormous storeroom containing material mostly from the 10th-13th centuries. Long-abandoned and discovered only in the 19th century, it contained hundreds of thousands of sacred and secular manuscripts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-Arabic.
Its contents included works of momentous theological significance, such as an original 2nd century copy of the Hebrew proverbs of Ben Sira; a 10th century vellum copy of Saadia Gaon’s Torah translation into Arabic; handwritten documents by Yehuda Ha-Levi, R. Yosef Karo, and R. Isaac Luria; and the world’s two oldest haggadot.
Other documents ranged from the conventional and ordinary, such as the doodling of a child learning the Hebrew alphabet, miscellaneous business invoices, and mundane correspondence; to blasphemous manuscripts and works of magic and superstition; to marriage contracts and prenuptial provisions.
Fortunately for us, rather than burying their sheimos (documents and works containing G-d’s name) and other materials, the Jews of the Ben Ezra community, for some unknown and inexplicable reason, stored the material in a literal hole in the wall where the arid Egyptian air facilitated their preservation for many centuries.
This unparalleled archive, a veritable treasure of historically important Judaica, constitutes a unique window into all aspects of Jewish life at the time, including the religious, commercial, political, social, and cultural life of the Jewish community; its internal connections and communications; and its relationships with broader Christian and Muslim societies.
After Alexander the Great’s conquests, Jewish communities extended through the Greek world, and many Jews settled in coastal cities such as Alexandria as part of the Pharaohs’ great colonization effort. By the dawn of the Roman era, Egypt had perhaps the largest Jewish population in the world, but the relatively decent relationship between Egyptian Jews and Rome ended with the 2nd century Bar Kochba revolts against Trajan and Hadrian in Eretz Yisrael after the destruction of the Second Temple.
Jewish life in Egypt improved dramatically, however, under Islamic rule; from the 10th through 12th centuries, a huge Islamic empire extended through the Middle East and North Africa, and some 90 percent of the world’s Jews lived in its territory.
Although some documents from what became known as the Cairo Genizah contain gruesome details of Jewish persecutions through the centuries, including eyewitness accounts of the horrors of the First Crusades, other material upended centuries of prevailing historical theories regarding the mistreatment of Jews and the harsh restrictions placed upon them by their Islamic masters.
These records demonstrate that Islamic rulers promoted Jewish self-governance and that Jews were not only tolerated but, to a large extent, integrated into Egyptian social and commercial life. Cairo became the capitol of the Fatimid Caliphate, a dynasty that ruled from 909-1171, with a large Jewish population settling there.
Jews, though subject to Islamic law, were allowed to erect synagogues. The date of the founding of the Ben Ezra Synagogue cannot be determined, though records from the Genizah suggests that it may predate 882, when the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria sold a church and its grounds to Abraham ben Ezra, a Jewish native of Jerusalem. (The synagogue was not named for the purchaser but, rather, for Ezra the Scribe of Biblical antiquity.)
Nineteenth-century scholars assumed that this transaction was the origin of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, but contemporary researchers argue that this assumption is likely false given that the purchasers of the church were disciples of Babylonian Talmudical academies while the Ben Ezra congregation followed the rival Jerusalem academies.
In about 1012, when Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of all Jewish (and Christian) places of worship, the original Ben Ezra Synagogue was torn down. Based upon studies of an incredible carved wooden Torah ark door known to belong to the synagogue (which is now jointly owned by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Yeshiva University Museum in New York and well worth seeing in person), it is estimated that the Ben Ezra was rebuilt in approximately 1030, when caliph Ali az-Zahir sanctioned reconstruction of synagogues and churches.
In 1168, the Islamic vizier Shawar ordered the burning of the city of Fustat, the original Arab-Muslim capital in Egypt and now part of Cairo, to prevent it from being conquered by the invading Christian Crusader army. This order included the deliberate burning of the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
The year 1168 in Fustat is also important for another reason: It is the year the Rambam (Maimonides), one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and commentators, established residence in Fustat, only a short walk from the Ben Ezra Synagogue, where he lived for 36 years until his death in 1204.
There is evidence that the Rambam lived in Fustat for the very purpose of gaining access to the vast assemblage of writings in the Genizah. However, though he served as Nagid, or leader, of the Egyptian community, as a follower of the Babylonian Talmud he was not a member of the Ben Ezra synagogue. Nonetheless, some of the most important documents found in the Genizah include portions of his Mishneh Torah, a draft of Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed), correspondence in his own handwriting, and missives discussing his life and work, all of which constitutes the primary source for much of what we know about him today.
Because Jews were generally secure under Egyptian rulers during the Middle ages, Cairo became one of the biggest centers of Jewish life and a leading storehouse for Jewish knowledge, much of which found its way to the Cairo Genizah.
After accumulating documents for five centuries, the Genizah documents inexplicably became forgotten during the Ottoman period until the late 19th century, when Romanian Rabbi Jacob Saphir (1822-85) became the first person in centuries to appreciate the significance of the Genizah, which he described in an 1874 book.
During the rebuilding of the synagogue (1889-92), an enormous pile of Genizah documents were left outside in the open, during which time Egyptologist Count Riamo d’Hulst studied some of them. In December 1896, Solomon Schechter – a scholar, educator, Conservative theologian, and president of the Jewish Theological Society of America – undertook the first in-depth, contemporary academic investigation of the Genizah documents before arranging to have them sent to various university libraries, where they are still studied today.
Prior to 1948, Egypt was home to some 75,000 Jews, but the Egyptian government expelled most of them in the aftermath of Israel’s birth so that, at most, 100 mostly elderly Jews remain in Egypt today and less than a minyan reside in Cairo. Although the Ben Ezra Synagogue no longer functions as a congregation, it is a Historic Cairo UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains the most visited Jewish site in Egypt – although one could argue that the pyramids, which we all know were built by Jewish slave labor, are actually Egypt’s top Jewish site.
Surprisingly, one person who was very much concerned about the preservation of the Ben Ezra Synagogue was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Sadat (1918-81), who succeeded President Gamal Abdel Nasser upon his death in 1970, is celebrated for being the first Arab leader to visit Israel (November 1977); for going on to sign the Camp David Accords (1978); and for making peace with Israel, which led to both his being awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize and his assassination by radical Islamists.
In this October 11, 1980 correspondence written from Cairo on his presidential letterhead a year before his murder, Sadat writes about the development of what he calls “the Compound of Religions in Sinai,” which is actually the Cairo Multi-Religious Compound containing the holy sites of all three Abrahamic religions, including the Coptic Christian Hanging Church, which dates from the third century; Amr Ibn Al’As Mosque, the first mosque in Egypt; and the Ben Ezra Synagogue:
It is with a deep sense of recognition that I have received your kind message together with the (3) dollar cheque you were good enough to send me as a contribution on your part to establishing the Compound of Religions in Sinai.
It delights me very much, on this occasion, to hail your humanitarian feelings and noble sentiments as well as your highly appreciated keenness to support this project which will help deepening the correct understanding of the Heavenly Messages and serving the principles of justice, fraternity and peace.
Thanking you once again for that kind gesture on your part, I wish you the best of health, happiness and success.
The structural integrity of what is known as Historic Cairo, the site of the Multi-Religious Compound and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, has historically faced many challenges – some natural, such as earthquakes and salty groundwater seepage, and some preventable, including environmental pollution, high population density and, in particular, a history of poor maintenance and governmental neglect.
Some substantive conservation efforts were undertaken in the late 19th century, but the 1952 Egyptian revolution slowed such efforts to a virtual halt. In the wake of the Six-Day War (1967), the Ben Ezra Synagogue was abandoned but, ironically, it was this very abandonment that led to an increased awareness of the importance of preserving Egypt’s heritage, which became even more pronounced when foreign embassies moved into the area and rejuvenated life there.
Since the 1960s, the synagogue had been in structural decline due to, among other things, foundational damage caused by rainwater seepage, groundwater, and soluble salts. It was in this environment, particularly after Historic Cairo was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, that Egypt undertook to establish and sustain the Compound of Religions. As our letter demonstrates, this endeavor was strongly supported by President Sadat; it is not often that a head of state writes a personal note to thank a donor for a three-dollar contribution!
It was Sadat’s initiative that led to the first serious discussions about restoring the Ben Ezra Synagogue. After the Camp David Peace Accords were signed in September 1978, a meeting between Philip Klutznick, president of the World Jewish Congress (and later President Carter’s Secretary of Commerce) and the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs led to an agreement pursuant to which the WJC undertook to finance a project to further the spirit of Camp David, which became a plan to repair and renovate the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
Years after the commencement of the restoration effort, the synagogue held a reopening ceremony in March 2010 that was attended by Israel’s Ambassador to Egypt. However, because the celebration included a traditional “L’Chaim” – i.e., the drinking of alcohol – Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities canceled the synagogue’s official unveiling, which was scheduled to take place a week later.
This year, the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced that it would allocate $71 million to restore Jewish holy sites in Egypt, but, after a mass public furor, the Egyptian Antiquities Authority qualified its statement, declaring that the money would be spent on restoring the three holy sites in the Multi-Religious Compound of Historic Cairo. Nonetheless, much of the Egyptian public, focusing on the Ben Ezra Synagogue, protested that the project should be paid for by wealthy foreign Jews rather than penurious Egyptians.