Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo

“You’re going to have to walk from here,” my guide Sami told me as we left our vehicle and headed towards the short tunnel which took us into Old Cairo, once the Jewish district. Through a narrow maze of walkways, the cobble stones give way to unpaved streets covered with sand while the old walls seem to encapsulate the pedestrian. Children hurry by, old women, draped in black, huddle together telling what seems like the most precious secrets, a dog sleeps in the afternoon heat and store keepers beckon you to come and “just take a look” at their wares. In this case souvenirs, china and gold jewelry.

Another turn leads us to a low stone archway and just a few metres away is the Church of St. Barbara. “We’re not far now,” Sami tells me since the heat of the day and the confines of the area combined, make the ten minute long walk, exhausting. A new labyrinth appears and we head down a slightly wider street. Almost surrealistically there’s a wide space and suddenly I see a wrought iron gate with a Star of David. Beyond is a large building, the Sephardic, Ben Ezra Synagogue (documented as being established in 950 AD) built in l892, the oldest in Egypt and named after a 12th century Rabbi of Jerusalem. The Cairo Geniza (storeroom) remains a treasure trove of Hebrew manuscripts and books which date back to the 10th century.

Surrounding the building are the fourth century Roman walls called the Fortress of Babylon. Legend has it that under this building is a spring of water where Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the reeds.

It is best known as the site where the Cairo Geniza, or storeroom, housed a treasure trove of Hebrew manuscripts dating from the 10th century, which were found in 1896. Twenty thousand of these fragments are now at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Another l40,000 fragments are at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit in the Cambridge University Library, England. In l898 the scholar, Dr. Solomon Schecter, then a student in Talmudic literature and later president of the seminary in New York, donated these in l898. The collection of sacred and secular documents is probably the most important in medieval Hebraica in the world.

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

After the l967 war, the Arabs severely damaged Ben Ezra Synagogue. Now the exterior, a mix of Jewish, Christian and Islamic architecture, has been completely renovated to a soft yellow. Workmen are actively restoring the interior which is huge and ornate. Islamic style carpets now cover the floors and Kufi inscriptions are featured on lamps and panelling. Quite unexpected is the basilica like layout with a nave and aisles in Coptic Christian fashion. A cararra marble memorial featuring a set of steps has gold inscriptions of the Ten Commandments. Ten wood columns have been painted in a faux marble technique which may have been close to the original but somehow the effect of these tall pillars is jarringly modern. The ceiling and walls are heavily decorated and the bema, (the pulpit) is in off-white alabaster. Making the restoration possible is a very large donation from Canadian architect, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, former director and founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

The Torah, which dates from 350 AD, is being stored by the government until the entire renovations are complete. A guide wearing a kippa, the religious head covering, assures me, “as soon as we’re finished the work, the Torah will be returned.”

Since the work is still being carried out, it wasn’t possible to get to the upstairs, where traditionally, women have and will sit during services. I regret not having been able to visit that area since the view of the synagogue from that vantage point would certainly have been exceptional. Beneath the synagogue, the guide tells me, is the mikva, (the women’s holy bath).

“Come outside and I will show you,” he says and leads me around to the back of the building. There, he drops a stone in what looks like a well, to show the depth. It is very deep.

Since the few Jews still living in Cairo attend another synagogue on Pasha El Nile, a street in the centre of the city, there is no minyan, (the needed 10 men for prayers), at Ben Ezra nor is there a resident Rabbi. “But a Rabbi does come from Israel for the High Holidays”, I’m told. Ben Ezra Synagogue fills up during high holidays when foreigners, who either work nearby or are visiting, come to pray.

Also under renovation is another building on the grounds which turns out to be the Jewish School. Just before leaving, I take the final opportunity to stand under the l5 metre high dome. The majesty of this monument to Jewry, with its long and troubled history, is very humbling.