The Definitive Guide to Living in the Capital , Cairo , Egypt

Sights & Travel

Ben Ezra Synagogue: A Different Side of Old Cairo

Ben Ezra Synagogue: A Different Side of Old Cairo
    written by
    Aly Gaballa

    How did a
    community of over 75,000 Jews vanish from Egypt? After the founding of Israel
    in 1948 the situation for Jews in the region became impossible and Jews in
    Egypt were to be forever declared Zionists and enemies of the state as a result
    of the Suez crisis in 1956. The Jews’ assets were confiscated and they were expelled,
    while it is believed that around 25,000 left voluntarily. Others were held in
    prisons such as Abu Zaabal and Tora for a period of up to three years on
    account of the 1967 war. All of these events led to the eventual and absolute disappearance
    of a community rich in culture and heritage.

    Ben Ezra is
    quite easily accessible from anywhere in Cairo, with the Metro being the most
    convenient. From the Marc Girgis station, take a left and you’ll find an
    underground tunnel that leads to a number of heritage sites including Ben Ezra.
    The synagogue may appear to be quite ordinary but the history behind it is on
    the contrary, quite extraordinary.

    Ben Ezra is
    often referred to as the El-Geniza Synagogue; Geniza being Hebrew for ‘storage
    room’ and in the 19
    th century, sacred Hebrew manuscripts were found
    stored there. The collection, widely known as the ’Cairo Geniza‘, gave
    significant insight into how the Jewish community dealt with past Islamic
    leaders, as well as several interpretations of the Torah. The manuscripts were
    eventually shipped to Cambridge, England where scholars from around the world seek

    directly behind the hanging church, Ben Ezra Synagogue was originally a church
    built in the 8
    th century, named El Shamieen Church. Local legend says
    that the shores delivered Moses to the exact place where the Ben Ezra Synagogue
    stands today. Adding to the historical significance of the sight, legend also
    has it that a copy of the Old Testament written by Ezra the Prophet (Al Azir)
    himself is located inside this mystical place.

    In order to pay
    annual taxes to the Muslim rulers of Egypt in 882 AD, the Copts were forced to
    sell the church to the Jews. Abraham Ben Ezra paid 20,000 dinars for the structure
    during the reign of Ahmed Ibn Tulun. The synagogue has been through much renovation
    and restoration over the years; the current building dates back to 1892 and is
    a faithful reconstruction of the building that had previously collapsed. It was
    during this most recent reconstruction the famous ‘Cairo Geniza’ manuscripts
    were discovered.

    A Basilica
    design, the building has a distinct rectangular shape and is made up of two
    floors: the first is designated to men while the second to women. The first
    floor is divided into three main parts, most important of which is an octagonal
    centre with the Bima – a stage for Torah recitation.

    The detailing
    of star, octagon and rectangular shapes around the synagogue gives off a sense
    of the Ottoman period and the synagogue’s design is similar to architecture of
    that time. Geometric shapes and patterns define the aesthetics.

    Serenity and
    beauty can be felt and viewed all around the interior of this one-of-a-kind
    architectural wonder. You can picture all the families who once came here to
    worship as they sat on the wooden benches, placed on either side of the synagogue.
    The benches seem to be extremely fragile though, so be very cautious while
    sitting on them.

    Adding to the
    legendary setting is a seemingly bottomless well, situated behind the
    synagogue; many believe this is the site where the basket that the Prophet
    Moses was placed in by his mother was allegedly found. Although the area is
    fenced, you can get a glimpse of this well through the iron railings.
    Unfortunately, there is no proper sign explaining its significance.

    There is so
    much more that could be done with this site. As a historical site, the Ben Ezra Synagogue has as much history and culture engrained into it as any other
    tourist attraction in Egypt. Unfortunately, though, it’s poorly managed,
    neglected, and will probably forever live in the shadow of Egypt’s Pharaonic and
    Islamic history.