03 December 2009

Ben Ezra Synagogue in Coptic Cairo

Readers will remember the beautiful Great Synagogue of Oran, 1880-1963 in Algeria being examined in this blog. This time I want to examine a syngagoge in an Islamic country that retained its Jewish architecture and purpose.

Ben Ezra Synagogue, exterior

The Ben Ezra Synagogue is situated in the Coptic section of Old Cairo. According to local tradition, there are two possible reasons for locating the building on this particular site. Either this was where the baby Moses was found in the bull rushes, hidden from danger, or this was where the adult Moses prayed to God that the Jews might be taken out of slavery in Egypt. Not surprisingly the synagogue soon adopted a votive role.

The land for the synagogue was purchased in 882 AD by Abraham ibn Ezra of Jerusalem. The Amazing Idiot Girl blog noted that like the neighbouring Hanging Church, the Ben Ezra synagogue was designed in the basilica fashion. It has two storeys, ground level for men and an upper gallery for women. The main floor is divided into three parts by steel bars, and in the centre is an octagonal marble bima/desk for Torah reading. There are 12 marble-like columns supporting the roof and 6 marble steps leading up to the wooden altar, inlaid with ivory. The synagogue is decorated with geometric and floral patterns in the Turkish style.

Aliza in Cairo blog has a lovely photo of the delicate ornamentation above the synagogue gate.

Since Fostat was the main Jewish suburb in Cairo, you would expect the synagogue complex to contain all the resources that a large, thriving community (7,000 Jewish citizens in the 12th century) would need. The synagogue precincts, for example, were meeting places for social functions. A large library was given a central position. The Rabbinic Court heard cases in a smaller building, behind the synagogue. A mikveh-well was on the site for religious ablutions. A market place, Souk of the Jews, was located outside the synagogue, attached to the outer wall.

Men's seating on ground floor, women's gallery above

This was the synagogue whose geniza or store room was accidentally found in the late 19th century. When permission was obtained to open the room, it contained a veritable historical treasure trove of stored sacred manuscripts, as well as bills of sale, contracts, letters and other secular documents. The collection, known as the Cairo Geniza, was taken to Cambridge University for preservation and scholarship. Ferrell’s Travel Blog has good links for the geniza.

The Supreme Council of Egypt Antiquities has indicated that the building holds a special spiritual value to Copts since at one time it had been turned into a Coptic church. Furthermore it is of interest to the Muslims since it was built in Islamic style during the Era of the Caliphs. The Point of no return blog recorded that Ben Ezra synagogue is under a government preservation order and the government has decided to use its own funds to renovate the building.

marble desk and marble columns,
looking towards the ark


mott said...

I can see why the locals would want to renovate and reuse the The Great Synagogue of Oran. It feels light, airy and spacious.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue of Cairo might be historically more important and much more elaborately decorated, but it feels darker and heavier. When was it a coptic church? When did the Turkish decorative elements get added and for which religious community?

Hels said...

The Egyptian tourist pages say that the building actually started life as the El-Shamieen Church and didn't become a synagogue until 882 AD. The geometric and floral decorations date back to the Ottoman era, as do the stalactite capitals.

Yet it seems that the current building only dates back to 1892 when it replaced a collapsed building on the same site. So were the early architectural designs and decorative elements copied directly into the 1892 version? I think they must have been.

T. said...

Beautiful! Thanks for posting that.

Ruth said...

I am writing a textbook for elementary school students about the Cairo Geniza.
I would like permission to use your beautiful photo of the Ben Ezra Synagogue that appeared on your Art and Architecture blog, Dec. 2009.

Thank you.

for the publishers

Hels said...


I don't remember what I presented to the students yesterday afternoon, let alone what I wrote eight years ago :)

However I can tell you this. If I use other peoples' work, I cite their name and location. If there is no credit in the post, the photos are my own or my family's or friends'. My in laws are Egyptian and would be very proud if you publish a book on the Cairo Geniza starring the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Good luck with the book.

Ruthie Z. said...

Thank you. Will certainly give credit!