Egypt starts to restore Middle East’s oldest synagogue

The Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo dates from the Middle Ages, although the present building was constructed in the 1890s

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Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has begun a project to restore the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo, whose origins date back at least 1,300 years.

“It is of great importance because it is the oldest synagogue in Egypt and the Middle East,” said Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the ministry’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Although the current synagogue was built in the 1890s, Ben Ezra is believed to be the oldest continually maintained synagogue site in the Middle East. It was last restored in 1991.

Today it is a tourist attraction within what is known as Cairo’s “Mogamaa El Adyan” (complex of religions), an area that includes ancient places of worship of the three monotheistic traditions.

The restoration of Ben Ezra is part of Egypt’s recent efforts to preserve its heritage sites – whether they be Pharaonic, Islamic, Coptic or Jewish – as well as promote religious inclusivity.

Among the high-profile projects was the government-funded $4 million renovation of Alexandria’s Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, which reopened in January 2020.

“I was asked by journalists why the Egyptian government paid 64 million Egyptian pounds to restore the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, although we have fewer than 10 Jewish people in Egypt,” said Khaled El Enany, minister of tourism and antiquities, at a recent talk at the American University in Cairo.

“I told them we pay more to restore sites like Karnak and Abu Simbel, and we have fewer than 10 people who worship Amun, Ra and Horus.

“We are preserving our heritage and heritage doesn’t have any religion,” Mr El Enany said.

Such initiatives are also the result of pressure from Jewish leaders and a drive from Egypt’s dwindling Jewish community to keep its cultural and religious legacy alive.

At its peak before the 1950s, the community numbered more than 80,000, but is now estimated to be fewer than a dozen people after the upheaval of the Arab-Israeli wars and the expulsion of Jews by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Preserving the Jewish past

Yoram Meital, a professor of Middle East studies at Ben Gurion University in Israel, has served as a historical advisr to the Jewish community in Cairo since 2017. He helped the community, led by Magda Haroun, to document the city’s synagogues and catalogue thousands of Jewish scrolls.

“Although only a few Jews still live in Egypt, Jewish sites and a lot of Judaean items and artefacts remain in the country,” Mr Meital said.

Commenting on the Ben Ezra restoration, he said: “It sends a very positive and strong message to the community and to the supporters of the community that something is moving in the right direction on the ground.”

The Ben Ezra synagogue is where the famous ‘Cairo Geniza’, a cache of around 400,000 pages of centuries-old manuscript, were found in the building’s worn text repository.

There are 16 synagogues left in Egypt, according to Mr Meital – 13 in Cairo, one in El Mahalla El Kubra in the Nile Delta and two in Alexandria. In addition, there are several Jewish cemeteries, the oldest among them in Cairo’s Basatin area, which underwent renovation in 2019.

Located inside the ancient Babylon Fortress, the Ben Ezra synagogue is named after Ezra the Scribe, who was a Jewish priest and prominent leader in the fifth century BC. There is a debate among archaeologists and historians as to when the original synagogue was first built, and whether it was initially a church that was sold to the Jews.

“Those who argue that it was built in the first century claim that it was built as a synagogue. Those who claim that it was built in the ninth century say the [owners] got some financial difficulties and they decided to sell this church to the Jews,” Mr Meital said.

Either way, it is one of the world’s oldest synagogues in continuous use. Tunisia’s El Ghriba synagogue, built in the sixth century BC, is the oldest. There are others, in ruins, such as the Great Synagogue of Baghdad, also built in the sixth century BC.

Site of the Cairo Genizah

In addition, Ben Ezra is known as the site where the famous Cairo Genizah manuscripts were found when the synagogue was rebuilt in the late 19th century. A genizah is a worn text repository where documents containing the name of God are stored and then eventually buried in a cemetery, according to the Jewish tradition to treat such holy writings with reverence.

Hundreds of thousands of pages of manuscript – including everything from Bible and Torah scrolls to legal documents and letters – were discovered in the genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue, providing invaluable insights into daily life in the Middle Ages.

University of Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter in the late 19th century took 200,000 fragments back to England to study, and the rest of the collection is divided among several academic libraries.

“It’s a tremendous resource for historians,” said Melonie Schmierer-Lee, research associate at the Genizah Research Unit at the University of Cambridge library. “There’s not a field of research about the Middle Ages in the Mediterranean and Middle East that does not have the Cairo Genizah fragments as one of its more important primary resources.”

The restoration work for the Ben Ezra synagogue will include cleaning walls, insulating the roof and treating cracks. Photo: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
Restoration of Egypt's synagogues

The synagogue itself has decorative elements that reflect numerous influences from the ancient period, as well as the Byzantine and Islamic eras.

Otherwise, it has the typical synagogue structure. It faces Jerusalem and consists of two floors, the first for men and the second for women. In the centre is the preaching platform where the Torah is read and in the east is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the Torah scrolls on a high platform behind a carved door and curtain.

Restoration work will include cleaning of the walls and floral decorations, insulating the roof to protect against rainwater intrusion, treating the colour layers from weather damage and filling cracks.

Besides the Alexandria synagogue, the last major renovation of a synagogue in Egypt was in 2010 under president Hosni Mubarak through a grant from the American Research Centre in Cairo.

The $1.8m, 18-month project restored the 19th-Century Maimonides synagogue, also known as the Rav Moshe synagogue, to its former glory.

In Cairo, only the Maimonides synagogue, Ben Ezra synagogue and the Shaar Hashmayim “Gate of Heaven” synagogue on Adly street in downtown are open to the public. The rest are closed and many are in a poor state.

Mr Meital credits the leadership of Ms Haroun and the Drop of Milk association, an old Jewish welfare organisation now composed mostly of Christian and Muslim volunteers, for cleaning those synagogues and pushing for the preservation of Judaic relics.

He also said there has been a change in the mindsets of Egyptians since the 2011 uprisings, which brought minorities' issues to the forefront.

“This move forward could not have been possible without what I think is a significant change in today’s Egypt,” he said.

“I see an increasing interest in the Jewish past by some ordinary Egyptians, among the intellectuals, and little by little, I have noticed that the government itself started being interested in this issue.”

Updated: April 25, 2022, 12:59 PM