The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities is giving an online tour of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo.
The synagogue is on Mar Girgis street in the Religious Compound of Old Cairo, near the Coptic museum and the Church of Saint Sergius and Bacchus. It was originally a church known as the Al-Shamma’in Church, which the Coptic Orthodox Church sold in 882 AD to the Jewish community.
The synagogue is named after Abraham ibn Ezra, the Jewish religious scholar and philosopher. It is said that the Ben Ezra Synagogue marks the site upon which Moses prayed for the lifting of the plague that afflicted the ancient Egyptians.
The synagogue is built in the basilical style, meaning that it is composed of three halls, the middle being the largest and tallest. This central hall is surmounted by an octagonal dome. The sanctuary is on the east wall of the synagogue, which is also where the Torah case, made of wood inlaid with pearl and ivory, is located. A few steps lead up to the marble pulpit, which lies at the center of the synagogue.
The upper level is reserved for women and overlooks the prayer area. On its north side is the geniza, which was sealed and could only be reached through an aperture in its roof. Every synagogue keeps a geniza, a repository for old documents mentioning the name of God. Since it was impermissible to throw away texts or documents bearing the name of God, these documents were all kept in genizas. The Ben Ezra Synagogue’s geniza was discovered in 1896, and its contents were moved to the University of Cambridge.