In the religious compound in Old Cairo containing the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque and the Hanging and St Sergius and Bacchus churches stands the Ben Ezra Synagogue named after Abraham Ibn Ezra, a Jewish religious scholar and philosopher.
More than three decades after its last restoration, the synagogue is now being restored again to remove the toll of time on its walls, ceilings, and decorations.
Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that the ceiling of the synagogue had been suffering from a high level of humidity due to heavy rain.
The aim of the restoration project is to strengthen the ceiling and stop the leakage of rainwater into it. The work will also include the restoration of the Holy of Holies, the removal of cracks, the reinforcement of the walls and ceilings, and the cleaning and desalination of decorations.
Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, said that the Ben Ezra Synagogue, located on Mar Girgis Street in Old Cairo near the Coptic Museum and the Church of Saint Sergius and Bacchus, was originally a church known as the Al-Shammaain Church that the Coptic Orthodox Church sold in 882 CE to the Jewish community.
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 and that is mentioned in the Bible. It was built in the basilical style, meaning that it is composed of three halls, the middle being the largest and tallest.
The 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 centre 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 has 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 were all once kept in genizas.
The Ben Ezra Synagogue’s geniza was discovered in 1896, and its contents were moved to the University of Cambridge in the UK for study and research.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.