Tales of a wondering Jew: A reverse Exodus to Egypt during Pessah

In the heart of Cairo, down a sunken staircase, and through a walled alleyway, Egypt's oldest synagogue can be found.

Egypt potters (photo credit: courtesy)
Egypt potters
(photo credit: courtesy)
After an amazing, wonderful two weeks wandering Israel from top to bottom, I made my way on to the Sinai for a "reverse exodus" with my already-overloaded backpack filled to the brim with matza. In far less time than it took the Israelites to cross the Sinai, I arrived in "Eretz Mitzrayim." In the heart of Coptic Cairo, the oldest part of present-day Cairo, there remains the Ben-Ezra Synagogue. Down a sunken staircase, and through a walled alleyway, Egypt's oldest synagogue can be found. There are several legends related to the synagogue and its location. It is believed to be the site where Moses was found, lying in a basket amid the reeds, by Pharaoh's daughter. It is also believed to be site of the temple of the Prophet Jeremiah, and the location where he gathered the Jewish exiles following the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. The shell of the synagogue dates back to the 4th century, when it was a Christian church. In the 9th century, the Copts sold the church to the Jewish community to meet the tax demands of then-ruler Ibn Tulun. In the 12th century, Rabbi Abraham Ben-Ezra of Jerusalem, who became the namesake for the current structure, restored the synagogue. Over the centuries, the synagogue was subject to further renovations, and the final product is stunning. The two-story synagogue is complete, with swirling mother-of-pearl inlaid walls, and ceilings covered in geometrical patterns of stars, rectangles and pentagons, as well as floral patterns and a Star of David in the center. Just under the ceiling are black-and-white capped marble arches. Marble-coated columns line the synagogue, and a marble bima sits in the middle. Two twisted metal candelabras stand just beyond the ark, which is intricately carved in wood and mother-of-pearl, under a gilded temple motif and "Ten Commandments" slabs. Although the Ben-Ezra Synagogue is no longer a fully functional synagogue, it is still used to celebrate some holidays, such as a recent Hanukkah celebration. It was also the sight of a recent bar mitzva for the son of an Israeli diplomat. Meanwhile, nearly 1,800 tourists visit the Ben-Ezra Synagogue daily. Of the 29 synagogues that existed in Cairo, only 12 remain, with only three remaining in any functional use. Besides the Ben-Ezra Synagogue, there is still a working synagogue in downtown Cairo known as the Sha'ar Hashamaim Synagogue and another in the suburb of Ma'adi. Egypt was once home to one of the most storied Jewish communities, with the community reaching upwards of 80,000 in the early 20th century. For centuries, Egypt was a center of Jewish learning, with a number of Jewish luminary scholars such as Maimonides and Rabbi Isaac Luria calling Egypt home. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Jews of Cairo played vital roles in the business, banking and retail sectors as Egypt slowly built a modern economy; in the days when Cairo was considered "Paris on the Nile," the Jews of Cairo thrived. The Jews of Egypt were so entrenched in Egyptian society that in the early 20th century, many Egyptian Jews opposed the Zionist movement, and the Association of Egyptian Jewish Youth proclaimed in its manifesto, "Egypt is our homeland and Arabic is our language." One Jewish community leader, Rene Qattawi, went as far as to write a letter to the World Jewish Congress, urging them to cease the calls for a Jewish state, and rather advocated that Egypt be considered as a place of refuge for Eastern European Jewry. Unfortunately, the latter half of this century saw a new exodus for Egypt's Jews. Agitation against the Jewish community in the 1940s, through to Israel's independence and later 1956 Sinai War led to the rapid diminishment of the historic Egyptian Jewish community. Today there are between 100-200 Jews remaining in Cairo, as well as staff of the Israeli Embassy and other assorted Jews connected to various diplomatic missions. The remaining community is elderly, and mostly comprised of women. I met the embodiment of that remaining Jewish community when I stopped at the gorgeous art deco/art nouveau-style Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue for Shabbat. I arrived on Shabbat morning, and was the only one there except for Joumen, a lovely elderly Jewish matron at the synagogue desk. Joumen spoke Arabic and French, but no Hebrew or English. We briefly discussed the remaining community in Cairo. She said that the community gets its kosher food from Israel. The Shabbat services are sparse, but the community comes together to celebrate the holidays at the Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue, most recently for Pessah. She had been to Israel before, and enjoyed her trip but considered Egypt home. "The situation was difficult at times, but it is fine now," she said. The peace process between Israel and Egypt had helped ease the situation for the Jews of Egypt, and led to restorations of Cairo's synagogues. When the Jews began steadily leaving Egypt, they left many of their religious books behind at various synagogues. Following the Camp David Accords, protocols between Egypt and Israel stipulated the creation of Jewish Heritage Libraries. The first Jewish Heritage Library was inaugurated in October 1988 at the Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue. I received a small tour of the library by an Egyptian guide who actually spoke Hebrew, which he studied in university in Egypt. The library holds 7,000 books in various languages and subjects, collected from synagogues, schools and homes. The library's prize possession is a 500-year-old Babylonian Talmud, which was printed originally in Italy. In addition, while I was at the Ben-Ezra Synagogue, I spoke with Abdelhamid, a librarian at the Jewish Heritage Library located there. Interestingly, he also spoke Hebrew, owing to studies at Tel Aviv University, where he learned about the Jewish people. He noted that the Ben-Ezra Library, currently under renovation, was established in 1998 and holds 3,000 religious and historical books in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic. He also mentioned a third library, connected to the Karaite community. Abdelhamid also mentioned that the Ben-Ezra Synagogue was made famous in the mid-1890's for the discovery of a geniza, a cache of historical documents and letters. More than 100,000 documents were unearthed, some of which dated back to the earliest years of the synagogue, painting a clear picture of Jewish life over many centuries in Cairo. These documents are today found in academic institutions, museums and libraries throughout the world. While the Jewish community of Cairo may be fading, the efforts to preserve this historic community's legacy and heritage as found in its synagogues and books help to ensure that the Jews of Egypt will never be forgotten. Read about all my misadventures on my blog: http://levantine18.blogspot.com See the pictures from my misadventures at: http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18 Read my "Tales of a Wandering Jew" series: http://talesofawanderingjew.blogspot.com