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The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo was the site of the famous Cairo Geniza: the world’s largest depository of over 400,000 documents written primarily in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Aramaic. These documents, some of which are a hundred years older than the geniza itself, accumulated for 850 years. They give incredible insight into Jewish and ancient history. The synagogue is named after the legend of “Ezra the Scribe”, a man who gave the Egyptian Jews a magical Torah scroll. The Ben Ezra Synagogue was also known as Knesset Eliyahu or Knesset Ezra, and Kanīsat al-Yerushalmim or Kanīsat al-Shāmiyyīn during the Middle Ages.
Structurally, the Ben Ezra Synagogue resembled--or may have been--a church during the Byzantine period. However, the original synagogue was mostly destroyed in 1012 and rebuilt around 1039. The new synagogue fell in and out of repair throughout the next several centuries, yet today the building likely resembles the original synagogue--with changes based on use and time.
The original Ben Ezra Synagogue was architecturally defined by its double-sloped roof with a triangular gable. The destruction of these led to the temporary closure of the synagogue--yet was eventually rebuilt in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, the Ben Ezra Synagogue faces southeast. This is unlike other synagogues but similar to Egyptian religious sites. Inside, the Ben Ezra Synagogue has two pulpits and a Zion (eastern) wall. In 1488, Obadiah of Bertinoro described the Zion Wall and its relation to the legend of Ezra: “because they say that Elijah revealed himself there to pious people in its southeastern corner; an eternal light is lit there. In the northeastern corner, there is a special place, high up, where the Torah scroll of Ezra the Scribe was kept.” These pulpits have been rebuilt many times. Today, the Ben Ezra Synagogue has undergone substantial preservation efforts to maintain the building's structure and sustain the legends which surround this historical site .
The capital city of Egypt, Cairo, was initially known as “Al-Fustat” and “Fostat”. Fustat was the first capital of Muslim Egypt, and also the location of the Ben Ezra Synagougue . Fustat is located in Old Cairo, and Cairo became the center of Jewish life in Egypt following the Crusades of 1168. Cairo's Jewish community lived primarily in the new city, the Ḥārat al-Yahūd (Jewish quarter). Throughout the medieval period, Jews maintained their cultural traditions and relative political autonomy, and ultimately advanced economically into positions as craftsmen, traders, moneychangers, and physicians. However, the Mamluk era (1250 to 1517) marked a shift towards increasingly discriminatory laws against Jews and other religious minorities. This anti-Jewish discrimination continued through the Ottoman era and into the late eighteenth century, making life more regulated and difficult.
In the nineteenth century, Muḥammad ʿAlī and a series of other leaders governed Cairo as viceroys for the Ottoman sultan, improving security and economic development in Cairo. Despite several antisemitic publications and accusations published between 1844 and 1901, the Jewish community felt safer under the rule of Muḥammad ʿAlī than during other periods. Additionally, Cairo's Jewish population began to boom from about 3,000 in the early 1800s, to over 29,000 in 1917. Following Egypt's independence from Britain in 1922, the Jewish population in Cairo continued to grow, reaching 41,860 in 1947.
Unfortunately, antisemitism increased through the 1930s and 1940s as Nazi propaganda spread, the Young Egypt and Muslim Brotherhood movements grew membership, and the newly established State of Israel defeated the Egyptian army. Consequently, Jews were often physically harmed or had their homes or businesses attacked, and by 1951 a large percentage of Cairo's Jewish population had left Egypt. Following the Sinai War of 1956 and the 1967 war, the majority of Cairo's remaining Jewish community had fled the country, often for Israel, France, or Italy. Only a few dozen, primarily elderly, Jews remain in Cairo today .