Ben Ezra, Old Cairo, Geniza Documents

So I am done with work here in Cairo, and just hanging out for the week until my flight for London on Saturday. Originally, I was planning on going to Dahab (a beach resort spot) for a couple of days this week. But really, going to a beach resort spot by yourself can be kind of depressing. So, I am just staying in Cairo, and will check out the few remaining sites I haven’t seen.

On Friday I went back to Coptic Cairo (the oldest part of the city) for a return visit. I wanted to see the Ben Ezra synagogue. Ben Ezra really isn’t much to see. Its small, well maintained and heavily guarded, and they don’t let you take photo’s inside. But what fascinated me about it, and what I wish was better documented at the site was that this is where Jacob Saphir found the Geniza Documents.

Max Rodenbeck devotes part of a chapter in Cairo: The City Victorious to the Geniza documents, it’s a good story, involving a traveling Jewish scholar (Saphir) and a bunch of superstitious minders of the synagogue. I won’t quote the whole thing, (you should read the book) but here’s the paragraph where describes what Geniza means to the history of Cairo:

Saphir had in fact penetrated the intact Geniz, or treasury, of Ben Ezra. Since the Synagogue’s last restoration in A.D. 1041* nearly all the papers of the city’s Jewish community had been thrown higgledy-piggledy into the musty, two and a half story high storeroom, because by tradition any document in Hebrew letters, or any that might bear the name of God, had to be preserved. Aside from countless pages from sacred texts, the trove contained thousands of more mundane documents, the bulk of them from the 10th to the 13th century heyday of Misr-al-Fustat**, before most of the cities Jews made the short move to al-Qahira.*** Court depositions nestled among deeds and titles and contracts, letters petitions, business accounts and inventories, religious questions and rulings; in short, the Geniza held the most complete documentation of any medieval society that has ever been unearthed.****

I love this story. The packrat in me loves the validation of this communities saving of every little thing. Plus the story of Saphir traveling from Lithuania, and finding all of this makes me smile. I wonder if he knew at the time what he had unearthed, because a huge portion of what we know about daily life in not just the Jewish community, but of all of Medieval Cairo, is because of these documents.

Of course in keeping with Egypt’s almost total disregard for its own history, you would know none of this if you just went to the synagogue*****. There’s no sign explaining any of this, and while there was a book for sale on the Geniza documents, I doubt many visitors bother to check it out. Too bad. Another part of Cairo’s history the average tourist will miss.

Still, way to go, Saphir. well worth the trip.

*Saphir found the documents in 1864!
**meaning old, now “Coptic”, Cairo.
*** meaning what people now call “Islamic Cairo”.
**** The story after Saphir’s discovery gets a little messier after this, with the documents being sold of piece by piece to manuscript collectors. Most of the documents eventually made their way to Cambridge where people finally began to piece together their worth.
***** I could see an argument for this being because of anti-Semitism, except if you go to the mosque of Ibn Tulun, one of the most amazing architectural achievements in Islamic architecture, you won’t know anything about it, either.

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About seanv2

Scholar, gentleman, jock. I run the website Milo and the Calf. There you will find the Boston Qualifier Questionnaire where runners share their stories of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. You'll also find my thoughts on endurance sports, ancient history, Judaism, and hundreds of book reviews.
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