The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, famed for once housing the “Cairo Geniza,” a treasure trove of Jewish communal documents, was reinaugurated on Thursday in Egypt after an extensive restoration project.
According to a statement on the Egyptian cabinet website, the renovation project included “careful architectural restoration work” including repairing the ceiling, cleaning and treating stones and maintaining the lighting system.
Tourism Minister Ahmed Issa said the Ben Ezra Synagogue is “one of the most important and oldest synagogues in Egypt.” He was accompanied to the site by Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, as the pair visited a number of historical sites in Cairo, newly renovated to attract tourism.
The Ben Ezra Synagogue is believed to date back to 882 CE — making it by far the oldest synagogue in Cairo — and is named for the prominent scholar Abraham Ibn Ezra.
The building was ordered torn down around 1012 CE, but rebuilt a few decades later. Over the centuries, the synagogue suffered a number of fires and was restored several times.
The current building is believed to have been largely constructed in the 1890s — shortly after the discovery of the famed Cairo Geniza, which became an invaluable resource for many Jewish scholars.
The documents were discovered in 1896 by Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter, who climbed a rickety ladder into an attic-like opening behind a wall in the synagogue’s women’s section upstairs and discovered close to 10 centuries’ worth of the Jewish community’s detritus — numbering hundreds of thousands of items.
In the more than 100 years that have followed, historians have pored over the collection of documents, which provided unprecedented insight into the life and activity of the community. The material has since been spread around some 70 institutions and collections around the world.
“Geniza” is a Hebrew term that generally refers to the collection of documents that are stored and buried rather than thrown away due to their holy status.
Al-Monitor reported last year that the renovations to the Ben Ezra Synagogue began in April 2022 after the building had been largely untouched for three decades. In September, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities said that the restoration “confirms the ministry’s keenness to develop and restore all archaeological sites in their various historical eras — Islamic, Coptic or Jewish sites — as they are all Egyptian monuments that must be protected.”
The synagogue is one of no more than five that remain in Egypt after many Jews left the country in 1952 following the forced abdication of King Faruq.
In early 2020, Egypt rededicated the 14th-century Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, following a three-year, multi-million-dollar project.
JTA and AFP contributed to this report.