The synagogue of Ben Ezra

(Other names: El-Geniza Synagogue, El-Yaho church)

In the Encyclopedia Britannica, a Synagogue is described as “A prayer place for the Jews”.

In old Greek it means: “The usual place where the Jews assemble to receive religious teachings and to worship” Some of these Temples were built close to a source of water, as much as for protection from any attack, not just for ablution!

The Synagogue of Ben Ezra was originally named El-Shamieen Church, and is situated behind the “hanging church”. The Synagogue once had an old copy of the Old Testament, and it was said that Ezra the Prophet (Al-Azir) had written it.

It is believed that the site of the Synagogue where the box of Baby Moses was found.
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The Ben Ezra Synagogue was originally a Christian church that the Copts had to sell, to the Jews, in 882A.D in order to pay the annual taxes imposed by the Muslim rulers of the time, and therefore Abraham Ben Ezra, who came from Jerusalem during the reign of Ahmed Ibn Tulun, bought the church for the sum of 20,000 dinars.

 

Through the centuries, the Synagogue received extensive restorations and renovations until it reached its present state. The present building dates back to 1892; the original one had collapsed and a new one was built, echoing it.

A description of the Synagogue

It is built in the shape of a basilica (rectangle), consisting of 2 floors; the 1st dedicated for the men while the 2nd is dedicated for the women. The entrance is situated on the north side

The 1st floor:

It is rectangular in shape, measuring 17m in length and 11.3m wide. It is divided into 3 parts, the largest being the middle one (4.75 m in width); these parts are divided by steel bars painted in a marble-like color.

There is a platform located in front of the sanctuary, where the rabbi stands to read the Torah. The lector platform is in an octagonal shape and is made of marble. A copper fence is situated on the 8th side of the platform, where the Torah, and its rolls, is rested. There is a memorial Stella located in front of the platform. In the middle of this Stella is a top part consisting of 2 semi-arches carried on 3 pillars, with a height of 85cm. there are 2 rooms on each side of the Holy Ark on the 1st floor.

The Most Important Decorations of the Synagogue: 

Geometrical Decoration:

This decoration goes back to the Turkish Period. It is clearly seen on the side halls with patterns such as, star patterns, pentagonal patterns and rectangles.

 

Floral decorations:

Used as a background for the geometrical patterns, they are also found around the Star of David in the middle of the ceiling. Here is a mixture of the Hatai and the Roman decorations, which are floral patterns and are called “Ottoman Arabesque”. This decoration includes floral patterns, palmettos and lotus flower. The south eastern side of the top of the Torah closet is decorated with stalactites, on top of which is a semi circle with ray decorations. The frame of the Torah Ark is a mimic decoration and on each of the two sides are 2 wooden columns with geometrical patterns. The 2 columns have stalactite capitals of the Ottoman period.

The hanging church

The Hanging Church is considered the oldest church in the area of Al-Fustat (Old Cairo).

It is known as Al-Muallaka (the hanging) because it was built on the ruins of two old towers that remained from an old fortress called the Fortress of Babylon. It was dedicated to The Virgin Mary and St. Dimiana.

It dates back to the end of the 3rd Century A.D and the beginning of the 4th Century A.D, but it has been reconstructed and renovated several times since. Some historians believe that it was built earlier, and it might have been a Roman Temple that was later converted to a Roman Church, and at a later date still, it became a Coptic Church. This was proved by the discovery, in 1984, of the scenes, on the western side of the right aisle of the church, which contained pagan Roman Gods, but layers of plaster had covered them.

This church has played an important role in the history of the Coptic Church because it became the seat of the Patriarchs after transferring it from Alexandria to Al-Fustat. The 66th patriarch Anba Christodolos (1039-1079 A.D) was the first Pope to chant the Holy Liturgy in the church. This was maintained in El-Mullaka Church until the 14th Century, when it was transferred to Abu Sefein church.

There are 110 icons here, the oldest of which dates back to the 8th Century, but most of them date to the 18th Century. Nakhla Al- Baraty Bey gave some of them as gifts, in 1898 A.D, when he was the overseer of the church.

The French monk Vansleb, who was sent to Egypt in 1671 by King Louis XIV in order to study the state of the churches and the monasteries of Egypt, mentioned that he had seen on one of the walls of the Hanging Church, inscriptions written by the hand of the great Muslim commander Amr Ibn El-As, asking the Muslim people to treat this church with respect.

The Plan of the Church:

It takes the shape of a basilica and it has a wooden roof in the shape of Noah’s Ark.

The church was once very spacious but it became much smaller, throughout the ages, after several modifications. Obeid Bin Khozam did the last modification in 1755 A.D. It now measures 23.5m in length, 18.5in width and 9.5m in height.

It consists of the following elements:

1- Entrance known as The narthex.

2- The nave and the two aisles.

3- The three Sanctuaries (located to the east of the church, the most important being the middle one, which is dedicated to The Virgin Mary)
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Some steps lead to the middle entrance. On both sides of this entrance there is a door that leads to 2 upper floors, dedicated to the dwelling of the priest.

In front of the entrance there is a vestibule that was used as a resting place for visitors.

Inside, the southern aisle is separated from the nave by 8 marble columns, linked from above with a wooden architrave, which is supported on arches. The northern aisle is also separated from the nave by 8 marble columns but there is no architrave.

Nearly in the middle of the southern aisle there is a door, which leads to a small church with a sanctuary. Inside this small church there is a baptistery, which is a deep basin of reddish granite, which probably dates back to the 5th Century. It is decorated for the sign of water in Hieroglyphics.

Of the three sanctuaries situated on the eastern side, the most important is the middle one, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the centre of this main sanctuary there is an altar made of marble. Above it there is a wooden dome, supported by 4 marble columns, and decorated with religious scenes, such as Jesus on his throne surrounded by the four evangelist saints, the disciples, and angels.

In front of the middle altar, in the nave of the church, is a pulpit that stands on 15 columns, decorated with relief and mosaics, symbolically representing Jesus, the 12 Disciples, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.

There are 7 altars in the Church, 3 of them situated in the main sanctuary, and 3 located in the right sanctuary, among which is the altar of Tecla Hymanot, the Ethiopian Saint, and another that was recently discovered in the northern side.

The church of St. Sergio

The church of St. Sergio (also known as St. Sergius or Abu Serga) was built in the centre of the Ancient Roman fort of Babylon. The church is considered as one of the sites visited by the Holy Family during their escape from King Herod to the land of Egypt.

The church most probably dates back to the 5th Century, although some historians believe that it was actually built in the 8th Century. We are not sure of the origin of Saint Sergius, as in the history of the Coptic Church there are two Saints with the same name. The first one was an Egyptian who died, together with his father and sister, during the intense Christian persecution. People today celebrate his memory every year on the 7th of February. The second one was a servant of the Roman Emperor Maximilian, and he was martyred in Syria at the beginning of the 4th Century.

The Church takes the shape of a basilica with a narthex, a nave, and 2 aisles, which are separated from the nave by 12 columns with Corinthian capitals, 10 of stone, one of marble and one of rosette granite. There are 3 Sanctuaries on the east side; each Sanctuary contains an altar, with a wooden dome, supported by 4 marble columns. The dome of each altar has religious scenes of Christ, Angels, and the 4 evangelists. There is a pulpit on the northeast side of the nave, which is made of marble, though originally it was made of wood, incrusted with ebony and ivory.

The pulpit is used once, each year, in the prayer of Great Friday. The central Sanctuary has a wooden screen, which dates back to the 13th Century, incrusted with panels of ebony and ivory. The frieze and the icons of the church are remarkable, most date back to the 15th and 16th Centuries, some were damaged and restored later.

One of the most important locations in this church is the cave in which the Holy Family stayed during their journey into Egypt. It has a nave and 2 aisles and the ceiling is domed. At the end of the southern aisle of the Cave, is a baptistery.
On the 1st of June, each year, the church of St. Sergio commemorates the arrival of the Holy Family by having prayers inside the church of the cave.