Ben ‘Ezra Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Egypt. It was once the center of many celebrations, congregations and prayers, but is no longer in use today. The origin of the building is uncertain. Some believe that it was once a Coptic Orthodox Church that was sold to members of Egypt’s Jewish community in 882 AD. The synagogue is named after Abraham ibn ‘Ezra, the Jewish religious scholar and philosopher.
Ben ‘Ezra contains all the main features of a synagogue. The bimah, or pulpit, from which prayers were read is in its center. The most sacred feature of a synagogue, the hekhal, which marks the direction of prayer, is decorated in Arabesque style and inlaid with mother of pearl, displaying a merge of artistic traditions. The Ten Commandments are inscribed on it in Hebrew.
Every synagogue keeps a geniza, a repository for old documents mentioning the name of God, which could not be simply discarded. Ben ‘Ezra’s was especially large. It had accumulated documents over a span of 850 years. This treasure of historical documents was discovered by Europeans in 1888, and is now housed in libraries around the world. The Cairo Geniza, as it is known today, includes many rare and previously unknown documents.