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Treasures from the Ben Ezra Synagogue

Yitzchak Schwartz, Intern, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Monday, April 2, 2012

Bifolium from a Children's Alphabet Primer

Bifolium from a Children's Alphabet Primer, 11th-12th century. Blue, red, and yellow ink on parchment; bifolium; 6 9/16 x 9 3/16 in. (16.7 x 23.4 cm). Cambridge University Library, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, Cambridge (T-S K5.13).

«Several of the Jewish manuscripts on view in Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, including the example shown above, are thought to have come from the Cairo Genizah, a repository of communal, religious, and business documents housed in the attic of the tenth-century Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo that was rediscovered in 1896 by Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter.»

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City co-own another treasure from the Ben Ezra Synagogue: one of the doors of the synagogue's ark, the compartment where the scriptures are kept. According to an article in the Baltimore Sun (August 30, 2000), the door was discovered at an estate sale in central Florida in 1993 or 1994 and purchased for $37.50. After experts—including Byzantium and Islam catalogue contributor Steven Fine—identified the panel as originating from the Ben Ezra Synagogue, and testing confirmed that it dated to the eleventh century, it was acquired by the museums as a joint purchase.

Panel from a Torah Shrine

Panel from a Torah Shrine, ca. 1040. Cairo, Egypt. Wood (walnut) with traces of paint and gilt. 34 3/8 x 14 7/16 x 1 in. (87.3 x 36.7 x 2.5 cm). The Walters Art Museum and Yeshiva University Museum (64.181)

The Ben Ezra door, which will be on view next spring at The Walters Art Museum and next fall at Yeshiva University Museum (see exhibition information), is one of the few extant examples of Jewish synagogue art from this period, and it provides a fascinating window onto Jewish culture. Its decoration reflects the influence of Islamic styles in Jewish communities of this period, and its use of inscribed scriptural quotation as ornament parallels examples of Fatimid architecture from Islamic and Christian contexts (see examples in the collection of The Jewish Museum: synagogue inscription; dedication inscription). The Ben Ezra inscription reads: "Open for me the gates of righteousness. . . . This is the gate of the Lord" (Psalm 118:19–20). The panel contains traces of paint and gold leaf, indicating that it was once richly colored.

The door has also given us new understanding of the common representations of Torah arks in Jewish manuscripts from this period—including an example in the Byzantium and Islam catalogue—which are often richly ornamented with quotations from scripture. We now know that these illustrations represent the way Torah arks were actually decorated at this time.

Related Link

Exhibition Theme: Judaism


  • Nancy says:

    Are there any drawings or other renditions of what the Ben Ezra Synagogue would have looked like in the 11th century C.E.? I would love to know what it looked like when the papers were still being deposited in the genizah. Thank you.

    Posted: August 31, 2013, 10:49 p.m.

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About the Author

Yitzchak Schwartz is a student at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, as well as Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, where he researches Jewish material culture and cultural history. He is also a Research Associate at the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, where, among other projects, he is working on the exhibition The Samaritans: A Biblical People, which will open at the Museum of Biblical Art in Fall 2014.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.