Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition

March 14–July 8, 2012


Jewish communities were among the religious groups indigenous to the Byzantine Empire's southern provinces. Archaeological evidence reveals traces of affluent synagogues from Tunisia to Syria, often decorated with mosaics of menorahs, Torah arks, and figurative depictions that became increasingly abstract under Islamic rule. Inscriptions from these sites and texts written for Jewish use in Latin, Greek, Jewish Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic provide evidence of the diversity of the region and its Jewish and Samaritan (another Abrahamic community) populations. While there were restrictions on Jewish activities under Byzantine rule, they were not universally enforced. Under Islamic control, fewer strictures were placed on Jewish communities, often making life more comfortable. The most extensively documented Jewish community is that of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, founded in 882 in the Muslim capital at Fustat (now part of Cairo). Study of the diverse documents from its repository, the Cairo Genizah, has allowed the reconstruction of daily life among the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of Byzantium's southern provinces, especially as they became part of the Islamic world.

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