Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Ben Ezra Synagogue

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Maybe the oldest existing synagogue in Cairo, the Ben Ezra Synagogue or El-Geniza Synagogue was originally a church in the 8th century called El-Shamieen Church. It is located behind the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo. In 882 AD it had to be sold in order for the Copts to pay the annual taxes imposed on them by the Muslim rulers during the reign of Ahmed Ibn Tulun. The synagogue was purchased by Rabbie Abraham Ben Ezra of Jerusalem for 20,000 dinars.

The Synagogue is said to have been built over the location where the prophet Moses had been found as a baby. It also once had a copy of the Old Testament, which is said to have been hand written by the Prophet Ezra (Al-Azir) written on gazelle skin. But the Synagogue is most famous for the discovery of its Geniza (a hidden store room for sacred books and Torah scrolls).

This discovery came about during the reconstruction of the Synagogue during the 19th century, revealing thousands of original documents from the middle Ages, over 250,000 manuscripts. The documents were written mostly in Hebrew Arabic, which is Arabic written in Hebrew alphabet, and tells of life for Jews during those medieval times. Besides recounting of sectarian organizations and the relations between different Jewish sects, these scrolls also reconstruct the political, economic and social conditions of Jews in Egypt and the way they dealt with the Arab Muslim authorities during that period of history. These rare documents contain interpretations from the Old Testament and excerpts of linguistic research on Hebrew.

The original building has long collapsed, but with the renovations it was accurately and ardently reconstructed mirroring the original, the present day temple dates back from 1892. The Ben Ezra Synagogue was built in basilica-style with two floors one for men and the upper one for women. The main floor is divided into three parts by steel bars, and in the center is an octagonal marble bima (platform for Torah reading). The walls, ceiling and columns are decorated with geometric and floral patterns in the Turkish style.

The Jewish heritage library in the Synagogue was inaugurated on November 25, 1997. The Jewish community is almost extinct dwindling from a strong 80,000 in 1922 to just 250 people, who are all very old. Functions and services are still held in Synagogues but are protected by government police. The Ben Ezra Synagogue is open daily for touristic visits, but be prepared to pass through security to get in.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Bride of the Nile

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

A long long time ago, some three or four thousand years before our epoch, around the same time every year, the rise in the water on earth was herald by a sign in the heavens. The brightest of all the fixed stars appears at dawn in the east just before sunrise about the time of the summer solstice, indicating the beginning of the sacred Egyptian year. The brilliant star of Sirius or as the Egyptians called it Sothis, marked the time of the inundation of the Nile. Sothis was deemed by the Egyptians as the star of Isis, the goddess of life and love. They called it so because it was believed that as Isis came to mourn her departed husband, Osiris, to wake him up from the dead; her tears caused the rise in the levels of the Nile water.

The flooding of the Nile was the most important event in the lives of the Egyptians. It was a matter of their very existence and welfare. For a year with little or no flood meant famine in the Kingdom, but too large a flood would mean a disaster for it would over flow into the villages destroying them. A flood had to be just right to determine a good season. The Egyptian flood cycle starts during the second week of August and is divided into 3 stages. The time of the Nile flood, Akhet (the inundation) was the first season of the year. The sowing time Peret marked the time when crops grew in the fields and was considered the Egyptian Autumn from October to mid-February. The last and third season, the time of harvest Shemu, ran from mid-February until the end of May and was the spring season of the Egyptian calendar. This cycle was so predictable that the ancient Egyptians based their calendar on it.

As the Nile flow from the south to the north, the flood brought the silt-laden waters into Egypt, and as the water receded later the silt would stay behind, fertilizing the land. The flood was seen as the yearly coming of the god Hapi, bringing fertility to the land. . He was worshipped even above Ra as he brought the fertile inundation; he was a very important deity to any one living in the Nile valley. He was depicted as a blue or green bearded man with female breasts, indicating his powers of nourishment. At the time of the inundation the Egyptians would throw offerings, amulets and other sacrifices into the Nile at certain places, sacred to Hapi.

Today's celebration takes on a different meaning and form. Yes it is still celebrated at the same time of the year but there is no longer flooding of the Nile, which stopped when the Aswan High Dam was built to regulate the flow of water year round. Now this time of the year is called "Wafaa el-neel Festival" or literally "Fidelity of the Nile". It was said that the Pharaohs sacrificed a beautiful virgin girl to the river in return for a good harvest. The ancient legend has survived into an ongoing tradition where a wooden doll dressed as a bride is thrown into the Nile instead.

The modern-day celebration is now more contemporary with art competitions for children, poetry reading, concerts and scientific discussions. This year there festival will include flower parades and a Pharaonic procession portraying the ancient legend of the Nile Festival. The events included aqua sports like rowing, water skiing, windsurfing and swimming. The celebrations well accommodate floating hotels, restaurants and other places over looking the Nile. This year's concept is to promote the awareness to protect this vital source of life and a main attraction to Egypt's ecotourism.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem