Genizah Update #10
Expedition Genizah Day 9 – Genizah!
We made it!!! Today, my son Jacob and I became the first people in decades to visit the Genizah chamber at Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue in many years. It was an unspeakable thrill, an enormous relief, and an experience that we both will treasure forever.
It was a dizzying day. I should preface my account, however, by noting that, when I began this trip, I had secured permission to visit the Cairo Genizah, but it was far from certain that I’d be able to visit it. Friends who know Egypt warned me never to count on anything here – my experience could end up succeeding beyond my wildest dreams, or I could come away with a big good-egg. One friend noted, “People come here counting on accomplishing all kinds of great things, and Egypt laughs.”
Today, Egypt didn’t laugh. Today, she was very cooperative.
THE BEN EZRA SYNAGOGUE
I was scheduled to meet Mr. Gamal Moustafa, of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, at the Ben Ezra Synagogue at 10:00 AM. We arrived early, and one of his assistants was already there. We began taking pictures, and soon Mr. Moustafa arrived. He is a man of about fifty or so; he’s about six feet tall, and today he wore a stylish sport jacket and crisply pressed slacks. He carried an air authority, and when he spoke, things seemed to happen very quickly. Soon, other staff members joined our party. “Dad,” Jacob said, “we’ve got a posse!”
It turns out that Mr. Moustafa is in charge of restoration of all Jewish, Coptic and Muslim religious sites for the Supreme Council. As began examining the synagogue, he explained that the Genizah is ordinarily off limits, and that this was an unusual visit. He had worked at his current post for fifteen years, and during that time, nobody – nobody – had ever entered the chamber. He had never even seen it, himself. (Actually, the last reported visit that I know of was in 1911.)
Eventually, we made our way up to the women’s balcony, from which we could get access to the Genizah. Mr. Moustafa said something in Arabic, and soon a six-foot ladder appeared – the kind that opens like an inverted V and stands on four legs. The attendants stood it in front of the entrance to the Genizah, held it steady, and invited me to climb. When I got to the top rung, the bottom threshold of the Genizah was at the level of my upper chest. I looked inside, and saw…nothing. It was dark. Pitch black.
“Can I go inside?” I asked.
“Yes. Can you jump up?”
Now, I like to think of myself as being pretty spry, but this was pushing it a little. To do what he was suggesting, I would have had to put my hands on the bottom of the Genizah entryway, jump with my legs, push with my arms, and somehow swing a leg into the opening…all in one smooth movement. I’m 46 years-old, I could stand to lose a few pounds – OK, a few dozen – I was on the balcony of a medieval synagogue, standing on a rickety ladder that was being held by a man I didn’t know and whose language I didn’t speak. On the other hand, I’ve been working on this project for a few years now, and I wasn’t about to let mere wimpiness prevent the completion of my mission. I decided I was going to give it a go.
“And please,” Mr. Moustafa added, “when you jump up, please don’t let your legs touch the wall in front of you.” Conservators had carefully restored and repainted that wall a few years ago, and, understandably, Mr. Moustafa didn’t want to ruin it with rabbinic scuffmarks.
At that moment, my decision to give it a go…up and went. “Uh…do you have a bigger ladder?”
Mr. Moustafa nodded to another attendant, who ran off to find one. Just then, I remembered that I had a tiny little flashlight on a keychain in my pocket. Careful so as not slip and fall, I reached in, removed it from my pocket, pressed the little button, and pointed the light inside the Genizah.
I’d always imagined that the Genizah floor was just a foot or two beneath the entryway. But when I shined the light down, I was surprised to see that the floor I’d expected to see simply didn’t exist. In fact, there was no floor.
Ok, so there was a floor, but it was down about fifteen feet or so beneath where I’d expected to find it. Had I just jumped in as Mr. Moustafa suggested – and as I’d seriously considered doing, myself – I would have plummeted downward to certain injury and, possibly, to my death.
What a story that would have made!
After a few moments, the other ladder arrived, and the attendants rigged a brighter light for me to use. The Genizah is a high chamber – maybe 30 feet or so – and it measures, I’m guessing, 10-by-12 feet. Afterward, the attendants showed me a small window near the bottom from which documents could be removed for burial. I called it “the Genizah drain.” For most of the Genizah’s active life, I believe, that drain was plugged shut.
During the Middle Ages, the Nile ran very near the synagogue building – it’s course has since shifted a few hundred yard to the west. Behind the building is the site where, according to tradition, the basket carrying the baby Moses was removed from the Nile.
As we thanked Mr. Moustafa, he asked whether there was anything else that we wanted to see. In fact, there was.
THE BASSATIN CEMETERY
Inez (our guide), Abd el-Aziz (our driver), Jacob, and I climbed into our van. But our party had grown, and now along with us were a Supreme Council staff member, a man whom I later learned was a police minder, and a Ben Ezra attendant “to tell us how to get there.” Our destination was the Bassatin Cemetery, the old burial-place of Cairo’s Jews, and also the site where Solomon Schechter and others found some Genizah documents.
The Bassatin Cemetery is, let’s just say, not on the typical Cairo tourist itinerary. To get there, we drove through crowded markets whose alleyways were barely wide enough for the van, desolate slums whose streets were lined with drifts of blowing trash, and past huge “cities of the dead” - gigantic Islamic cemeteries that have the look of neighborhoods themselves.
Finally, we arrived at the Jewish cemetery. But we weren’t allowed to enter – only relatives of the deceased were allowed. It turns out, however, that the Cairo Jewish cemetery consists of three different sections, so off we went to section #2. An old man – a caretaker from section #1 – climbed into our van to show us the way. That van was getting very crowded.
At section #2, we entered through a rickety gate, and found ourselves in a trash-strewn yard at the front of which, on rotting couch, sat a toothless old woman drinking tea. Behind her was a dilapidated mausoleum. It too was filled with trash, its floor was coated with animal droppings, and two roosters pecked and crowed in-and amongst-the debris.
This was the tomb of a prominent rabbi. His name escapes me in the swirl, so I’ll have to check. Its condition was very sad, indeed.
Then, at cemetery #3, we finally found what we were looking for. This was the Mosseri family burial ground. This wealthy family had built several elaborate museums around the periphery of the cemetery, and in the center were the graves of hundreds of other members of the community – non-Mosseris.
It is difficult to describe the condition of this place. Most of the headstones are toppled, and the inscriptions of many have been chisled away. Thieves? Antisemites? It’s unclear. The mausoleums are mostly for people who died in the early to mid 20th century. They, too, are dilapidated – filled with animal droppings, trash. A shelf in one of them held several dozen stale, rotting, pita breads.
Garbage swirled in the wind at every turn. Wild dogs howled and defecated amidst the graves in the distance.
Before we left, Jacob remembered a grave we had seen when we first arrived. “Dad, could we stand up that headstone with the Jewish star?” He drafted some members of our “team” to help, and together they righted the fallen headstone of one of Cairo’s deceased Jews. I was very proud of him.
The Maimonides Synagogue
Needless to say, it was a relief to leave the cemetery, and head toward our next stop – the Maimonides Synagogue. This place of worship was originally built in the 19th century, above the site of the yeshiva where the great Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon once taught his students. The Egyptian government has just restored the synagogue, and it will be rededicated a week from now, on March 7th.
Our driver took us to the old, walled city of Fatimid Cairo, the Medieval capital of the city. The gates are ordinarily closed to traffic, but Mr. Moustafa had told the police we were coming, so they opened the gates and waved us in. Just inside, we left the van, and climbed onto an electric cart, which took our party through the narrow winding alleyways of old Cairo to within a hundred yards or so of the Maimonides synagogue.
There, the head conservator, Ayman Hamed, gave us the grand tour, showing us the beautifully restored 19th century synagogue, the yeshiva beneath it, the small chamber off the yeshiva which is said to be Maimonides’ original burial place, and much more. It was a real thrill.
Then, it was back to the hotel. Jacob was exhausted, and I had to awaken him to get out of the van when we arrived.
Tomorrow, we have several meetings with scholars and friends, and then, early the next morning, off to New York!
And here I am, still trying to make sense of it all.
Thanks for reading this far, and best wishes to you all,