According to one legend, the prophet Jeremiah brought Jews to the Ben Ezra Synagogue who had survived the slaughter carried out by the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar I. Another, tells about Moses, who pleaded with God here to end the plagues of Egypt.
The history of the building itself was equally turbulent. The first synagogue was built by Jews in the 7th century. However, they were quickly expelled from it by Christians who founded the church of St. Michael here instead. The Christians had to sell the temple in the 12th century due to high taxes imposed by the Muslim rulers that were used to finance the construction of the Ibn Toulon mosque. It was thought that this would make the Christian communities convert to Islam. However, it was then that the rich rabbi, Ben Ezra bought the temple and turned it back into a synagogue.
The synagogue has the layout of a basilica, and there is a floor for women, located above the side naves. The eye is drawn to the podium from which the rabbi read the Torah. In most synagogues, this ceremony took place in a hollow, which referenced a fragment of one of the psalms: "From the depths you cry to us, Lord". There are niches in the altar where the Torah scrolls were kept.
There are currently no ornate Jewish items inside the synagogue, such as a menorah (seven-branched candlestick). The only decorations are arabesques - geometric and plant motifs placed on ebony and ivory cabinets hanging along the longer walls.
During renovation works on the synagogue in the 19th century, a treasury was discovered with documents from the Jewish community that were collected from the 9th century. Among the items were private letters, deeds, bills, contracts, and scrolls of the 6th century Torah written on the skin of a gazelle. According to their faith, Jews are required to keep any document on which God's name is inscribed.
The discovered writings made it possible for us to get to know the life of the Jewish community in Egypt better. These writings can currently be found at the University of Cambridge.
At the back of the synagogue there are Roman walls that have been restored.
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