Threshold to the Sacred

The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue

MEDIEVAL TORAH ARK DOOR FROM CAIRO’S BEN-EZRA SYNAGOGUE OFFERS DOORWAY INTO JEWISH CAIRO’S REMARKABLE PAST

An exquisite artifact from a celebrated Cairo synagogue sheds light on daily life in the medieval Mediterranean – and illuminates the city’s remarkable pluralistic past – in an extraordinary new exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum.

Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue focuses on a work of beauty and historical significance: an intricately carved and inscribed wood panel that formed part of the door to the ark 8holding the Torah scrolls in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Old Cairo. The ark door, which dates to the 11th century but was re-decorated over centuries of use, is jointly owned by Yeshiva University Museum and the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. The two institutions collaborated on and co-organized this exhibition.

The famous Ben Ezra Synagogue of Old Cairo (Fustat), Egypt, has captivated public imagination for over a century.  It is the site of the 19th-century discovery of the Cairo Geniza, a treasure trove of documents considered the single most important source for understanding daily life around the medieval Mediterranean. During the medieval period, Old Cairo was home to some of Judaism’s greatest figures – among them, the philosopher, jurist, and physician Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) and the poet, philosopher, and physician Judah Halevi (ca. 1085–1141).

*Torah Ark Door; Egypt, 11th century with later carving and paint; Wood (walnut) with traces of paint and brass; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (64.181) and Yeshiva University Museum (2000.231)

In addition to a range of beautiful Jewish and Islamic secular and religious objects, the exhibition features seventeen original fragments from the Geniza that reflect the religious, communal and intellectual life of the community. Two draft manuscripts in the hand of Maimonides, a letter written by Judah Halevi, one of the oldest surviving Haggadahs, and a children’s primer are among the Geniza treasures in the show that help vibrantly echo the culture that surrounded the ark door in the synagogue.  

The style of the ark door brings to life the multi-cultural character of medieval Cairo, which served as the political and cultural capital of the Fatimid Islamic Caliphate for approximately 500 years. The main carved decoration on the ark door reflects the direct influence of Islamic (Mamluk and Ottoman) design. The gold-tooled leather cover of a 14th-century illuminated Quran (from the Walters Art Museum) included in the exhibition demonstrates the Jewish inclination to borrow from Islamic sources during the era.

“The ark door has a fascinating story to tell,” said Yeshiva University Museum director Dr. Jacob Wisse, who curated the exhibition. “As the face of the Holy Ark, it was the threshold to the most sacred place in the synagogue – the campaigns of decoration lavished upon it reflect that. At the same time, the door faced outward, toward the broader community. Its absorption of Islamic vocabulary reflects the synagogue’s place in the larger Mediterranean world. Considering recent events in Egypt, it seems especially valuable to recall this pluralistic, historical era.”

Presented alongside rare documents and artifacts are the results of recent scientific and technical study of the ark door that underscore the degree to which it was “updated” over the course of its history. Research undertaken by a team of conservators at the Walters Art Museum is demonstrated on special iPad kiosks that provide a glimpse into their methods, findings, and future research. Carbon-14 testing—a scientific method used to estimate the age of once-living things—confirmed an 11th-century date for the wood panel, the date of the first major reconstruction of the Ben Ezra Synagogue. X-ray study of the surface revealed the use of modern pigments and other materials at various stages of the panel’s decoration.

The exhibition takes visitors up to the present. After falling into disuse, probably sometime in the 19th century, the ark door found its way to America. Remarkably, it was only re-discovered in the early 1990s in Florida after being bought at an estate auction house. It was jointly acquired in 2000 by Yeshiva University Museum and the Walters Art Museum. Threshold to the Sacred, first appeared in spring 2013 at the Walters Art Museum, curated by Dr. Amy Landau, Associate Curator of Manuscripts and Islamic Art.

Yeshiva University Museum has expanded the scope of the exhibition with the addition of, among other works, seventeen Geniza fragments and a rare 16th–century portolan chart (navigational map) of the Mediterranean — one of the most accurate and comprehensive in its time – by the Jewish cartographer, Judah Abenzara.

The exhibition will be complemented by public programs, including a series of gallery talks given by various scholars, who will focus on particular themes through groups of objects on display. Programming will be presented in collaboration with the American Sephardic Foundation, one of Yeshiva University Museum’s partners at the Center for Jewish History.

The Geniza manuscripts in the exhibition appear courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which loaned seven fragments, and the Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania, which loaned ten. In addition to the Walters Art Museum, the following institutions loaned works for the exhibition: The Jewish Museum, New York; the Canadian Centre for Architecture; the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion; the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv; the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; and the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music and the Mendel Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University.

IMAGES OF OBJECTS IN THE EXHIBITION 

Torah Ark Door; Egypt, 11th century with later carving and paint; Wood (walnut) with traces of paint and brass; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (64.181) and Yeshiva University Museum (2000.231)

Judah Abenzara, Manuscript Portolan Chart of the Mediterranean;Alexandria, 1500;Ink on vellum; Courtesy of the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion

Plaque with Figural Scene;Egypt, 11th–12th century; Ivory; Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (71.562)

Qur’an Binding; Egypt, 14th century;Leather; Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (W.561)

Samaritan Torah Case (Tik); Matar Ishmael ha-Ramhi;Ottoman (Damascus, Syria), ca. 1568; Copper inlaid with silver; Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, New York, The H. Ephraim and Mordecai Benguiat Family Collection (S 21)

Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Malveh ve-Loveh (chapter 22:1-2); Egypt, late 12th century; Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York (MS 8254.4v)

Letter of Judah Halevi to Halfon ben Nethanel Halevi; Judeo-Arabic, 12thcentury; Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York (ENA NS I.5r)

Alphabet Primer; Fustat(?), Egypt, 11th century; Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York (MS 7737.1r)

Threshold to the Sacred

The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue

MEDIEVAL TORAH ARK DOOR FROM CAIRO’S BEN-EZRA SYNAGOGUE OFFERS DOORWAY INTO JEWISH CAIRO’S REMARKABLE PAST

An exquisite artifact from a celebrated Cairo synagogue sheds light on daily life in the medieval Mediterranean – and illuminates the city’s remarkable pluralistic past – in an extraordinary new exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum.

Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue focuses on a work of beauty and historical significance: an intricately carved and inscribed wood panel that formed part of the door to the ark 8holding the Torah scrolls in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Old Cairo. The ark door, which dates to the 11th century but was re-decorated over centuries of use, is jointly owned by Yeshiva University Museum and the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. The two institutions collaborated on and co-organized this exhibition.

The famous Ben Ezra Synagogue of Old Cairo (Fustat), Egypt, has captivated public imagination for over a century.  It is the site of the 19th-century discovery of the Cairo Geniza, a treasure trove of documents considered the single most important source for understanding daily life around the medieval Mediterranean. During the medieval period, Old Cairo was home to some of Judaism’s greatest figures – among them, the philosopher, jurist, and physician Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) and the poet, philosopher, and physician Judah Halevi (ca. 1085–1141).

*Torah Ark Door; Egypt, 11th century with later carving and paint; Wood (walnut) with traces of paint and brass; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (64.181) and Yeshiva University Museum (2000.231)

In addition to a range of beautiful Jewish and Islamic secular and religious objects, the exhibition features seventeen original fragments from the Geniza that reflect the religious, communal and intellectual life of the community. Two draft manuscripts in the hand of Maimonides, a letter written by Judah Halevi, one of the oldest surviving Haggadahs, and a children’s primer are among the Geniza treasures in the show that help vibrantly echo the culture that surrounded the ark door in the synagogue.  

The style of the ark door brings to life the multi-cultural character of medieval Cairo, which served as the political and cultural capital of the Fatimid Islamic Caliphate for approximately 500 years. The main carved decoration on the ark door reflects the direct influence of Islamic (Mamluk and Ottoman) design. The gold-tooled leather cover of a 14th-century illuminated Quran (from the Walters Art Museum) included in the exhibition demonstrates the Jewish inclination to borrow from Islamic sources during the era.

“The ark door has a fascinating story to tell,” said Yeshiva University Museum director Dr. Jacob Wisse, who curated the exhibition. “As the face of the Holy Ark, it was the threshold to the most sacred place in the synagogue – the campaigns of decoration lavished upon it reflect that. At the same time, the door faced outward, toward the broader community. Its absorption of Islamic vocabulary reflects the synagogue’s place in the larger Mediterranean world. Considering recent events in Egypt, it seems especially valuable to recall this pluralistic, historical era.”

Presented alongside rare documents and artifacts are the results of recent scientific and technical study of the ark door that underscore the degree to which it was “updated” over the course of its history. Research undertaken by a team of conservators at the Walters Art Museum is demonstrated on special iPad kiosks that provide a glimpse into their methods, findings, and future research. Carbon-14 testing—a scientific method used to estimate the age of once-living things—confirmed an 11th-century date for the wood panel, the date of the first major reconstruction of the Ben Ezra Synagogue. X-ray study of the surface revealed the use of modern pigments and other materials at various stages of the panel’s decoration.

The exhibition takes visitors up to the present. After falling into disuse, probably sometime in the 19th century, the ark door found its way to America. Remarkably, it was only re-discovered in the early 1990s in Florida after being bought at an estate auction house. It was jointly acquired in 2000 by Yeshiva University Museum and the Walters Art Museum. Threshold to the Sacred, first appeared in spring 2013 at the Walters Art Museum, curated by Dr. Amy Landau, Associate Curator of Manuscripts and Islamic Art.

Yeshiva University Museum has expanded the scope of the exhibition with the addition of, among other works, seventeen Geniza fragments and a rare 16th–century portolan chart (navigational map) of the Mediterranean — one of the most accurate and comprehensive in its time – by the Jewish cartographer, Judah Abenzara.

The exhibition will be complemented by public programs, including a series of gallery talks given by various scholars, who will focus on particular themes through groups of objects on display. Programming will be presented in collaboration with the American Sephardic Foundation, one of Yeshiva University Museum’s partners at the Center for Jewish History.

The Geniza manuscripts in the exhibition appear courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which loaned seven fragments, and the Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania, which loaned ten. In addition to the Walters Art Museum, the following institutions loaned works for the exhibition: The Jewish Museum, New York; the Canadian Centre for Architecture; the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion; the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv; the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; and the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music and the Mendel Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University.

IMAGES OF OBJECTS IN THE EXHIBITION 

Torah Ark Door; Egypt, 11th century with later carving and paint; Wood (walnut) with traces of paint and brass; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (64.181) and Yeshiva University Museum (2000.231)

Judah Abenzara, Manuscript Portolan Chart of the Mediterranean;Alexandria, 1500;Ink on vellum; Courtesy of the Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion

Plaque with Figural Scene;Egypt, 11th–12th century; Ivory; Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (71.562)

Qur’an Binding; Egypt, 14th century;Leather; Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (W.561)

Samaritan Torah Case (Tik); Matar Ishmael ha-Ramhi;Ottoman (Damascus, Syria), ca. 1568; Copper inlaid with silver; Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, New York, The H. Ephraim and Mordecai Benguiat Family Collection (S 21)

Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Malveh ve-Loveh (chapter 22:1-2); Egypt, late 12th century; Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York (MS 8254.4v)

Letter of Judah Halevi to Halfon ben Nethanel Halevi; Judeo-Arabic, 12thcentury; Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York (ENA NS I.5r)

Alphabet Primer; Fustat(?), Egypt, 11th century; Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York (MS 7737.1r)

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