Visual Moment // Medieval Cairo

By | Jan 08, 2014

Tale of the Lost Ark (Door)

By Diane M. Bolz

Today, fewer than 50 Jews remain in Egypt, but for thousands of years the country was home to a series of important Jewish communities. From the Jewish garrison that settled on the island of Elephantine on the Nile River around the 5th century BCE to the modern Jewish population that at its height in the first half of the 20th century numbered more than 80,000, these groups were a vital part of the pluralistic society that characterized Egyptian life since medieval times. One of the most significant of these Jewish communities was that of Fustat, a city founded in the 7th century BCE on the east bank of the Nile. Cairo was founded north of Fustat in 969 and became the political and cultural capital of the Muslim province of Egypt for some 500 years. Today, Fustat comprises an area of Cairo known in Arabic as Masr al-Átiqa,  or “Old Cairo.”

During the medieval period, some of Judaism’s most distinguished figures spent time in Fustat. Among them were the philosopher, rabbi and physician Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and the poet, philosopher and physician Judah Halevi (c.1075-1141). Maimonides lived in Fustat for the last four decades of his life and wrote both his major philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, and his 14-volume anthology of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, there. Halevi spent time in Fustat on his way to Palestine and wrote about Egypt as the setting for miraculous biblical events.

Located in the heart of Fustat, the Ben Ezra Synagogue was a center of prayer, study and celebration for Egyptian Jews from at least the 10th century. It was also the site of the remarkable 19th-century discovery of the Cairo Geniza, an invaluable cache of texts considered to be the most important source for understanding daily religious, communal and intellectual life around the Mediterranean during the medieval period. The panel of the ark door that is the focus of a new exhibition called Threshold to the Sacred at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City comes from that synagogue and dates back to the 11th century. The dominant carved decoration at the center of the door reflects the direct influence of Islamic (specifically Mamluk and Ottoman) design while the Hebrew inscription on the panel, “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” is based on verses from Psalm 118.

“The ark door has a fascinating story to tell,” says Yeshiva University Museum director Jacob Wisse, who curated the exhibition. “As the face of the Holy Ark, which holds the Torah scrolls and marks the direction of prayer, it was the threshold to the most sacred place in the synagogue. 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.”

At some point, likely during the 19th century, the ark door outlived its usefulness. It ultimately ended up in America and was rediscovered in the early 1990s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after being sold at an estate sale for $37.50. In 2000, it was acquired jointly by the Yeshiva University Museum and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The current exhibition opened in the spring of 2013 at the Walters, curated by Amy Landau, associate curator of manuscripts and Islamic art.

Recent scientific and technical study of the door undertaken by the Walters has revealed the extent to which it was modified and redecorated over the centuries. Carbon-14 testing confirmed that the walnut wood panel dates from the 11th century, coinciding with the first major reconstruction of the Ben Ezra synagogue. An X-ray study of the surface of the door revealed the use of modern pigments and other materials, such as brass and gilt, at various stages of the panel’s redecoration. The Yeshiva University Museum has expanded the scope of the exhibition with the addition of, among other works, a rare 16th-century navigational map of the Mediterranean by the Jewish cartographer Judah Abenzara and 17 Geniza fragments, including two draft manuscripts in the hand of Maimonides, a letter written by Judah Halevi and one of the oldest surviving Haggadahs. The exhibition is on view through February 23.

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