26-05-2015 09:21PM ET
Restoring the synagogue of Moses Ben MaimonThe restoration of the synagogue of Moses Ben Maimon in Cairo demonstrates Egypt’s care for its Jewish heritage, writes Zahi Hawass
The synagogue of Moses Ben Maimon is important to the hearts of the Jewish people of Egypt. Before the restoration work on the synagogue started, the building was in ruins, and my assistants and I were able to return it to its former glory.
The temple was built after the death of Ben Maimon (Maimonides) in the 13th century and is located inside the Alley of the Jews in the Muski district of Cairo. The Jewish people were prosperous during the Fatimid period in Egypt. In 1179 CE, Sultan Salah Al-Din Al-Ayubi appointed Ben Maimon to be his personal physician and to act as the head of the Fustat physicians.
The Jews lived in Egypt as Egyptians and enjoyed freedom of worship, as is attested by the ten Jewish temples recorded as antiquities in Egypt, nine in Cairo and one in Alexandria. This temple of Ben Maimon is one of them.
The entrance to the temple was located in the northwest corner of the façade that looked onto the Alley of Mahmoud. Its iron door had a half-circle shape, at the top of which were Hebrew words from the Ten Commandments.
The temple is divided into three main sections. The first includes the religious school built during the lifetime of Ben Maimon (1135-1204 CE) and that housed his burial place before his remains were moved to Palestine.
Near his tomb was a small room where Jewish supplicants for miracles and cures would sleep overnight. The second section was used for prayer and religious rituals, and the third contained side rooms used as service areas and to house the temple supervisor and administrators.
The most important part of the temple is the wooden altar that faces the entrance. It contains an ark in which was kept the Old Testament. The altar features botanical decorations in many different colours. In front of the altar is a small basin for water, and adjacent to it is a candleholder with seven branches as a symbol of light. Because in a Jewish orthodox temple it was customary for men and women to be separated, a balcony was constructed for women to participate in prayer and observe proceedings.
Before the restoration work, the temple was in ruins. It was filled with debris, and most of its architectural components were damaged.
The restoration team fully documented its condition before restoration and researched the proper materials for its repair. Many samples were taken from the mortar for analysis.
We removed all the debris from the temple floor and carefully collected any archaeological materials until the floor was clean. We moved the wooden door and windows to the conservation lab and removed two marble stelae of Ben Maimon to storage for preservation. We also removed any additional buildings that were not contemporary with the temple, as well as any painting that had been done in previous restorations.
A major problem for the stability of the temple was the high level of groundwater beneath it. This issue was addressed, and the floor was injected with material to help stabilise it. Then each part of the temple was cleaned, and missing parts were reconstructed. The altar was restored, and some parts of the temple were rebuilt based on old photographs.
The restoration of the temple of Moses Ben Maimon was a very successful scientific project supervised by Aiman Hamed of Suez Canal University. He is a young man of genius, and he later published a book in Arabic that described every step of the documentation and implementation of the work, as well as the restoration of the temple decoration. I myself visited the conservation team several times to see the progress of the work.
When the restoration project was finished, I called a press conference and reporters came from all over the world to celebrate the completion of the conservation work. Many members of the foreign press came and were able to publicise how Egypt takes care of its monuments. I affirmed that Jewish temples are a part of our history, and it is our duty to protect our history.
The project was also welcomed by the Egyptian people. I cannot forget the phone call I received from a Jewish Egyptian woman who used to live next door to the temple. She told me that she was happy to hear that the temple had been restored, because Moses Ben Maimon was dear to the hearts of the Jews. She was crying with happiness.
I remembered her when I gave a lecture in Miami in conjunction with an exhibition of photographs of the Holy Land. The organiser was a dentist, and he took me to his home for lunch. I was surprised when the main dish was molokhia. I mentioned that this had to have been made by an Egyptian, and I discovered that he had married an Egyptian Jew. It was the very lady who had made the phone call.
I would also like to mention that Carmen Weinstein, the head of the Jewish community in Cairo, came to see me after she had attended the press conference that was held in the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in Old Cairo.
Carmen was very happy that we had begun to restore six synagogues in Cairo for the first time, showing how much Egypt cares about the Egyptian Jews and the ten synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria that are an important part of Egypt’s history. Carmen, who was a great supporter of efforts to restore monuments from Egypt’s Jewish history, passed away at the age of 82 in 2013.