WARNING!!!! Obscure archaeological/historical discussion ahead! Proceed at your own risk!
Seriously, I wanted to correct a mistaken identification that occurred on our tour.
While visiting Coptic Cairo, we stopped at the Ben Ezra Synagogue. After visiting the interior, we came around the back and looked at an object in front of an smaller annex building. We were told it was the Synagogue's Genizah.
I had read about the Genizah before and, frankly, that wasn't what I expected it to look like. It looked to me to be an old cistern. Guess what? I was right - it is an old cistern, not the synagogue's Genizah.
Now for the long explanation.....
What is a Genizah?
Jews believe that when the name of God is written on a piece of paper, that paper must be treated with respect. It cannot be thrown out or simply destroyed. Just as the body is buried after it is worn out, so these writings that use God's name must also be buried with ritual when they are worn out or no longer in use. Hebrew word Genizah literally means "hiding place".
A Genizah was the place in a synagogue where such writings were stored until enough were collected for a proper burial. In practice, papers were often placed in the Genizah and forgotten about, the burial never taking place. Just look in any out of the way closet in your local church and you'll know what I mean.
Over the nearly thousand year history of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, literally hundreds of thousands of documents were stored in their genizah, some written as early as the first century AD. The dry climate in Egypt kept these documents intact and readable. It was a treasure trove of historical information.
I had seem what I thought were pictures of an old, scholarly man pouring through documents in the Ben Ezra Genizah in numerous books and websites. Apparently, some of the participants on our trip had seen it too.
I found that this picture is often misidentified. It is Dr. Solomon Schechter, a man who was responsible for retrieving some 140,000 documents from the genizah. But, he is not in Cairo. This picture is taken in a room at Cambridge University, where Schechter taught and where he studied the documents he got from the Synagogue.
So, Where Was The Genizah?
That's not easy to answer. There are lots of sources that talk about the documents and few that talk about their discovery. One major events complicates the story - the rebuilding of the Synagogue in 1892.
With the Jewish community in Egypt shrinking and those who stayed moving away from the old section, the Ben Ezra Synagogue (BES) began to fall into disrepair. In 1889, much of the roof collapsed. The Jewish community rebuilt the synagogue on the same foundations and it was completed in 1892.
Incidentally, the building we visited is the 1892 building, but it had gone through significant renovation by an international team, beginning in 1989.
Only a few documents were obtained from the BES before the 1892 rebuilding. It appears at that time, the Genizah was in an upper attic of the building, that was accessed (this is not clear) by passing through the women's gallery and using a ladder to enter:
"...the Genizah is a small chamber on the roof of the old Synagogue. It is closed on all sides without any entrance; the roof is opened from above and from there they put in or throw down old and torn scrolls. I went up by ladder. It is full to a height of two and one half stories" ......Jacob Saphir, describing his visit to the BES Genizah in 1864.
Only a few documents seem to have come from the Genizah before the 1889 renovation. During that renovation, the Genizah was emptied and the contents literally sat out in the open for the three years it took to build the new BES. Apparently, a number of documents were obtained by a variety of people during that time. While illegal to remove historical treasures during this time, it appears that liberal use of "baksheesh" was used to obtain the documents.
When the new BES was completed, a new genizah was built in a similar location, accessed by a ladder from somewhere in the women's gallery. Interestingly, I have yet to find any drawings, pictures, or even detailed descriptions of the Genizah itself.
In 1896, enticed by documents he had already studied from the BES Genizah, bought by two Presbyterian ladies from Scotland, Dr Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University made a trip to Cairo to look at the Genizah. He describes what he found:
"The Genizah, which probably always formed an integral part of the synagogue, is now situated at the end of the gallery, presenting the appearance of a short windowless and doorless room of fair dimensions. The entrance is on the west side, through a big, shapless hole reached by a ladder. After showing me over the place and the neighbouring buildings, or rather ruins, the Rabbi introduced me to the beadles of the synagogue, who are at the same time the keepers of the Genizah, and authorized me to take from it what, and as much as I liked."
"The task was by no means easy, the Genizah being very dark, and emitting clouds of dust when its contents were stirred, as if protesting against the disturbance of its inmates. The protest is the less to be ignored as the dust settles in one's throat, and threatens suffocation. I was thus compelled to accept the aid offered me by the keepers of the place, who had some experience in such work from their connexion with former acquisitions (perhaps they were rather depredations) from the Genizah. Of course, they declined to be paid for their services in hard cash of so many piastres per diem. This was a vulgar way of doing business to which no self-respecting keeper of a real Genizah would degrade him- self. The keepers insisted the more on bakhshish, which, besides being a more dignified kind of remuneration, has the advantage of being expected also for services not rendered."
(read the whole story here: http://members.tripod.com/~papyri/texts/hebrewI.html)
Once the work of Schechter's finds got out, a floodgate opened up and for the next 20 years people searched the BES and the surrounding area for documents. Some were found in graves, many others were obtained from locals who had got their hands on them.
The Damascus Document
One important document Schechter retrieved was named the "Damascus Document". It talked about a "Teacher of Righteousness" and of a community of believers. At the time, no one had any idea of what the source of this document might have been. But, in 1948, another important series of ancient scrolls was discovered in caves near the Dead Sea.
It was soon realized that the "Damascus document" came from the Qumran community that produced the "Dead Sea Scrolls". The BES copy is better than any discovered at Qumran. How a scroll that must have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD made its way into the BES Genizah at least 1000 years later, then lasted another 900 years is a mystery we may never answer.