What Lay Behind Maimonides' Door in Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue

A Mysterious Portal That Opens Onto More Mysteries

L’Dor Va Door: The ark door from the Ben Ezra synagogue is said to come from the Cairo synagogue associated with both Maimonides and Cairo Geniza.
Courtesy of Walters Art Museum
L’Dor Va Door: The ark door from the Ben Ezra synagogue is said to come from the Cairo synagogue associated with both Maimonides and Cairo Geniza.

By Menachem Wecker

Published March 27, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
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As the anonymous protagonist of Frank Stockton’s story “The Lady or the Tiger?” grew increasingly aware, what lies beyond a portal can make a huge difference. A long tradition of adorning doors with a variety of iconographies reflects artists’ understanding of what is at stake in an opaque entrance that obscures and protects what lies either within or without.

Examples of profoundly crafted gateways include the portals on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” at the Florence Baptistery, title pages of Soncino Press volumes, and Auguste Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” (famous for its Thinker).

On the most basic level, synagogue ark doors symbolize Temple curtains, which separate the domains of the profane, the sacred and the Holy of Holies. Modern-day ark doors also secure costly Torah scroll troves, act as barriers that allow congregants to sit without disrespecting the Torahs and offer a directional prompt for worshippers to orient their prayers toward Jerusalem.

So powerful is the symbol of the opening and closing ark doors that High Holy Days services often invoke the “Gates of Heaven” as a metaphor for a diminishing window of opportunity to petition divine salvation. “Caution,” the heavenly gates seem to say, “the doors are closing.”

The ark door from the Ben Ezra Synagogue, in Egypt, is clearly part of an aesthetic tradition of Jewish portals, but this is about all that is certain regarding the mysterious door, which is said to come from the Cairo synagogue associated with both Maimonides (1135–1204) and the Cairo Geniza.

The door, owned jointly by The Walters Art Museum, in Baltimore, and the Yeshiva University Museum, in New York, is on exhibit at The Walters until May 26 in “Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue.” A version of the exhibit will be on display at the Y.U. museum from October 6 until February 10, 2014.

Viewed up close with Amy Landau, The Walters’s associate curator of Islamic art and manuscripts, the ark door didn’t overwhelm initially. A wooden panel that measures about 30 inches by 15 inches, the door shows evidence of water damage in one of the bottom corners. “It’s a very interesting piece, but for an art museum it’s not a great masterpiece, obviously,” Landau admitted. “What we are looking at is a damaged piece of wood. The power of the object lies in its architectural history, its history of place.”

The panel — one of two ark doors whose companion piece is lost — contains several Hebrew inscriptions, as well as geometric panels. The quotation on the top, “Open for me the gates of justice,” derives from Psalm 118:19, and an inscription on the bottom comes from the verse that follows, “This is the gate of God.”

Presumably, the predicates of both verses would have appeared on the lost door. (The reverse side contains inscriptions of the priestly benedictions from Numbers 6:24–26, “May God bless and guard you” and “May the Lord lift his face up toward you.”)

However plain the door may appear to be at first, it might as well be St. Peter’s pearly gates once Landau has traced its complicated history. Through carbon dating commissioned by the Miami dentist who purchased the door for $37.50 in the early 1990s, and corroborated by tests by The Walters’s staff, the wood dates to the 11th century.

“For a general audience, there’s enough evidence to suggest that it’s coming from the Ben Ezra synagogue, and that has been agreed upon by a number of scholars in the field,” Landau said.

But even though the 11th century is a convenient date, since the synagogue, according to a Geniza document, underwent its first major reconstruction during that period, that’s anything but the end of the story. An Islamic art specialist, Landau says there’s no way the carving comes from the Fatimid period, which dates from the 11th century to the 13th.

Landau and colleagues she consulted, including Vivian Mann, director of the master’s program in Jewish art and visual culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York, agree that the Islamic art-inspired geometric designs on the doors come from the Mamluk period and are at least post-1400.

In particular, the composition of a lobed medallion in the center with corner pieces “is such a popular motif in 15th-century bookbinding,” Landau said. “They’re loving this motif. It’s very common. It’s part of the visual language.”

The 15th-century dating is consistent with a fire that damaged the Ben Ezra synagogue, in which the bimah, the raised reading desk, was affected but not completely destroyed. Perhaps, Landau said, a piece of damaged wood from the bimah was repurposed as an ark door, updated with a “hot composition that everyone sort of had on their books.” But just as the 11th-century dating has its challenges, so does the 15th-century reading, since the door has traces of paint on it that, according to The Walters’s conservators, must be post-1800. The synagogue also underwent renovations in the 1880s and the early 1900s, Landau notes.

“And to complicate things even more,” Landau said, “which I didn’t put in the exhibition, because I think our audience would just tear their hair out — and this is just the way history is — there was also a Mamluk revival in Egypt around the time of [Gamal Abdel] Nasser.… The Mamluk period becomes really important for their cultural memory, and they start imitating Mamluk designs.”

A clue to the dating of the evasive panel may lie in the epigraphy (the inscriptions). Instead of writing out the Tetragrammaton — the divine, four-lettered name — so as not to take God’s name in vain, for example, the carver wrote the Hebrew letters, yud vav yud.

That’s an unusual configuration (one often sees just yud yud), which may derive from the numerical, or Gematria, value of the word: 26, which is the same as the divine name yud hay vav hay. (According to some kabbalistic sources, there is significance to the fact that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, is formed from a combination of the letters yud, vav and yud.) Landau hopes to consult with Hebraicists and other scholars who can shed more light on the inscriptions, but so far, she says, she hasn’t found anything conclusive.

“It’s a door that just raises so many questions in terms of its biography, and what we were trying to do is engage the visitor,” she said. “These objects have lives before they came to the museum, and once they’re in the museum, we’re constantly trying to retrace their life steps, but also, in a way, we are narrating their relevance.”

Menachem Wecker is a Chicago-based writer on art and religion. Find out more about him at menachemwecker.com or on Twitter @mwecker.


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