Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue

March 2–May 26, 2013

The Walters Art Museum
600 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21201

This exhibition explores an object of exceptional interest: a decorated and inscribed medieval wood door from a Holy Ark—a special cabinet that holds the Torah scrolls, the sacred Jewish scripture. The Holy Ark (hekhal) is the most sacred place in a synagogue and marks the direction of prayer. Evidence links this wood panel to Egypt’s famous Ben Ezra Synagogue, one of the great historical monuments of Judaism. Associated with the famous philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), the Ben Ezra Synagogue is the site of the 19th-century discovery of the Cairo Geniza, a treasure trove of documents considered to be the single most important source for understanding daily life around the medieval Mediterranean.

The ark wood door, which dates to as early as the 11th century, has a fascinating story to tell. After being sold at a Florida estate auction house in the 1990s, it was jointly acquired by the Walters Art Museum and Yeshiva University Museum in New York. On the basis of descriptions by visitors to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, it was apparently still in the synagogue as part of the Holy Ark during the 1800s. A Walters curatorial-conservation team was assembled recently to uncover information about the ark door’s history, and we are presenting our initial findings here. Discover with us the fascinating “biography” of the Walters-Yeshiva ark door and the glorious past of the Ben Ezra Synagogue through Geniza documents, photographs, Islamic and Jewish works of art, together with conservation science research.

A version of this exhibition will travel to the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City October 6, 2013–Februrary 10, 2014.

Supported by the Irving Kohn Foundation and Nancy Kohn Rabin in memory of Josephine Kohn, The Richard S. and Rosalee C. Davison Foundation, The Himmelrich Family Fund, The ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, Sara and Nelson Fishman, Clara and Michael J. Klein, Phyllis and Harvey Meyerhoff, Rona and Arthur Rosenbaum, Laura and Barrett Freedlander, Jane and Michael Glick, Paula and Roy Hoffberger, Elaine and Philip Zieve and other generous donors.

Hours are Wednesday–Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays


Anonymous (Egyptian), Ark Door, ca. 1040; carving 15th century,  wood (walnut) with traces of paint and gilt, 34 3/8 x 14 7/16 x 1 in., The Walters Art Museum purchase, in conjunction with Yeshiva University Museum, with funds provided by the W. Alton Jones Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2000 (64.181)

General museum information: 410-547-9000 or www.thewalters.org

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