Guide for the Perplexed
The Walters’ Ben Ezra ark door begs for context
Published: March 27, 2013
Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue
Through May 26 At the Walters Art Museum
I imagine the question of how to present the ark door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue was a difficult one for the curators at the Walters. On the one hand, it’s a fascinating artifact, acquired jointly with Yeshiva University Museum last year: The door is estimated to be almost 1,000 years old, a part of the holy ark, where the Torah is kept, in the synagogue closely associated with Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), also called Rambam, a physician by trade and, as the author of The Guide for the Perplexed and codifier of law in the Mishneh Torah, possibly the most famous and important philosopher in Jewish history.
On the other hand, it’s a door. The pieces on display include a decorated main panel and four edge panels, each inscribed with Hebrew letters. Together, they don’t make up enough for an exhibit, even one like Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is tucked into a single small room on the Walters’ third floor, borrowing one of two rooms usually reserved for the manuscripts gallery.
And so the exhibit is filled out with artifacts that range in their relevance to the primary pieces. Some of the items on display are from the synagogue itself, which catered to Egypt’s once large Jewish population of about 80,000. A hard-written inventory of the synagogue dating to the Rambam’s era is fascinating to see but would likely be even more interesting if a translation was offered. Other items, including Lusterware bowls from medieval Egypt and a contemporary Koran, seem scattered, without any unifying theme, and offer only tangential context.
The large introduction at the start of the exhibit suggests that visitors will gain insight into the “biography” of the door, the results of extensive research into the ways it had evolved over the centuries since it was first carved. And yet, the casual observer looking at the gathered objects and perusing the placards would only get bits and pieces of that biography. Which is not to say the door itself doesn’t offer its own insights. The dark brown main panel is intricately carved and is inscribed with a passage from the Book of Psalms that’s appropriate for the door of an ark holding the holy Torah scroll: “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.”
The edge panels mix Biblical references with more contemporary ones. One panel references two major benefactors of the synagogue, much like modern synagogues often dedicate chapels, halls, or other parts of the campus to donors. In a funny sign of how the organizational politics that still plague many religious institutions were present a millennium ago, one of the benefactors’ names has been obliterated, the passage carved out entirely, presumably after some dispute.
As it turns out, the most interesting information about the doors themselves—much of which points to their biography, as promised in the introductory panel—is available on two electronic tablets embedded on a low desk in a corner of the room. Few of the visitors walking through the exhibit on the busy Sunday I visited took the time to look at the tablets at all, much less to kneel down and flip through the many pages of information and pictures (which, unfortunately, aren’t available online).
One section on the tablets describes the modern discovery of the door, which was described by visitors as still being used in the synagogue in the early 1800s. They were discovered again in the mid-’90s, when they were purchased at an estate sale for $37.50. Other pages describe the wood used for the doors (walnut), the process of determining their age, and perhaps most intriguing, the changes it endured over the centuries: It was painted several times, at one point in bright colors, and was redecorated in the 14th century, when the design on the main panel was most likely added.
The Walters has acquired a treasure in the doors of the Ben Ezra ark, and interested visitors will enjoy sharing a room with such an important artifact from half-a-world away. But it’s disappointing that the museum could not construct a better exhibit to give the doors their proper context. An exhibit that prominently highlighted the door’s biography, as promised, would be the most obvious improvement. One that focused on the connection to Maimonides or to the large and historically Egyptian Jewish community would also be interesting. But the scattered, hodgepodge leaves visitors with little more to move them than the door itself. It’s an opportunity missed.
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