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Le générique du Bulletin
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July/August 2003
Vol. 35, no. 4
ISSN 1492-4676

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The Ben Ezra Synagogue Restoration Project: An Illustrated Lecture by Phyllis Lambert

Elizabeth A. Morton, Communications

On Sunday, March 23, 2003, Montréal architect Phyllis Lambert gave an illustrated lecture at Library and Archives Canada. Her topic was the restoration of the medieval Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo.

Built in the late ninth-century within the Roman walls of the Fortress of Babylon (as Old Cairo was known in ancient times), the Ben Ezra Synagogue is known to us principally for its storeroom, or Geniza. The Geniza housed an astonishingly rich store of ancient Jewish books, manuscripts, miscellaneous correspondence, business records, and other fragments that were uncovered only in the late 19th century. These documents remain our premier source of information about life in the Mediterranean regions from the 10th to the 14th centuries, and their study is ongoing. But the synagogue had fallen into a state of abject disrepair until this Canadian initiative, completed in 1991, restored it to the glory worthy of medieval Cairo. The restoration project, initiated by Phyllis Lambert in 1980, owes its success to the interaction of Jews, Christians and Muslims working together in a common endeavour.

Before a packed audience in the Auditorium, National Librarian Roch Carrier welcomed guests to Library and Archives Canada, and Cheryl Jaffee, Curator of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection of Rare Hebraica and Judaica, offered her own perspective on the importance of the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the Geniza. Benjamin Gianni, Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at Carleton University, introduced Phyllis Lambert, who is the founding director and chair of the board of trustees of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal. Professor Gianni also moderated the brief question and answer session that followed her talk. Using before and after slides, Phyllis Lambert covered every detail of the restoration (which is documented in her volume Fortifications and the Synagogue: The Fortress of Babylon and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1994). On behalf of the Council of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection, Susan Lightstone thanked Phyllis Lambert for her informative and fascinating talk, and everyone retired to the foyer for a book signing and refreshments.

The free lecture and reception were sponsored by Library and Archives Canada and the Council of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection as part of the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Library of Canada.