A letter of introduction, written and signed by the Rambam (Maimonides) in the 12th century, which is part of the Discarded History exhibition that will be opening in April 2017 at Cambridge University.Visitors will be able to see a small fraction of the more than 300,000 manuscripts and fragments that were originally found in the geniza, or storeroom, of Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, or Old Cairo, in Egypt. Some of the items are more than 1,000 years old and, among them, are accounting records and parts of responsa and observations by some of the greatest Jewish theological minds, such as the Rambam, Isaac Luria and Joseph Caro. (photo by Edgar Asher with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library)
The author and fellow servicemen at a moral leadership course in Fayid, Egypt, in 1951. (photo from Alan Tapper)
It was the spring of 1951 and I was serving in the British Royal Air Force in the Suez Canal Zone of Egypt. I was one the many hundreds of thousands of young British conscripts sent to Egypt to replace the local workers, who had been told by their government to leave their jobs servicing the British military there. While these men did menial jobs, the work provided them a subsistence wage, which they lost by leaving. Times were difficult.
I worked for the air force intelligence unit. My job was to document all the incidents that took place in an area from Iraq to Egypt. There were a large number of shootings, disturbances in villages and casualties, both Egyptian and British.
Drug smuggling was also an issue. Habbaniya in Iraq was a British air force base at the time, and part of our command. The unit I was in also employed local Arabic-speaking trackers for intelligence work. Hashish was the drug of choice then and a tracker with the RAF once brought back some to our office for airmen to sample at the end of a cigarette.
I was based in Ismailia, in northern Egypt, on the edge of an airfield. I lived in a tented compound where the locals regularly fired volleys of bullets into the base. They were indiscriminate. Not a pleasant experience.
I also worked in the civilian labor office, where I discovered information on the large number of Jewish people from different countries living in Alexandria and Cairo. My job entailed monitoring all previous applications forms and that’s how I found out that there were many Jews in the region, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, who had worked for the British forces during the Second World War.
Even though the nominal head of Egypt at that time was King Farouk, the British government had a colonial attitude and controlled the whole of the Suez Canal Zone from Port Said to Suez, with army and air force bases throughout the area. Britain knew the strategic importance of this waterway to countries of “the Empire.”
Fifty years later, the British government recognized the effort of the conscripts who served in Egypt by giving us a Suez Medal. They were going to charge us 50 pounds for the medal, but changed their minds after the uproar the idea caused. Regardless, I’m glad to have served, and I still have the medal. I wear it at Remembrance Day ceremonies.
I was in Egypt for 16 months. One of the most memorable parts of my time in the Suez Canal Zone was when I attended a moral leadership course organized by the Jewish chaplain to the British Armed Services in Fayid, Egypt, during Pesach 1951. It was attended by Jewish servicemen stationed in the area and special Pesach food was brought in for the seder and the festival. It was a wonderful experience to meet fellow Jews in – of all places at Passover – Egypt.
Alan Tapperis a local freelance writer. His work has been published in the Vancouver Sun, Province, Courier, National Post, among others, as well as the Jewish Western Bulletin, now the Jewish Independent, and online publications. His first story was published in the London Evening Star when he was 14.
suleiThe above display at the Tower of David Museum shows a variety of characters typical of Jerusalem in the 19th century in front of a fountain. Jerusalem’s water system was restored during the rule of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent; fountains (sabils) were built throughout the city, providing water to its residents and to visitors for generations. (photo by Hamutal Wachtel courtesy of Tower of David Museum Jerusalem)
Running water is still a luxury. For most of history – and still in many parts of the world – there has been a constant struggle to locate and maintain water resources. Certainly, this has been the history of inland Jerusalem, which, for thousands of years, has been important to merchants, travelers, pilgrims, politicos and residents alike.
When the Egyptian Mamluks came to Jerusalem in the middle of the 13th century, they found the public water system in need of rehabilitation. To relieve the weary and the thirsty, Mamluk rulers constructed a series of sabils, or free public drinking fountains.
Perhaps the Mamluks repaired or built these esthetically pleasing drinking and washing (i.e. Muslim ablution) facilities out of a heightened sensitivity to the under-privileged. The Mamluks themselves apparently began as young captured or bought slaves, forced to fight, especially in Egypt. While they did not establish social welfare ministries, the Mamluks nevertheless gave alms to ensure water, food, medical care and even (madrasa) education for the poverty-stricken.
The Sabil al-Shurbaji demonstrates this charitable approach. Abed al-Karim al-Shurbaji, the sabil’s endower, was an apparently wealthy Jerusalem resident who lived at the end of the 17th century. In 1686, he had the following welcoming, non-denominational inscription installed on his fountain: “Abed al-Karim al-Shurbaji built the sabil so that thirsty people might drink, hoping through this deed for reward, blessing and charity from Allah the Glorious. Beloved respectful one, set out to date it, and say [it is] a drink from Paradise or a spring.”
In addition to providing regular water flow for his sabil, al-Shurbaji built a cistern nearby in order to have water during droughts. The commissioned sabil was actually a single room with a double window on the northern side, covered by a shallow pointed dome. Compared to the ornate designs ordered by earlier Mamluk rulers, Sabil al-Shurbaji’s architecture is simple.
According to Dr. Avi Sasson, Jerusalem had some 30 sabils, from the nucleus of the Temple Mount to the surrounding city and beyond. Suleiman the Magnificent – sultan from 1520 to 1566 – built all his sabils at street intersections and at central sites around Haram esh-Sharif, the Temple Mount. Medieval sabils were built on the Temple Mount. Starting in the early Ottoman period, sabils began to spread into the city, following housing development outside the Old City walls.
Sabils appeared in three forms: built into a wall; free-standing, sometimes looking like a kiosk; and stylized tanks that required refilling, as they had no constant source of water. In the first two types of sabils, the drinking water came from reservoirs, cisterns or aqueducts. Exquisitely chiseled, these stone fountains sometimes incorporated carved items from other sites, such as the Roman – Prof. Dan Bahat says Crusader – sarcophagus or stone coffin used as a trough at Sabil Bab al-Silsila (Fountain of the Chain Gate), or the Crusader door frame on the Harem’s (1482 CE restored) Sabil Qaitbay (Fountain of Qayt Bay).
While researchers know of the existence of 10 sabils on the Temple Mount, Sabil Qaitbay is one of two sabils on the Temple Mount noted for its unique shape. The 1482 CE fountain – which is actually the rebuilding of an earlier sabil of Mamluk Sultan Saif al-Din Inal – has an ornately carved stone dome. Highly stylized Quranic inscriptions run along the top of the structure. Lacking its own water source, the fountain required refilling. The entrance to the fountain structure was from a set of rounded stone stairs on the east side.
The eight-sided Sabil Qasim Pasha originally got its water from an aqueduct. Water streamed from openings in the marble slabs. Today, the sabil gets its water piped in from the al-Aqsa Mosque water system.
Suleiman the Magnificent’s sabils are probably the best known. In the past year, the Jerusalem Municipality has restored Suleiman’s Sabil Birkat al-Sultan. The sabil’s stones are now clean and there are spouts for drinking fresh water. Runners in Jerusalem’s Marathon this year could stop at this 480-year-old fountain to quench their thirst.
According to a 2009 article in Sustainability by Jamal Barghouth and Rashed Al-Sa’ed, documents show that early in the Mamluk period, Baibars (in 1267 CE) and Mohammad Ibn Qalawun (in 1327 CE) conducted water restoration projects. Rulers, however, soon discovered that keeping Jerusalem water flowing was a demanding job.
Upset over their lost income, private water carriers not infrequently sabotaged the aqueduct along its Judean Desert edge. In addition, south of Jerusalem, farmers diverted the water flow to irrigate their fields. To protect the water, rulers stationed guards and soldiers along the line, but that did not totally stop daring water thieves. Even the severe punishments for those caught tampering with the water system did not completely deter people. Eventually, the Ottomans proposed a different tack: in exchange for leaving the line alone, farmers and towns were given tax breaks.
Accumulated waste material in the open-air aqueduct eventually caused complete blockage. Suleiman the Magnificent reportedly cleaned the aqueduct and undertook many other restoration activities. Later Ottoman rulers were left to instal a closed line.
Eventually, however, the Ottomans abandoned the whole system, forcing Jerusalemites to draw water from wells and local pools until the eventual British Mandate installation of a modern water system. While the Gihon Water Company, established in 1996, lacks the artistic and charitable sense of early sabil builders, it nevertheless reliably supplies fresh water, as well as sewage and drainage services, to about a million people, including Jerusalem residents and those living in Abu Ghosh and Mevaseret Yerushalayim.
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Sources (further reading)
Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam: Mamluk Egypt, 1250–1517 by Adam Sabra (2006), part of Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization
“Sabils (Water Fountains) of Jerusalem from the Medieval Period to the Twentieth Century” by Avraham Sasson in Water Fountains in the Worldscape (2012), edited by Ari J. Hynynen, Petri S. Juuti and Tapio S. Katko, published by International Water History Association and KehräMedia Inc.
“Sustainability of Ancient Water Supply Facilities in Jerusalem,” by Jamal M. Barghouth and Rashed M.Y. Al-Sa’ed in Sustainability 1(4) (2009)
Jerusalem of Water: The Supplying of Water to Jerusalem from Ancient Times until Today by Yad Ben Zvi for HaGihon Water Company Ltd. (in Hebrew)
One of two Egyptian sarcophagi covers – one dating to between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE (Iron Age) and the other to between the 16th and 14th centuries BCE (the late Bronze Age) – that were seized by Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) inspectors four years ago while checking shops in the market of Jerusalem’s Old City. In a short ceremony on May 22, they were returned to Egypt. Egyptian ambassador Hazem Khairat expressed Egypt’s appreciation for all the efforts made by the Israeli authorities to return these smuggled antiquities to their country of origin.
The close relationship humans share with yeast is truly ancient, and predates humanity itself. (photo by Lilly M via commons.wikimedia.org)
During the holiday of Passover, we are told not to eat leavened bread (chametz). The leavening of bread is caused by yeast, a single-celled fungus. The yeast induce a chemical reaction called fermentation, which converts water and sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The bubbles of carbon dioxide gas produced during this reaction cause the bread to rise and become porous, ultimately resulting in delicious fluffy bread. The close relationship humans share with yeast is truly ancient, and predates humanity itself.
Since fungi lack mobility, it had often been assumed that they were more plant-like than animal-like. But genetic studies in the 1990s revealed that fungi are actually more closely related to animals than to plants. The common ancestor that animals and fungi share would have probably been single-celled, and resembled in many ways our friend the yeast. So we can consider them very distant cousins (not invited to the Passover seder).
Fruit are an important part of the diet of all apes, including humans and their ancestors. A ripe sweet juicy fruit is full of sugar and water, the key ingredients for fermentation. There are many different varieties of yeast that are found commonly all over the world, on the human body, in the soil, and often on the skin of fruits. Fermentation of ripe fruits due to the presence of such yeast is common in nature, and would have inevitably been eaten by the ancestors of humanity for millions of years. Primatologists have observed various species of monkeys getting drunk off such naturally fermented fruit. To explain this puzzling phenomenon, biologist Robert Dudley at University of California-Berkley formulated the “drunken monkey” hypothesis. Fruit evolved as a means for plants to use animals as a method of seed dispersal; however, if the fruit rots before it gets eaten, the seed doesn’t get dispersed. Alcohol is a volatile molecule, which means it floats around the air very easily. If a fruit begins to ferment, the alcohol molecules spread much further and faster than the smell of the fruit would on its own. Animals, such as monkeys and apes, can, therefore, smell from a greater distance that there is delicious fruit, helping them find and eat the fruits, and thus helping to disperse the seeds of the plant. It is an evolutionary relationship that benefits the plant, the yeast and the animal, a win-win-win scenario.
Moderate consumption of alcohol is in fact healthy and nutritional. Alcohol contains more calories than either carbohydrates (sugar) or proteins. Let us remember that calories were integral to survival before the obesity epidemic of the modern age. Alcohol can also protect against many diseases, especially cardiovascular diseases. Studies have even shown that people who consume alcohol in moderation live longer than those who don’t. Despite the many dangers associated with excessive alcohol consumption, the low doses normally consumed in nature ultimately may have provided a survival advantage to the ancestors of humanity.
The first civilizations arose in part due to intensive cereal agriculture. These cereals were used to make bread and beer. In Mesoamerica, they made a beer from corn, in China with rice and, in Mesopotamia and Egypt, they used barley and wheat to make beer and bread. These innovations that played an integral role in the building of civilization were thanks to yeast. The first writing system ever developed was Cuneiform, in Mesopotamia during the third millennium BCE. Among the first written records in history are references to the production, distribution and consumption of beer. Some scholars suspect that the Jews acquired this beer brewing knowledge during their exile in Babylon. The Hebrew word for drunk, shikur, is thought to be derived from the Babylonian word for beer, shikaru. However, if the story of Passover is to be believed, then perhaps the ancient Israelites brought the knowledge for beer making from Egypt.
Wine, an essential component of any decent Passover seder, also has an ancient history. The earliest evidence for intensive wine production can be found at the archeological site of Hajji Firuz Tepe in modern-day Iran, which has been dated to sometime around 5400 BCE. Genetic analysis corroborates that strains of wine yeast originated in Mesopotamia, but put the date back 10,000 years ago. Some archeologists have speculated that the strains of yeast used for making bread and beer originated from wine yeasts, however the evidence for this remains contentious. Wine and beer were both produced in Egypt, and were important culturally, religiously and medicinally, and Egyptians would bury jars of wine in the tombs of the pharaohs. Analysis of DNA found inside ancient Egyptian wine jars from the tomb of a pharaoh from 3000 BCE identified the same species of yeast used to make wine today: Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
If there were indeed Jewish slaves in Egypt, they would have eaten bread and drank beer and wine, leavened and fermented by the same fungus that we use to leaven bread and ferment wine today; a little old friend that has joined us on our long journey through the vast deserts of time. L’chayim.
Ben Leyland is an Israeli-Canadian writer, and resident of Vancouver.