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The Last Watchman of Old Cairo
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Hahtoolah | 410 comments The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas takes place over a millennium, from 1000 years ago when Ali became the night watchman of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, to the late 1890s, when Solomon Schechter and the Smith twins, Agnes and Margaret, “discovered” and saved the documents stored in the synagogue’s geniza, to present day Joseph al-Raqb, who traveled to Cairo, Egypt to learn about his father. The synagogue is said to house the legendary Ezra Torah Scroll, which was written centuries before the birth of Christ.

In alternating chapters, we learn Cairo during three periods of history. Ali’s story takes place around the year 1000. He was a young Muslim orphan who was hired by the synagogue council to be its night watchman. As he learned his job, he also became fascinated by Jewish traditions, while maintaining his own religious beliefs. In the late 1890s, Solomon Schechter (1847 ~ 1915) was in Cairo to search for the Ezra Torah Scroll. With him were the middle-aged widowed twins Agnes Smith Lewis (1843 ~ 1926) and Margaret Smith Gibson (1843 ~ 1920), who were real people (although probably did not join Schechter on this quest). The sisters were known for having discovered the Syraic Sinaiticus and were Biblical scholars in the Presbyterian Church. In present day, Joseph al-Raqb, is a young American graduate student, raised by his Jewish mother, but whose father is Muslim. A few months after his father’s death, Joseph received a mysterious package from his father. This led him back to Cairo to find out why the object was sent to him.

In alternating chapters, the focus is on one of the above periods of history. In Jewish tradition, texts with G~d’s name are sacred. When such texts become worn or unusable, they must be treated with respect and not just thrown out. Traditionally such texts are either buried or stored in a geniza. The geniza in the Ibn Ezra Synagogue is a small room in the attic.

When portions of sacred texts are found being sold on the black market, Solomon Schechter traveled to Cairo to seek out the documents. He had the documents saved and sent to Cambridge University, where they are still held. [This is true.]

In family tradition, the eldest son of the al-Raqb family (with Ali being the original night watchman). Joseph’s father was the eldest son, hence was the night watchman. He held this position until after the Yom Kippur War when an event occurred in which he was unable to keep a mob from the synagogue. Joseph became fascinated in his quest to determine the fate of the Ezra Scroll.

The novel doesn’t take a position on the religious tradition per se, but does raise issued confronted by religious scholars in studying ancient documents.

I was totally absorbed by this novel. Michael David Lukas also wrote The Oracle of Stamboul, which is a historical novel about the last days of the Ottoman Empire. I read this book about 7 years ago and very much enjoyed that as well.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Great review. I loved this book and one of the things I loved about it was that this novel didn't take a position on religion and that religion came together in a sense, even with the differences. The fact that Joseph has a Jewish mother and a Muslim father I really enjoyed. I thought the author did a wonderful job with history.

message 3: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy | 8303 comments Well done review Hatoolah!

Hayjay315 | 205 comments I too was enthralled by this book! I would love to see this author write more!

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