Towards the end of the 19th Century, Western scholars began to notice a trickle of old Hebrew manuscript fragments reaching the market. These fragments were just a small part of what turned out to be one of the greatest historical discoveries of the century, a huge archive of precious documents. To understand how these manuscripts survived it is important to understand some ancient Jewish traditions.
The Genizah Tradition and the Cairo Synagogue
The Jews have always treated the written word with great respect, particularly if the texts concerned invoke the name of God. Respect for the sacred texts meant that, if they became worn out or superseded, they were buried in a special rite almost like a funeral. Since this burial was only carried out on rare occasions, the books were kept in the meantime in a special secure space attached to a synagogue, known as the genizah1.
The Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) was built in the 9th Century. During the years since, superseded manuscripts and books were placed in the genizah, which in this case was a dark, windowless attic. There were two special features of the Cairo genizah that have never been fully explained: unlike in most other genizahs, very few burials were ever carried out; and the parchments and papers reverently placed there covered a wide range of subjects apart from the normal sacred texts and commentaries. In a dark space in the dry climate of Egypt, the conditions for preservation were excellent. Furthermore, in the thousand years after the founding of the synagogue, the genizah was never disturbed by the outside Muslim authorities. While many people nowadays think of Islamic regimes as repressive, this was not true historically. In the centuries from the Middle Ages onwards, these rulers in Cairo were models of tolerance compared to the Christian rulers of Western Europe.
While it was always known in the Cairo community that these materials existed, the collection remained undisturbed until the 19th Century. This was partly due to a superstition that a snake protected the entrance, and further stories of disasters that befell anyone brave enough to remove materials. In 1890, the synagogue was rebuilt, though the genizah remained unaltered. Even before this, however, fragments from the collection had begun to be shown to western visitors, and so reached the international market. On their return from Cairo, two Scottish scholars2 showed some souvenir fragments to Doctor Solomon Schechter, a reader in Talmudic studies at the University of Cambridge. Full of enthusiasm, in 1896 Schechter travelled to Cairo in the hopes of obtaining manuscripts for Cambridge University Library. He was able to acquire them by the sackload, and returned home with over 140,000 fragments, which is probably more than half of the total stored in the genizah.
A few years after bringing his collection to Cambridge, Schechter moved to New York to develop the scholarship of the Jewish Theological Seminary, bringing some of the collection with him. The materials which Schechter had left behind in Cairo were acquired by various other European institutions, forming smaller, but still significant, collections. More than 100 years later, this huge archive has still not been fully documented. Both New York University and the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University Library are involved in the conservation, cataloguing and transcription of the Cairo Genizah material.
Treasures of the Genizah
Sacred Hebrew Texts and Commentaries
The Genizah documents include an 8th Century scroll which contains the oldest known text of the Talmud. There are more than 25,000 Hebrew Bible fragments in the collection. A number of documents were written by dissident Hebrew sects, including one known as the 'Zadokite Fragment', produced by the same sect that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The parchment3 used for medieval manuscripts was both durable and expensive. As a result, it was worthwhile for scholars to scrape away the text of an unwanted manuscript, and write their own works on the parchment instead. This type of re-used manuscript is known as a palimpsest, and careful investigation using modern techniques can often retrieve the original, 'erased' text. The texts over-written by the medieval Jews can be of particular interest in the present day, providing an insight into Greek and Syriac texts.
Materials in Many Languages
In everyday life, the Jewish community in Cairo spoke Arabic, which they habitually wrote using the Hebrew alphabet. The collection contains large amounts of this Arabic material, and some in Aramaic, Persian, Coptic and Spanish. The non-religious materials in both these languages and Hebrew includes children's school books, court records, marriage contracts, medical prescriptions, business agreements, and private letters; in all they provide detailed insight into the life of the Cairo Jewish community.
In 1492, the Jews of Spain were expelled from the country by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Many of them came to Egypt, bringing with them poetry from their distinctive tradition. The collection has a large archive of medieval Hebrew poetry from Provence and Spain, including many love poems.
Witnesses to Historic Events
The Genizah materials include eye-witness accounts of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, and a copy of a 10th Century letter from the Sephardic Jew Hisdai Ibn Shaprut to the Empress Helena of Byzantium4, pleading for tolerance, and praising the treatment of the Jews by the Muslim Caliph of Cordova. The 8th Century conversion of the Khazar people to Judaism is well documented in the Genizah materials.5 There are many fragments in the actual handwriting of the famous 12th Century scholar Moses Maimonides: as the personal physician of the Sultan Saladin of Egypt, Maimonides lived in Cairo and worshipped at the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Another fragment referring to Maimonides even mentions his love of lemon cakes.
The sheer size of the archive means that many of the Genizah documents still need to be conserved using modern methods. The Cambridge collection is not normally open to casual visitors, but scholars all around the world can study the collection, either by visiting the Cambridge University Library, or through the huge series of microfilm and digital images provided to other universities and institutes. The website of the Taylor-Schechter collection gives a good guide to the collection, with some fascinating short descriptions of individual manuscripts here. There is still much to be discovered from the materials. In the meantime, they stand witness to the strength of Jewish tradition, and the possibility of peaceful co-existence of Muslim and Jewish communities.