CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND (Press Release)– Treasures from the world’s largest and most important collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts – chronicling 1,000 years of history in Old Cairo – will go on display in Cambridge this week for a six-month-long exhibition at Cambridge University Library.The Cairo Geniza is important also for the study of late antique Judaism, with lots of early fragments of rabbinic texts and piyyutim (liturgical poetry) etc. It also preserves many fragments of early versions of the mystical texts in the Hekhalot literature. Likewise, fragments of late antique and medieval Jewish magical literature. It even contains a few fragments of Second Temple-era Jewish texts, such as the Damascus Document, Ben Sira, and Aramaic Levi.
Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo opens to the public on April 27 and provides a unique and unparalleled window into the daily life of men, women and children at the centre of a thriving city over the course of a millennium.
From the 9th to the 19th century, the Jewish community of Fustat (Old Cairo) deposited more than 200,000 unwanted writings in a purpose-built storeroom in the Ben Ezra synagogue. This sacred storeroom was called the Genizah. A Genizah was a safe place to store away any old or unusable text that, because it contained the name of God, was considered too holy to simply throw out.
But when the room was opened in the late 19th century, alongside the expected Bibles, prayer books and works of Jewish law – scholars discovered the documents and detritus of everyday life: shopping lists, marriage contracts, divorce deeds, a 1,000-year-old page of child’s doodles and alphabets, Arabic fables, works of Muslim philosophy, medical books, magical amulets, business letters and accounts. Practically every kind of written text produced by the Jewish communities of the Near East throughout the Middle Ages had been preserved in that sacred storeroom.
Dr Ben Outhwaite, Head of the Genizah Research Unit and co-curator of the exhibition, said: “This colossal haul of writings reveals an intimate portrait of life in a Jewish community that was international in outlook, multicultural in make-up and devout to its core; a community concerned with the very things to which humanity has looked for much of its existence: love, sex and marriage, money and business, and ultimately death.
“The Genizah collection is undeniably one of the greatest treasures among the world-class collections at Cambridge University Library. We have translated most of these texts into English for the first time – and most are also going on display for the first time, too. With Discarded History we hope to make this medieval society accessible and recognisable to a modern audience.”
I noted the upcoming exhibition here last December, with links to older posts on the Cairo Geniza (of which there are many). More recent posts on the Geniza are here, here, here, here, here, and here. The website of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University is here.