Medieval Jewish papers tell vivid stories in Cambridge exhibition

11th-century documents from Genizah store in Old Cairo synagogue cover whole range of human life, co-curator says

From the faded brown ink on the yellowed paper of a document going on display this week in Cambridge, a startling picture emerges of a young man who lived and loved in 11th-century Cairo.

Toviyya wanted to marry Faiza, but he evidently had quite a reputation. The document, translated into English and on show for the first time in an exhibition at Cambridge University Library, records at great length that Toviyya swore in front of witnesses that his life would henceforth be blamelessly dull.

He promised to avoid mixing with bad company for the purpose of “eating, drinking or anything else”, to not spend one night away from Faiza unless she wanted him to, and not to buy a slave girl unless Faiza gave her permission.

The document is one of 200,000 drawn from the Genizah, the store room at the 11th-century Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo. The Cambridge collection is the largest in the world of the medieval Jewish manuscripts.

The entrance to the Genizah
The entrance to the Genizah. Photograph: University of Cambridge

For 800 years, the community stored texts and religious volumes at the Genizah, as well as wills, contracts, letters, a magical charm against scorpions and the doodles of a small child struggling to learn Hebrew script.

“The first scholars to study the papers were only interested in the biblical material, but what is extraordinary about the collection, and was almost ignored for many decades, is that it covers the whole range of human life,” said co-curator Benjamin Outhwaite, part of a team that has translated many of the papers into English for the exhibition. “We’ve gone for the documents that draw out these human stories.”

The characters featured within the tattered pages include an errant son-in-law, a wife threatening a hunger strike (but only by day) in protest against her husband’s behaviour, a Jewish woman in love with a Christian doctor, and a rich woman excommunicated for adultery.

One of the most poignant exhibits is a beautifully written letter on a piece of expensive vellum, useless for any grander purpose because it had a large hole. The letter was brought home by a brother and sister from their new school, which reported that despite a severe beating their bad behaviour had continued, so further beating at home was recommended.

The first of the Genizah papers to arrive in England was a page in Hebrew from a book by the revered scholar Ben Sira, which travelled in 1897 with the scholars Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. Photographs show the twin sisters in veils and dark, heavy garments, protected by parasols as they travelled through the Middle East on ponies and donkeys.

Solomon Schechter
Solomon Schechter, who brought the collection to England. Photograph: University of Cambridge

Lewis and Gibson were primarily interested in biblical history, but the page they bought from a dealer in Cairo unlocked a lost world of medieval Jewish social history.

They showed it to a friend at Cambridge, Solomon Schechter, who swore them to secrecy in order to keep news of the discovery from the university’s great rival, Oxford, which eventually acquired a mere 25,000 of the Genizah documents.

Schechter hastened to Cairo to see if there were more papers. He uncovered many thousands, but later wrote: “A battlefield of books … Some have perished outright and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space.”

Only a fraction of the collection has been translated and thousands of documents are still to be studied. Outhwaite believes that further chapters in the story of Toviyya and Faiza may yet be found: the curators suspect their marriage may not have ended well.

  • Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo is at Cambridge University Library from 27 April to 28 October 2017. Free admission


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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