On Wednesday, October 20, Paula Sanders, associate professor of history at Rice University, gave a talk entitled “Jewish History’s Most Important Discovery: The Recovery of the Cairo Geniza.” A specialist in Medieval Islamic history, Sanders has been among the prominent scholars who have devoted efforts towards the translation and understanding of the documents found in the Cairo Geniza, the site which contained a vast store of Jewish documents dating back as far as the 11th century.
These documents, published for general consumption over the last 15 years in a series of volumes edited by Sanders and her mentor, Solomon Goitein, greatly contributed to modern understanding of life in the Mediterranean region during medieval times.
Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow of History Keith Watenpaugh introduced the lecture, talking about the importance of the scholarly efforts at recovering and organizing the documents found in the Geniza. “There is no scholar of Middle Eastern studies who has not been touched by these findings,” he said. “They are a rich and vital part of a community of people, presented in a lucid and exciting way.”
Sanders began her talk by explaining the conditions that allowed the documents to remain well enough preserved that modern scholars could read them. Firstly, she explained the nature of a “Geniza.” By Jewish tradition, writings that contain the name of God cannot be disposed of in a conventional manner. Rather, they must be given a proper ceremonial burial in a cemetery, similar to one a deceased person would receive.
The Cairo Jewish community would place its documents in a Geniza, which Sanders likened to a “wastebasket” for a time before burying them. At some point, the community ceased their practice of burying the documents, and they continued to accumulate in the Geniza. Secondly, Sanders noted that the soil in Egypt, as it is sandy and dry, is conducive to the preservation of artifacts for long periods of time.
The Geniza was located in the Ben Ezra synagogue in the Medieval community of Fustat, later encompassed within the city of Cairo. The building was originally used as a church, but was sold to the Jewish community in 1040 and was converted for use as a synagogue.
It remained essentially unchanged for over eight centuries, until 1889, when structural decay caused the building to collapse. The now small Jewish population of Cairo decided to erect an identical synagogue on the premises, and efforts at constructing this new building were undertaken in 1892. During the construction effort, some documents from the Geniza were left on the ground nearby, and local dealers were able to obtain them at very low costs in what Sanders referred to as “the Geniza yard sale.”
In 1896, the Scottish Lewish sisters, vacationing in the area, purchased a number of Geniza documents from a dealer. Curious about the importance of these documents, they brought them to prominent Jewish medievalist Solomon Schecter. Perceiving the scholarly value of these documents, Schected obtained permission from the Cairo Rabbinate to remove more documents from the Geniza for further study. Over the course of many years, he removed over 140,000 documents, initiating an effort that was eventually inherited by Goitein.
The documents in the Geniza provide information regarding a myriad of differing aspects of Jewish culture, community interaction and religious practice. Sanders counts the information provided regarding social and economic conditions of the Jewish community as among the most important findings from the scholarly efforts regarding the Geniza. Documents provide information about the poll tax imposed upon Jews by the Ottoman government, indicating that the tax was perhaps more severe than scholars had previously realized it to have been.
The documents also provide information regarding relations between Jews and Arabs in the region, showing the surprising depth of their interactions. “There was real cultural commonality between Jewish and Muslim communities in the land of Islam. They shared a common culture, mediated through the Arabic language.”
Sanders noted that the effort at gleaning information from this vast “treasure trove” is far from complete, and will continue to yield valuable insights into life in the Medieval Mediterranean in the coming years.