The Annales School 1967

The Geniza Documents

By Maxime Rodinson

Source: Annales, 1967, Volume 22, No. 5;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2009.

Review of Shaul Skaked: A Tentative Bibliography of Geniza Documents, prepared under the Direction of D.H. Baneth and S.D. Goitein. Paris and the Hague, Mouton, 1964

This precious work, which demanded years of labor from its author, is of an austere appearance. And yet it provides the key to an entire world which is, in part at least, that reflected in the “Arabian Nights.” The Geniza mentioned in the title is obviously that of Cairo. A Geniza is a hiding place, a warehouse, or a depository in which Jews placed writings of all kinds written in Hebrew, the sacred language, and which were no longer used. They could not destroy writings called “shemot” – names – for here or there they necessarily contained the name of God; instead they had to preserve them while waiting to be able to bury them. In Fostat, the capital of Arabic Egypt, founded in 643, gradually dethroned by Al-Qahira (Cairo) since the founding of that city by the Fatimids in 969, the synagogue built in the seventh or eighth centuries in the place of an ancient Coptic church dedicated to Saint Michael (but audaciously attached to the memory of Moses, Jeremiah, and Esdras and supposedly built around 24-25 CE) had like so many others a Geniza. Fostat is currently the suburb of Cairo we call Old Cairo. The Geniza of the old synagogue, a square construct raised on a roof and which could only be entered from the top, was discovered along with its riches in1864 by Jacob Halevi Saphir, and starting in 1888 the removal and study of the manuscripts was begun, as well as of those of the neighboring cemetery of Basatin. The number of scraps preserved is about 250,000 [1]. They largely date from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries (Fostat’s decadence was complete by the fourteenth century) with certain manuscripts much older, and are for the most part fragments of Hebrew books. We know that among them can be found the Hebrew text of the Ecclesiastes of Jesus Ben Sira, a biblical book that until the discovery of the Geniza was only known in the Greek version of the Septuagint. But aside from literary works the Geniza contained tens of thousands of scraps of a completely different kind (4500 preserved, S.D. Goitein estimated) to which a historian is naturally inclined to give priority. It is a question of the most varied “documents,” for the most part written in Arabic in Hebrew characters (but some also in Arabic), as was the usage for Jews in Muslim countries: legal documents, (sales contracts, loan and rental contracts, transcripts of trials, marriage contracts, etc. etc...) private and business correspondence between individuals or with the authorities, lists, accounts, bills, etc., etc. One can see what such material would provide for the study of the social and economic life of the oriental Middle Ages, an era for which other archives are cruelly lacking. Documents all the more instructive given that the Jewish community was in no way separate from the Muslim and Christian communities.

What is more, the Jewish community of Fostat with, in the twelfth century, 7000 families and the renown of its illustrious member Maimonides, was a commercial and intellectual center whose influence extended from India to Spain. All the communities of that immense zone addressed themselves to it, notably to obtain its financial assistance in the redeeming of captives. It is thus the entire society of that era that these documents cast a light on. The readers of this review were able to read here an article of S.D. Goitein, one of the greatest and hardest working of those as concerns the documents of the Cairo Geniza, and thus had a remarkable example of the use to which they could be put [2].

Many libraries have acquired scraps coming from this source as well as several private collections. The most important depository is the library of Cambridge University. It is there that can be found the great Taylor-Schecheter collection.

Many studies have been dedicated to one or the other of these documents. They are far from having been completed, given the difficulties contained in the language, the formulas, the allusions, etc.; and given as well the dispersion of texts, the same document sometimes has to be reconstituted from fragments preserved in different libraries. These studies are dispersed in multiple books and reviews. S. Shaked has given us – excluding literary works – a useful repertoire of these multiple works. He thus presents us with two lists, one of collections, subdivided according to call number of the documents, principally concerned with the bibliography of each one, the other of publications arranged in alphabetic order or by author with an indication of the documents concerned. His difficult labor was carried out with extreme care and a great methodical spirit, tempered by the concern to provide the researcher with the maximum of useful information.

His guide will be among the most precious for indicating to the historian and the specialist in Jewish and Muslim cultures the articles and works related to his field (an index by subject and names would have been useful, but would have increased both the size and the price of the work). The researcher who will want to engage in the study of these texts or refer to one of them will find in the second list all the information desired. We can only thank the author and hope for a new edition in a decade, when many new studies of these fascinating texts (some are pointed out by the author in his introduction as being issued shortly) will have seen the light of day.

1. This while an eminent specialist in Arabic papyrology, A. Grohmann, estimates that there existed around 5,000 documents on papyrus or paper written in Arabic in the collections he knew of.

2. “Artisans en Mediterranée orientale au haut Moyen Age,” in Annales, 1964, no. 5 p 847. For a general view of the Geniza see, for example, from the ame author ‘The cairo Geniza as a Source for the History of Muslim Civilization,’ in Studia Islamica, 3, 1955, pp 75-91.