Sacred Storeroom

The Cairo Genizah – currently on show at the British Museum as part of the exhibition Egypt: Faith after the Pharoahs – is a collection like no other from the Middle Ages: a huge accumulation of manuscripts–books, papers and scrolls–that were piously hidden away in a storeroom by the Jewish community of Fustat, Old Cairo, over a period of nearly a thousand years. The storeroom, known as a genizah, is a hiding place for sacred books that have come to the end of their useful life, but cannot be thrown away: Jewish tradition dictates that when the name of God (in whatever form or language) is written down, the written text itself becomes a sacred object and cannot be discarded.

Scholars from Cambridge discovered the existence of the storeroom at the end of the nineteenth century. What makes the collection so remarkable is not just that it preserves some of the earliest and most important copies of the major works of Judaism–including autograph manuscripts by the great Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides (d. 1205), as well as countless prayer books and Bibles–but that the pious community of Jews associated with the Ben Ezra Synagogue (known in the Middle Ages as the Synagogue of the Palestinians, since its congregation was descended from Jews of Palestinian descent who recognised the primacy of the Academy in Jerusalem as their spiritual and legal centre) deposited all manner of non-sacred texts into the almost limitless storeroom: books of poetry and philosophy, medical works, and vast numbers of everyday writings, including shopping lists, letters and legal documents. The result is an accidental medieval archive of a scope not found anywhere else in the world.

Egypt: Faith After The Pharoahs is currently at the British Museum to February 7 2016.

Geniza document - Kalila wa-dimna: manuscript with Arabic stories 13th-15th century.

Geniza document – Kalila wa-dimna: manuscript with Arabic stories. 13th-15th century.

Geniza document - Palimpsest of Hebrew poet Yannai over Aquila's Greek translation of the Bible. Paper, 12th Century.

Geniza document – Palimpsest of Hebrew poet Yannai over Aquila’s Greek translation of the Bible. Paper, 12th Century.

Stela with decree for synagogue. Inscribed 146-116 BC and 47-31 BC

Stela with decree for synagogue. Inscribed 146-116 BC and 47-31 BC

Geniza - Solomon Schechter at work. Solomon Schechter was the Cambridge scholar who travelled to Cairo to examine the Geniza, and then brought 193,000 manuscripts back to Cambridge. Late 19th century.

Geniza – Solomon Schechter at work. Solomon Schechter was the Cambridge scholar who travelled to Cairo to examine the Geniza, and then brought 193,000 manuscripts back to Cambridge. Late 19th century.

Ben Outhwaite received a PhD in Medieval Hebrew linguistics from Cambridge University in 2000, and has worked with the 200,000 manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah Collection at the Genizah Research Unit of Cambridge University Library ever since, the last nine years as head of the Unit. 

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