Buried treasures of Cairo Genizah

Nov 14, 2011 by

In earlier posts I’ve discussed a number of ancient manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and Novgorod birch bark documents. But it is scholars of Semitic languages that have been particularly blessed with a cornucopia of written documents in various earlier Semitic languages.

Since the Middle East has been one of the cradles of writing (see map below), Semitic languages are attested in a written form from a very early date: texts in Eblaite and Akkadian written in a script adapted from Sumerian cuneiform are dated from around the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE. Other writing systems used for early Semitic languages were alphabetic in nature. Among them are the Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, South Arabian, and Ge’ez alphabets. Because of this wealth of written documents in Semitic languages, we know a great deal about the history and development of these languages.

The cornucopia of written documents in various earlier Semitic languages is further supplemented by the documents written in the Hebrew script found in the so-called genizot (plural of genizah). These are depositories for worn-out books and papers stored there until they could receive a proper cemetery burial. This is because in the Jewish tradition it is forbidden to throw away writings containing the name of God. In practice, genizot contained writings of both religious and secular nature (including personal letters or legal contracts opening with the customary invocation of God) and even writings in languages other than Hebrew but written in the Hebrew script: Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish, Old French, Arabic, etc.

By far, the best-known genizah, which is famous for both its size and spectacular contents, is Cairo Genizah, discovered in 1864 by Jacob Saphir. While he did not identify any specific item of significance, he suggested that possibly valuable items might be in store. But it was some 30 years later that two Scottish twin sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, returned from Egypt with fragments of documents from the Genizah that they considered to be of interest and showed them to Solomon Schechter at Cambridge. Schechter, already aware of the Genizah but not of its significance, immediately recognized the importance of the material. He later went to Egypt, acquired many documents and brought the contents of the Genizah to scholarly and popular attention.

Among the documents found in Cairo Genizah are a letter signed by Maimonides, a draft of Maimonides’s laws that was hand-corrected by the author, the oldest piece of Jewish sheet music, the oldest rabbinic text ever discovered and, as an illustration in an 11th-century child’s reading primer, the oldest use of the Star of David.

Altogether, Cairo Genizah contained some 350,000 manuscript fragments dated from about 870 CE to as late as 1880, with the majority of documents dating from the period between 950 and 1250 CE. Most of the fragments, some 70%, are still in Cambridge, another 20% to 25% is at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and the rest are scattered around the world.

Sadly, most of the Cairo Genizah treasure was found in poor condition: paper had crumbled or been stuck together; parchment was torn; text was missing in the middle of documents. Some pages were covered with a molasses-like goop, of undetermined origin. No one had cataloged any of the pages. And so much of it is in little fragments. Only recently, computer scientists at Tel Aviv University started using artificial intelligence to piece together some of the fragments; to date, they have been able to reconstruct more than 1,000 documents, but many more await their turn.

To do these reconstructions, computer scientists photograph and digitize the fragments, which are then scanned using algorithms, segments of which were developed for facial recognition. The computer ignores content and looks for matching physical attributes. Nachum Dershowitz of Tel-Aviv University’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science explains:

“We look at the shape of letters and the spacing between lines and things like that. If you have two pages from the same book, then the layout of each page is similar.”

Eventually, the more documents the computer sees, the better the algorithm will get, an attribute that A.I. scientists call computer learning.

Based on reconstructed documents and even mere fragments, scholars are able to study diverse aspects of the social and economic history of the Jewish people. Judaic scholar Shelomo Dov Goitein created a “who is who” index based on the Cairo Genizah documents which covers about 35,000 individuals. This included about 350 “prominent people” (among them Maimonides and his son Abraham), 200 “better known families”, and mentions people of 450 professions. But the world-wide coverage of the Cairo Genizah treasure goes far beyond the Jewish community in Egypt at the time, as documents come also from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia and Sicily. Other documents cover trade networks extending as far as India. Cities mentioned range from Samarkand to Seville, from Aden to Constantinople, from Marseilles to Venice, and even Kiev and Rouen are occasionally mentioned. Several documents from Cairo Genizah, namely, the Khazar Correspondence, the Schechter Letter and the Kievian Letter, shed a new light on the history of Khazaria and Kievan Rus.

But Cairo Genizah documents are important not only to historians and Judaic scholars, but to linguists as well because they allow us to trace the development of Hebrew (as well as of Arabic, to a lesser extent). But the linguistic significance of Cairo Genizah does not stop there: curiously, some of the documents are written in, or contain words from, Indo-European languages; historical linguists are interested in these documents because by examining how words in other languages, for example Old French, are rendered in the Hebrew script one can draw conclusions about the pronunciation patterns and more generally the historical development of French.

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