Imagine what the stuff of everyday life — personal letters, the deed of a house, a shop owner’s inventory records — might look like in medieval times. Since the late 1990s, historian Marina Rustow has immersed herself in a unique cache of such documents hidden away for centuries in an Egyptian synagogue.
This collection, known as the Cairo Geniza, comprises more than 400,000 fragments of legal documents, letters and literary materials, going back to about the year 870, that were consigned to a hiding place or storeroom (in Hebrew, “geniza”) in the medieval Ben Ezra Synagogue in the old city of Cairo.
In that era, damaged or worn-out religious texts and unneeded old documents could not be thrown away if they contained the name of God. In the mild Egyptian climate, the centuries-old texts were preserved. These items, which came to the attention of dealers and collectors in the 1890s, span more than a millennium and now reside in about 60 library and private collections around the world.
The Cairo Geniza is “a mirror of the society,” said Rustow, the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and a professor of Near Eastern studies and history. The documents offer insight into the everyday lives of Jews in medieval Egypt and beyond, much like the documentary papyri of Roman and Islamic Egypt, as well as Arabic paper documents of Egyptian Muslims and Christians during the Middle Ages.
“People had mainly been interested in what historians call literary texts — such as the Bible and Rabbinic literature,” Rustow said. “Nobody paid much attention to the other 10% of it, the documents.”
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