In December 1896, Rabbi Solomon Schechter stepped into the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt—and found the largest treasure trove of ancient and medieval manuscripts ever discovered: hundreds of thousands of documents, many more than 1,000 years old.
Because Jewish law forbids the disposal of sacred texts, even when they’re torn or unusable, Jews have either buried the texts in a cemetery or deposited them in a genizah (Hebrew for “storehouse”), a dedicated room usually in the attic or cellar of a synagogue. Many communities transport their old papers from the genizah to the cemetery and bury them every few years. Not only does this afford the documents a proper interment, it also prevents them from falling prey to the ravages of mold and insects.
But the Ben Ezra Synagogue was far away from the cemetery, and Cairo’s robust and thriving Jewish community during the Middle Ages—numbering in the tens of thousands—had produced quite a paper trail. Living then under Muslim rule, Jews served as prominent government officials, craftsmen, and merchants engaged in trade with North Africa, India, Europe, and Babylonia. Jews spoke Arabic as their first language, forged close social and economic ties with their Muslim neighbors, and even tried many of their cases in non-Jewish courts. Jewish businessmen wrote receipts, friends wrote letters, rabbis wrote opinions and commentaries, clerks wrote court documents, doctors wrote prescriptions, Jewish philosophers wrote essays. These and countless other materials eventually made their way into the Genizah in the Ben Ezra Synagogue, where they remained undisturbed for centuries.
In the spring of 1896, Solomon Schechter, an accomplished scholar and then the only Jewish don at Cambridge University, ran into his friend Agnes Lewis on the street. She told him that she and her twin sister, Margaret Gibson, had recently returned from visiting the Middle East, where they had purchased some old manuscripts, a few of which they were unable to identify. Lewis invited Schechter to their home to examine the documents, and he went immediately. There, he was astonished by one of the Hebrew pages. It was from the book of Ben Sirah, a biblical-era work of wisdom literature long thought to have been lost to history, last seen nearly 1,000 years ago!
Schechter noticed that several of the documents originated in Cairo, where a centuries-old Genizah was rumored to exist. Quickly, he arranged a visit to Egypt.
In the Cairo Genizah, Schechter discovered a massive mound of Bibles, letters, business records, poetry, children’s schoolbooks, and much more, most from the years 969–1250. The find exceeded—by many times over—the 10,000 or so antiquarian Jewish documents then known to exist in the world. It included the oldest known piece of Jewish sheet music ever found, early versions of prayers and biblical texts (many of which differ from those we know today), letters written by the great Jewish sage Maimonides, and early copies of some Dead Sea Scrolls. The Genizah documents also revealed details of a mode of Jewish worship practiced by Cairo’s Palestinian Jewish community (named so because they affiliated with rabbis in the Land of Israel), many of whom worshiped at the Ben Ezra Synagogue, and whose distinctive practices had faded into obscurity by the 12th century. For example, Palestinian Jews spent three years reading through the Torah—not one, as we do today—and in some communities they read a different poem for each of the 150 weekly Torah portions. Moreover, before reciting the Sh’ma, some Palestinian Jews recited a prayer which also had been lost (but now, more than 100 years since the Cairo Genizah discovery, it appears in one of the Shabbat morning services on page 227 of the new Reform prayerbook Mishkan Tefilah).
The documents were written in a babel of languages. Religious texts appeared in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Persian, and Latin; and many trade documents were in Indian languages (reflecting Cairo Jewry’s active trade with India). But by far, the most widely represented language was Arabic, which, from the early Middle Ages until the mid-20th century, was spoken by more of the world’s Jews than any other language. Maimonides and the other great sages of the period wrote and conversed in Arabic; Jews gave their children Arabic names; Cairo Jewry thought, spoke, sang, and probably dreamed in the language.
A few antiquities dealers had removed contents from the Cairo Genizah before Schechter arrived on the scene. The leaders of the Ben Ezra Synagogue now gave Schechter permission to take as many of the remaining documents as he wanted. Schechter shipped more than 190,000 manuscripts back to Cambridge, where most of them remain to this day. In 1902 Schechter accepted the position of president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (which he would serve until his death in 1915), and in the 1920s, JTS purchased 30,000–35,000 Genizah documents for the seminary library. Others later sifted through what Schechter left behind in the Genizah. Today another 80,000 documents are part of the collections of several dozen other libraries throughout the U.S., Europe, and Israel. Most of the major libraries holding Genizah manuscripts make the documents available to scholars and others upon request—and within the next few years, thanks to an initiative called the Friedberg Genizah Project, all of the manuscripts will be available online at genizah.org.
A couple of years ago, while doing research for a book about the Cairo Genizah, I decided to try to see the Genizah chamber and some of its most stellar finds for myself. And so, late last February, with my 16-year-old son Jacob at my side, we launched Expedition Genizah.
Jacob’s mother—my ex-wife—was very supportive of the trip. But before we left, she said, “So let me make sure I understand: You’re traveling halfway around the world to see…old papers and an empty closet?”
“Uh…yes,” I said. “That’s about right.”
Our first stop was Cambridge. On the morning of February 23, 2010, Jacob and I walked on narrow, winding streets across the centuries-old city to visit the University Library, which holds the world’s largest collection of documents from the Cairo Genizah. We trekked past the “Old Schools,” a group of stately buildings where Solomon Schechter studied the documents after his return from Egypt, wound our way toward a bridge that led over the River Cam, and, a few minutes later, walked up the library’s front steps.
Dr. Ben Outhwaite, the affable, boyish-looking director of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, greeted us and led us up a flight of stairs, across large rooms of library stacks, and through a maze of hallways. Soon we found ourselves facing a wall-sized blow-up photo of Solomon Schechter sitting in the old library building among heaps of Genizah manuscripts. “Here we are,” Dr. Outhwaite said, opening the research unit’s wooden door.
To my surprise, the staff managing the world’s largest collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts operates within a small reception area surrounded by a few modest offices.
Dr. Outhwaite explained that all the original Genizah documents are stored in albums and archival boxes, encased in an acid-free archival flexible plastic called Melinex, the same material used to make Mylar balloons and plastic soft-drink bottles. Some of the plastic sleeves hold only a single document; others contain several, separated into compartments by machine-sewn stitching.
As Dr. Outhwaite opened an album, we gazed at a small piece of vellum illuminated with bright red, green, and gold lettering. A large, seven-branched menorah and two six-pointed stars decorated its right side; the left side displayed a series of nonsense syllables— ah, ah, eh, ay, ee —in large Hebrew letters. It was a children’s Hebrew reading primer, dating back to the 11th century! Its six-pointed stars were among the earliest examples of that symbol’s use on a Jewish document!
Suddenly I found myself thinking back to my own childhood. A remarkably similar (although less ornately decorated) page facilitated my own Hebrew studies. A thousand years ago, I thought, a Jewish child in Cairo sat down at a table to begin learning Hebrew vowels—“Ah, ah, eh, ay, ee.” A few dozen years ago, another Jewish child (yours truly) sat at a table in suburban Chicago and began learning Hebrew in much the same way. Eight years ago, yet another child—my son Jacob—sat at his table and forged one more link in the ancient chain of study. Could the child in Cairo ever have imagined that, a millennium later, a father and son would be looking at his schoolbook in a distant northern land?
Dr. Outhwaite then showed us a torn section of another primer filled with children’s writing exercises. “Look,” he said, “this kid did a sloppy job with his letters, and then began to doodle.”
Jacob and I looked at each other and laughed. In elementary school, Jacob was notorious for zipping through his work so that he could use the extra time for reading. The kid who wrote these letters during the Middle Ages whizzed through his writing exercises to get to the fun stuff, just as Jacob had.
Some things never change.
Dr. Outhwaite placed an archival box on his conference table. “Here’s one of the other documents you requested,” he said.
It was Ben Sirah—the very same page that Solomon Schechter had seen at Agnes Lewis’ home in 1896! And next to it appeared the note that Schechter had written to Lewis later that day confirming the significance of the find—which would eventually bring the Cairo Genizah to the attention of the Western world.
What a moment, I thought. I’m holding a 114-year-old note, handwritten by Solomon Schechter in the very institution where we now sit, which references a 10th-century manuscript sitting right next to it on the table, which is itself a transcription of a text originally written 1,200 years before that!
One by one, the remaining boxes and albums came to the table, each bearing treasures: an early copy of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls; the world’s oldest known piece of Jewish sheet music (Mi al Har Chorev, a eulogy for Moses written by a former Catholic priest from Italy who converted to Judaism during the Crusades); the last letter Maimonides received from his younger brother, David, who died in a shipwreck shortly after sending it. “Be steadfast,” David had written, “for God will [soon] restore your losses and bring me back to you.” There are large holes in the letter, I wondered. Were they from age, or from the tears of a grieving brother?
Next we visited the large Manuscript Storage Room, which houses some of the greatest literary treasures in the world. Near the main Genizah section is the Darwin aisle—the shelves storing Darwin’s papers, including the original diaries from his voyage on the Beagle. Isaac Newton’s papers are just a few rows away. The Genizah documents are mostly housed in two 60-foot aisles packed floor to ceiling with shelves of boxes and albums—an agglomeration of literary material so massive and so rich that it holds many secrets of our past yet to be revealed.
The Cambridge University Library is still in the process of conserving Genizah documents. What was once a matter of sliding old documents into plastic sleeves has become a painstakingly elaborate and high-tech process, allowing for the conservation of only about four documents a day.
Lucy Cheng, one of the project’s conservators, explained that her work consists of three basic steps: cleaning the documents, flattening them, and repairing them. The cleaning process poses risks. Paper tends to be highly absorbent, soaking up mud and other gunk which becomes irreversibly mixed with the ink of the text. Cheng gently employs scrapers and brushes to remove whatever dirt she can. If she decides that removing the mud might result in deleting the text, she leaves the mud undisturbed. Conservators hope that future technologies will allow it to be removed while keeping the ink in place.
Many Genizah documents are crumbling or torn. To patch them, conservators use “Japanese paper,” a strong, lightweight, translucent film with adhesive on one side and wheat paste on the other. Cheng traces the shape she needs, cuts the Japanese paper into that shape, carefully brushes deionized water around the edges of the hole she is patching, and gently covers it with the Japanese paper. When the document is fully dried and set, she places it in a Melinex sleeve.
On a cold day in early March, Jacob and I arrived in New York to visit the Jewish Theological Seminary, home of the world’s second largest collection of Genizah documents.
In the seminary’s manuscript storage room, library director Dr. David Kraemer and lead librarian Rabbi Jerry Schwarzbard showed us additional Ben Sirah pages, a letter of recommendation Maimonides had written for a fellow scholar who had just moved to another city, and letters by the great medieval poet/philosopher Yehudah Halevi documenting his pilgrimage to the land of Israel.
Then they opened a large, flat, custom-made archival box and revealed one of the two oldest Passover haggadot in the world, dating back to about 1000 C.E.! The simple 16-page text was slightly different than today’s haggadot; for example, instead of the “Four Questions,” this haggadah asked only two: the one about dipping vegetables and another about roasted meat, which is no longer part of most seders. It also reflected Middle Eastern Jewry’s medieval custom of serving a variety of different delicacies during the karpas portion of the seder, not only the green vegetables we pass around today.
Still, familiar haggadah passages jumped out at me: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” “My father was a fugitive Aramean.” “Rabban Gamliel said, ‘whoever does not discuss the paschal offering, matzah, and the bitter herb has not fulfilled his religious obligation.’” I also noted that some of the hagaddah pages had food stains. Evidently, just like ancient words, schmutz is eternal too.
Dr. Kraemer explained that, in addition to well-preserved albums of larger Genizah works, the collection includes a few boxes of smaller unpreserved scraps. He opened a box.
“May I pick one up?” I asked.
“Go right ahead.”
Gingerly, I reached in and removed a fragment—a selection from the Book of Samuel telling of when David had placed the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. I picked up another, which pertained to the laws in Exodus regarding the creation of the Ark. These documents had been transcribed 800–1,000 years ago. Who had originally written them? Who had studied them before they were deposited in the Genizah? The mysteries enchanted me.
My thrilling encounters with these manuscripts left me longing to visit the very place where they had been stored and discovered: the Genizah chamber itself.
Getting into the Ben Ezra Synagogue, I knew, wasn’t going to be a problem; it is now a popular tourist site. The challenge would be gaining access to the off-limits chamber, located high on its eastern wall. Only a handful of outsiders had entered the chamber since two men emptied it of all remaining documents in 1911, and, as far as I knew, nobody had ever taken a good picture of it.
“Talk to Carmen Weinstein,” several people advised. “She’s head of the Jewish Community of Cairo.”
I emailed Carmen Weinstein and was told: “The Ben Ezra Synagogue is open from 9:30am to 4:00pm.” She didn’t respond to my Genizah request.
Seeking alternative channels, I heard from one informant that the Egyptian government, not the Jewish community, owned the Ben Ezra Synagogue. I would have to secure permission from Dr. Zahi Hawass, an archeologist I had often seen on American TV wearing an Indiana Jones hat and guiding documentary filmmakers into ancient tombs. As the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Hawass was in charge of all of Egypt’s ancient historical sites—the pyramids, King Tut, the Sphinx, the whole schmear. “But good luck in getting his OK,” friends warned. “Hawass is wary of outsiders coming to abscond with Egypt’s treasures.”
I emailed everyone I thought might be able to help. Eventually I was put into contact with Dr. Janice Kamrin, an American archeologist working as Dr. Hawass’ assistant. She shepherded my request through the Egyptian bureaucracy, and, after several weeks, Dr. Hawass gave his approval. I had my golden ticket.
In my note thanking Dr. Kamrin for her help, I mentioned that I wanted to take photographs and video of the Genizah, and that Jacob would be joining me. “I assume that none of this will be a problem, right?”
Wrong. For photo, video, and a research assistant, Dr. Kamrin told me, I would need to resubmit my application. My golden ticket dissolved before my eyes.
It took several more weeks of haggling before Dr. Hawass approved the revised application, which now stipulated a photography/video fee of 2,000 Egyptian pounds (about $365), payable in cash on the day of my visit. A man named Gamal Moustafa would meet me at the Ben Ezra Synagogue “to make sure everything goes smoothly.”
As additional insurance, a colleague spoke with Carmen Weinstein, and she gave verbal approval for my visit. Whether or not I needed her permission, it couldn’t hurt.
Jacob and I were now on track to visit the Cairo Genizah—and if our photos came out well, they would likely be the first clear pictures ever taken of the chamber!
On our second day in Egypt, a bright, sunny morning of about 70 degrees, our driver took us to the entrance of Fustat, the oldest section of Cairo. From there we wound our way on foot through several narrow alleyways, following the signs to the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
It looked just like it did in the photos—a two-story limestone brick building of modest size (about 60-feet-long and 30-feet-wide) lined with five arched windows and small fleur-de-lis shaped ornaments (acroteria) on the roof.
We walked inside. “Hello…” I said to the woman behind the counter, “I’m supposed to meet Gamal Moustafa here this morning.”
“Yes,” she said, “You must be Mr. Mark. Madame Carmen said that you would be coming. You would like to see the Genizah and take some photographs, yes?”
“Yes, and video.”
“Video? No. Just photo.”
She got on the phone, spoke to someone in Arabic for a few minutes, then hung up. “Madame Carmen said that you may film video as well as photos. She said you should make a nice donation before you leave.”
I was confused. Who was in charge, anyway? Carmen Weinstein or the Supreme Council of Antiquities?
Soon a tall man in his late 40s wearing a sports jacket and crisply pressed slacks arrived. “Rabbi Glickman?” he smiled, extending his hand, “Gamal Moustafa. I am pleased to meet you.” He explained that he worked with Zahi Hawass at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (later I learned that he oversees the Egyptian government’s restoration work at all Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sites in the country). “Please feel free to get your photographs and video,” he told me. “And please, take your time.”
The Ben Ezra Synagogue interior is stunning. Its original grandeur—the marble floors, arched ceilings, ornately painted walls—was restored during its renovation in the late 1990s by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Ten marble pillars stand in two parallel rows on the main floor, supporting the women’s gallery above. The ark and front wall, fashioned mostly of rich brown wood, are inlaid with mother-of-pearl decorations; the side walls and ceilings are painted with geometrical designs in multicolored dark tones. The main floor features a bimah (a raised marble platform with a reading table where the service leader would stand) and benches for worshipers.
At last we were ready to see the Genizah for ourselves. Moustafa escorted us outside the synagogue, up a staircase alongside the exterior of a small windowless building next door, across a restored 30-foot-long wooden footbridge, and back into the women’s balcony of the synagogue. Soon we found ourselves standing beneath the Genizah entrance, high on the sanctuary wall.
Moustafa pointed to a short, rickety metal ladder and invited me to proceed.
I climbed to the top, but found that my chest only reached the bottom ledge of the entryway. Peering into the chamber, I saw nothing; the windowless Genizah was pitch black!
“Do you have a taller ladder?” I asked.
“No,” Moustafa replied. “Can you jump?”
Hmmm, I thought to myself, This won’t be easy, but after everything I’ve been through to get here, I’m not about to let wimpiness keep me out of the Genizah! With a good jump, push of the arms, and fluid swing of my leg, I can make it….
As I was about to launch, Moustafa added: “But when you jump, just don’t touch the wall.” The synagogue wall, I could see, had been beautifully refinished—understandably, he didn’t want me to scuff it.
Jump into the chamber? Maybe. But without touching the wall…?
“Uh…are you sure you don’t have a higher ladder?”
To my great relief, it turned out they did. And as a couple of synagogue staffers were fetching it, I remembered that I had a tiny flashlight on my key chain. Carefully, I reached into my pocket, took out the flashlight, shined it into the Genizah, and got the biggest surprise of the entire trip.
“There’s no floor!”
There was a floor, of course, but it was down 15 feet or more. Had I jumped as Moustafa suggested, I would have been seriously injured, or worse.
Moustafa wasn’t trying to get me killed (I don’t think). Nobody had been up in that room in decades, he told me. He knew as little as I did about what we might find inside.
The staffers returned with a taller, sturdier ladder, an extension cord, and a shop light. I cautiously climbed the ladder, lowered the light through the opening, and looked inside.
I had always envisioned the Cairo Genizah as a small attic, but actually it measures about 14-feet-wide by 12-feet-long by 20- to 25-feet-high, large enough to hold a small, friendly herd of giraffes. It is a musty and dusty place. The walls are built of small rough bricks separated by thick layers of mortar. In a couple of spots, I could see where tar had leaked from the ceiling and dried before reaching the floor; the stains looked like long black tear tracks. Two large sacks labeled “SALT” were piled on the floor. Workers, I surmised, must have left them there during recent renovations to help keep the room dry (a friend later suggested that SALT might instead stand for “Sacred Ancient Literary Treasures”).
Standing in the empty chamber, I imagined Solomon Schechter next to me, beholding for the first time a stockpile of literary and historic treasures that would forever transform Jewish scholarship.
After I returned, my ex-wife’s question from before the trip haunted me. Why did I travel such great distances to see some old papers and an empty closet?
Maybe part of the explanation lies in a remark Solomon Schechter made during his inaugural address as JTS president. Recalling his years of Genizah research, he reflected, “Every discovery of an ancient document is…an act of resurrection in miniature.”
On Expedition Genizah, I glimpsed the magnificent world of medieval Egyptian Jews. I visited one of their synagogues. I held their documents. I saw the room where those documents were stored for many centuries.
And I’d like to think that somehow I was also able to give life to that long-gone world—to perform some small, sacred acts of resurrection in miniature.
Mark Glickman is rabbi of Congregations Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island, WA and Kol Ami in Woodinville, WA. His book, Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah, was recently released by Jewish Lights Publishing.