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Biblical Archaeology Review 48:1, Spring 2022

Epistles: Text Treasures: Cairo Geniza

Biblical Archaeology Review

The Cairo Geniza refers to the cache of about 300,000 documents found in the attic storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, located in Fustat (in Old Cairo), the capital city of Egypt during the seventh–tenth centuries C.E. The creation and preservation of the Cairo Geniza owes to the long-lived Jewish habit of consigning disused texts in Hebrew script to a slow decay in dignified limbo, safe from profanation, rather than casually destroying them through dumping. Not a curated collection or archive arranged for storage and retrieval, the Cairo Geniza is thus an accidental mass of dead writings piled up much like archaeological strata. The Hebrew word geniza signifies “hiding place.”

The storeroom—accessible only by ladder from the women’s balcony of the synagogue—was never really forgotten, so we are perhaps unjustified in talking about its discovery. Starting in the 1880s, however, scholars from Jerusalem, England, and elsewhere learned of the existence of the documents and thus began to empty the storeroom of some of its contents. Among the early visitors were the Scottish twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, who upon their return to Cambridge, in 1896, showed their documents to the great scholar of Jewish studies, Solomon Schechter. The documents included a page of the Hebrew original of the book of Ben Sira and inspired Schechter to travel to Cairo. With permission of the rabbi of the synagogue, Refael Aharon Ben-Shimon, himself an important scholar, Schechter was able to remove the remaining contents of the Cairo Geniza.a

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