The Cairo Genizah

by Radio Somewhere

BBC Radio 3 Essays recently repeated this series. It’s been my morning bus podcast for the last few days.

According to Jewish tradition, and document bearing God’s name, no matter how small and irrelevant, is not allowed to be destroyed — it must be saved, or at least buried in the ground. The Genizah that is the subject here is a tall tower adjoining a synagog in Cairo that was used as a depository for over a thousand years. A small opening in the top allowed documents to be dropped in — legal papers, certificates, wills, bills of sale, prenuptial agreements, personal letters, and even recipes and shopping lists.

Around two-thirds of the accumulation now resides in a library at Cambridge University where they have been under translation, an interesting job because much of it is written in Judeo-Arabic — that is, Arabic written in Hebrew script. (I love linguistic curiosities. Farsi, spoken in Iran, is an Indo-European language written in Arabic script. And then there was Yiddish, a dialect of German written in Hebrew script.)

There are very interesting stories of how women managed to trick husbands into divorce. And a Jewish merchant who was having trouble finding a Jewish to marry in India solved the problem by buying a beautiful slave girl and immediately freeing her — thus making a Jew of her. But the marriage was questioned when he got back to Cairo.

This must have be an incredible project to work on — as long as you don’t mind being a bit chilly. The library is kept cool to preserve the documents.

So much of the contents document the affairs of daily life of ordinary folks. It must be a bit like reading a very ancient blog!