Exhibitions/Apr 28, 2017

Discarded History

Discarded History lead image

Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo, Cambridge University Library Milstein Exhibition Centre, April 27–October 28, 2017

Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo opens to the public on April 27 and provides a unique and unparalleled window into the daily life of men, women and children at the centre of a thriving city over the course of a millennium.

From the 9th to the 19th century, the Jewish community of Fustat (Old Cairo) deposited more than 200,000 unwanted writings in a purpose-built storeroom in the Ben Ezra synagogue. This sacred storeroom was called the Genizah. A Genizah was a safe place to store away any old or unusable text that, because it contained the name of God, was considered too holy to simply throw out.

But when the room was opened in the late 19th century, alongside the expected Bibles, prayer books and works of Jewish law – scholars discovered the documents and detritus of everyday life: shopping lists, marriage contracts, divorce deeds, a 1,000-year-old page of child’s doodles and alphabets, Arabic fables, works of Muslim philosophy, medical books, magical amulets, business letters and accounts. Practically every kind of written text produced by the Jewish communities of the Near East throughout the Middle Ages had been preserved in that sacred storeroom.

Dr Ben Outhwaite, Head of the Genizah Research Unit and co-curator of the exhibition, said: “This colossal haul of writings reveals an intimate portrait of life in a Jewish community that was international in outlook, multicultural in make-up and devout to its core; a community concerned with the very things to which humanity has looked for much of its existence: love, sex and marriage, money and business, and ultimately death....The Genizah collection is undeniably one of the greatest treasures among the world-class collections at Cambridge University Library. We have translated most of these texts into English for the first time – and most are also going on display for the first time, too. With Discarded History we hope to make this medieval society accessible and recognisable to a modern audience.”

Among the highlights going on display in Cambridge are the earliest known example of a Jewish engagement deed (Shtar Shiddukhin, from 1119), showing the complex legal relations that existed around marriage, the oldest-dated medieval Hebrew manuscript (a Bible from 9th century Iran) and an 11th century pre-nuptial agreement where the groom, Toviyya – who clearly had a bad reputation – was forced to make a series of promises about his future behaviour.

The existence of the Cairo Genizah was first brought to the attention of Western scholars by the fearless and intrepid travellers Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson in 1896. The twin sisters, devout Presbyterians who had inherited a great fortune, returned to Cambridge from a research trip to Egypt and Palestine. They brought with them a treasure lost for a thousand years: a page from the original Hebrew book of Ben Sira, accumulated along with thousands of other documents in the Ben Ezra Synagogue.