History of the Princeton Geniza Lab

Solomon Schechter

Solomon Schechter, from the 1916 obituary by Cyrus Adler 


The Cairo Geniza was emptied between the late 1880s and 1897 and gradually dispersed across sixty collections. 

Scholars’ initial interest in the material focused on biblical, rabbinic and early Christian texts. But a 1901 article by Solomon Schechter hinted at the cache’s potential for social history.   

Read More
Shelomo Dov Goitein

S. D. Goitein in 1978

Goitein and his lab

In the late 1940s, a German-trained orientalist named S. D. Goitein (1900–85) stumbled across some Judaeo-Arabic letters from the twelfth-century India trade at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.

Like many after him, once Goitein had read his first geniza fragment, he was hooked. He decided to change research trajectory and focus exclusively on the documentary geniza and what it revealed about social history.

Read More
a digital scan

Goitein's copy of a memo from A. L. Udovitch to Joseph Strayer proposing a “Geniza Project” at Princeton, April 1969.

Text Searchable Database

When Goitein died in 1985, the fragile, fledgling field of Geniza studies looked as though it might come to an end with him. Then, fate intervened in the form of the digital revolution.

Read More
scan of handwriting on cloth

Prayer on fabric in the hand of Avraham Ibn Yiju, Mangalore, 12th c. T-S 20.26, by kind permission of the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library

Paleographic demystification

In 1988, a social anthropologist and writer named Amitav Ghosh set out to read the letters of a twelfth-century Jewish trader on the Malabar coast, Avraham Ibn Yījū. The letters had survived in the Cairo Geniza and were among the editions Goitein left unfinished when he died in 1985.

Read More
Marina Rustow working at a computer studying a fragment

Marina Rustow studying a geniza fragment in 2015. Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The Digital Turn

After 2000, the advent of affordable, high quality digital photography transformed manuscript studies. In 2004, the Friedberg Genizah Project began inventorying and digitizing all extant Cairo Genizah manuscripts. This monumental undertaking led to partnerships with more than forty libraries in fifteen countries, and resulted in 739,868 digital manuscript images.

Read More
Marina Rustow and her undergraduate Geniza seminar studying geniza fragments from JTS at Princeton’s Firestone Library in 2018.

Undergraduate geniza seminar studying JTS fragments at Firestone Library in 2018

Collaborative Work

The impact of digitization on manuscript scholars has been immeasurable. Those who had come to depend on photostats, microfilms, regular trips to libraries abroad and a steady diet of library vending machine snacks can now compare manuscripts from multiple collections without getting out of bed. Keeping track of research materials used to require an excellent memory, exceptional bookkeeping skills or blind luck; now we have databases.

Read More