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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.