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.

Until the 1950s, documentary texts from the Cairo Geniza continued to be marginal to Jewish studies. The exception was a pair of splendid two-volume studies by Jacob Mann, The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fāṭimid Caliphs and Texts and Studies. Their style was as forbidding as their scholarship was formidable; but they laid the foundations for a subsequent generation of scholars to begin to fathom the Geniza’s riches.

That generation included Zvi Ankori, S. D. Goitein, S. M. Stern and Eliyahu Ashtor. Each of them understood that the geniza offered unparalleled information on the Jewish communities of the Middle East and beyond, and on the larger societies in which Jews lived.