Paleographic Demystification

For anyone conducting research on the documentary Geniza, the path of scholarship eventually led to the Princeton Geniza Lab. This was true even in the earliest days of the PGP.

One example is a social anthropologist and writer named Amitav Ghosh, who, in 1988, 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. 

But then Ghosh faced challenges of access to the material. He had learned Arabic while studying and conducting fieldwork in Egypt. But he still had to master Hebrew script and paleography. 

When I first read about it, Judæo-Arabic sounded bafflingly esoteric: it is not easy, after all, to see oneself sitting down to leaf through a collection of eight-hundred-year-old documents, written in a colloquial dialect of medieval Arabic, transcribed in the Hebrew script, and liberally strewn with Hebrew and Aramaic. At its easiest, Arabic is very difficult for a foreigner, and such knowledge as I had of it was mainly of the dialect spoken around Lataifa: a broad, peasant tongue, so earthy that my accent would often earn sniffs from waiters in Cairo restaurants and provoke shopkeepers to ask to see my money before they reached for their shelves. Those experiences had given me something of the fellah’s diffidence about his language: it would never have occurred to me that this simple, rustic dialect could be of any use in so rarified a domain of erudition as the reading of twelfth-century Judæo-Arabic manuscripts.

Worse was still to come, for I soon discovered that there was no accepted method of learning to read the manuscripts except through a long apprenticeship with one of the handful of scholars who had made a lifetime’s speciality of the subject. The only other means was to take copies of those documents that had been published, and to compare them with the actual folio pages—smudged, worn eight-hundred-year-old bits of paper—until such time as one’s eyes grew expert in deciphering the script.

At that point I almost gave up, but just then, when all the tunnels on the road seemed finally to have closed, a short conversation with one of the foremost experts in the field, Mark Cohen, a one-time student of Goitein’s, and custodian of his archive at Princeton, gave me pause. The language was not as difficult as it seemed, Mark Cohen told me; Hebrew characters were easy to learn, and once the writing had been deciphered, the Arabic itself was fairly simple. It was the deciphering of the documents, rather than the language itself, that was the hard part: the language would not present a particular problem to someone who knew colloquial Arabic. The palæography, on the other hand, the deciphering of the texts, was often extremely difficult, yet many students had been known to grow quickly adept at it. Of course, I would never be equipped to produce authoritative editions of Geniza texts, but it was perfectly possible, if I worked hard at the palæography and learnt to decipher and transcribe the documents, that I would be able to deal with them well enough to follow the stories of the Slave of MS H.6 and Abraham Ben Yiju.

Mark Cohen’s encouragement made up my mind: I decided I couldn’t give up without trying.

To my surprise I found that he was right, that the Hebrew script was indeed much easier to decipher than cursive Arabic since the letters stood apart, each by itself. Soon enough, I made other surprising discoveries. I found that some of the usages of the dialect of Lataifa were startlingly close to those of the North African Arabic spoken by Ben Yiju; that far from being useless the dialect of Lataifa and Nashawy had given me an invaluable skill.1

Many cohorts of students have come to agree with Ghosh: the challenges of decipherment and translation can be mastered with some practice.

1 Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale (Vintage Books, 1994).