What Is the Cairo Geniza?

The Cairo Geniza is a cache of roughly 400,000 pages of manuscript (and some printed) material that accumulated in the worn text repository (Hebrew: geniza) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo between the eleventh century and the late nineteenth. It is now dispersed across more than sixty libraries and private collections. The term “Cairo Geniza” also sometimes includes material from other Jewish sites in Cairo, such as the Dār Simḥa Qaraite synagogue.

Geniza material covers an enormous swath of the globe over more than a millennium of history. The earliest manuscripts it preserved are early Christian texts that were later palimpsested, in addition to a papyrus codex likely from the sixth century. The latest are from 1897. There are texts from every shore of the Mediterranean basin, as well as Saharan Africa, transalpine Europe, Central Asia and many places across the Indian Ocean basin, from Aden to Malacca.

But the densest and most coherent set of texts center on Egypt, especially greater Cairo and the delta. 

The synagogue and the community

The synagogue in which the texts survived is in the medieval residential core of the metropolis of Cairo, Miṣr al-Qadīma (Old Cairo), also called Coptic Cairo because of the abundance of medieval churches. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, it was called Fusṭāṭ. Plenty of medieval geniza documents refer to a neighborhood within Fusṭāṭ called Qaṣr al-Shamʿ, on the site of a Roman fortress. 

The name of the Ben Ezra Synagogue is modern, but the synagogue is medieval. It was known locally as kanīsat al-shāmiyyīn, the synagogue of the Syrians, as distinct from the synagogue of the Iraqis, reflecting the two main rites of rabbinic Judaism in the eleventh century, when the synagogue was founded. The labels Iraqi and Syrian refer not to the geographic origins of the congregants, but to the legal and liturgical traditions they followed. There were also houses of worship of the Qaraite Jews, an alternative to rabbinic Judaism. 

Geniza documents reflect the intermingling not just of different groups of Jews, but also of Jews with Christians and Muslims. Most of what survived in the geniza is written in Hebrew script (in languages that include not just Hebrew itself but also Judaeo-Arabic and Aramaic), but there are also texts in Arabic, Coptic, Syriac, Greek, Latin, Ladino, and even Yiddish.

The dispersal of the fragments

Manuscripts from the geniza had begun to reach the attention of dealers and collectors during the great age of Egyptology in the second half of the 19th century. By 1896, about 200,000 fragments had changed hands. These form the basis of nearly all the world’s geniza collections today, with one exception: Cambridge.

In 1896–97, Solomon Schechter, Cambridge’s professor of rabbinic literature (and later the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York), convinced the Jewish community of Cairo to allow him to remove the remaining 200,000 fragments and bring them back to England. Oxford’s Bodleian Library already housed a massive collection of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts; the unpromising-looking fragments from Cairo interested them not nearly as much as they interested Cambridge, which had a much smaller collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts. Cambridge University Library now owns about half of the Cairo Geniza.

Haggai Ben-Shammai, “Is the ‘Cairo Genizah’ a Proper Name or a Generic Noun? On the Relationship between the Genizot of the Ben Ezra and the Dār Simḥa Synagogues,” in From a Sacred Source: Genizah Studies in Honor of Professor Stefan C. Reif, ed. Benjamin M. Outhwaite and Siam Bhayro (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 43–52.