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  • Writer's pictureNick Posegay

Sticking to the Script

Updated: May 21, 2021

How an incredible journey of Hebrew letters helps us recall the Arabic language.

Nearly one millennium ago, an Egyptian Jewish scribe sat down to read the Biblical book of Samuel in its original Hebrew. They probably lived in Cairo and were fairly well-educated, but most information about them is uncertain. The one thing we know for sure is that they needed some help to translate the Hebrew of the Bible.

This scribe’s native language was Arabic, not Hebrew, so while they worked through Samuel, they also wrote a list of its more obscure Hebrew words into a small parchment booklet. Then they added the Arabic translations of these words, creating an aide-mémoire that would make it easier to read Samuel in the future. However, the manuscript’s Arabic translations were not in the flowing, cursive script of Classical Arabic. Instead, the scribe wrote them in the blocky, square script of Hebrew, employing a type of writing known as Judaeo-Arabic. We know this because a single page of the booklet survived to the modern day.

Left: The front side of T-S Ar.5.58, containing a Biblical glossary for 1 Samuel 17:1-26.

Right: The back side of T-S Ar.5.58, containing a Biblical glossary for 1 Samuel 17:26-19:10. (Both Images kindly provided by the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library.)

Judaeo-Arabic was the preferred writing system for Arabic-speaking Jews all across the medieval Middle East, North Africa, and southern Spain. It served as a mark of cultural identity, allowing people to maintain a distinctly Jewish writing system even while speaking the holy language of Islam. This preference also prevailed in Egypt, which was under the control of the Islamic Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171 CE) when this scribe did their work with Samuel. Cairo was home to many thousands of Jews at the time, nearly all of whom spoke Arabic at home and in their day-to-day business with Muslims, Christians, and other Jews in the city. Our scribe was most likely part of the influential Jewish community that lived in Fustat, a neighbourhood now known as “Old Cairo.”

The scribe’s booklet was originally a much larger glossary, likely containing translations of Hebrew words from many Biblical books besides Samuel. The remaining page clearly shows that it was well-loved, bearing signs of water damage, dirt, and wear from frequent page flipping. There are also marginal notes in different handwriting, proving that multiple Arabic-speakers used this glossary to help them read the Hebrew Bible. The booklet may have changed hands many times over the years, perhaps passed from parents to children, shared among friends, or kept in a synagogue for communal reference. Whatever happened, the booklet eventually suffered irreparable damage and the surviving Samuel page was torn from its binding.

The remnants of the Samuel booklet sat silently in the dark for more than eight centuries, sinking ever deeper beneath a growing mound of tattered and forgotten tomes.

What happened next is the reason that we know anything at all about this story. Instead of throwing this deteriorating manuscript away, someone took it up the stairs of Fustat’s Ben Ezra Synagogue, crossed the second-floor women’s gallery, and pushed it through a hole in the back wall. It fell into a gloomy, dust-choked chamber and onto an enormous heap of discarded manuscripts.

This windowless room was the Ben Ezra Synagogue’s genizah, a hidden space meant to store sacred texts that are too old or damaged for further use. Naturally, this includes Bibles, prayer books, and liturgical poetry, but more broadly, a genizah might contain any document with the name of God on it, or even just Hebrew writing of any kind. This practice ensures that no sacred item is unduly profaned in a common rubbish heap. Periodically, a rabbi might empty a genizah to give the contents a ceremonial burial, but that did not happen at the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Instead, the remnants of the Samuel booklet sat silently in the dark for more than eight centuries, sinking ever deeper beneath a growing mound of tattered and forgotten tomes.

There it remained, out of sight and out of mind, as Fustat’s Jewish community fell into decline. They continued to store retired documents in their genizah, but by the sixteenth or seventeenth the Ben Ezra Synagogue no longer held regular services. Occasional visitors did describe the synagogue in accounts of their travels, but it seems that none ever entered the chamber, and even the Fustat community was unaware of the full contents of their genizah store.

A stylised photo of Fustat in modern Cairo. (Source: Flickr)

Egypt was a province of the Ottoman Empire at this time, but Napoleon’s 1798 invasion and the British army’s subsequent seizure of the Rosetta Stone sparked a wave of European Egyptomania. Demand for artifacts surged across Britain and the continent, and Cairo became the heart of a roaring “antiquities” trade. Some residents of Fustat realised that wealthy Europeans would pay a hefty fee for any artifact that appeared sufficiently ancient, so a steady stream of manuscripts began to trickle out of the Ben Ezra genizah. Private Egyptian dealers sold thousands of these manuscripts in the second half of the nineteenth century. This activity piqued the interest of a few historians at Cambridge and Oxford, who began to suspect that there was a much larger cache of Jewish manuscripts hidden somewhere in Cairo.

Two prominent Cambridge scholars familiar with Egypt’s manuscript trade were the twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. In 1896 while on a trip for fieldwork in the Sinai Peninsula, they stopped in Cairo and purchased several manuscripts. Among them was a page of a peculiar Hebrew text that neither sister recognised, so upon their return to England they sought help from the Cambridge reader in Rabbinic Judaism – their close friend, Solomon Schechter. He quickly identified the mysterious page as The Wisdom of Ben Sira, an extra-Biblical Hebrew book thought to have been lost for 1000 years.

Schechter promptly arranged a trip to Cairo in an attempt to locate the remaining pages of the lost book. He arrived in late 1896, and apparently the Cairene Jewish community found him so personable that they allowed him to enter the Ben Ezra genizah chamber. Inside, amidst clouds of pulverised damp paper and biting fleas, he found thousands upon thousands of manuscripts spanning the last 1000 years of Jewish history. Schechter, who was also Jewish, recognised the incredible historical potential of a genizah of this scale. He convinced Cairo’s chief rabbi, Aaron ben Simon, to let him take all of the manuscripts back to Cambridge. He spent the following months packing nearly 200,000 manuscript fragments into tea crates for shipment, including several more pages from the Ben Sira text that initially drew him to Egypt. Also among them was the solitary page of the Samuel glossary, unearthed for the first time in centuries.

The late Solomon Schechter (1912/1913), etching by Hermann Struck (source: Wikipedia).

The crates arrived at the Cambridge University Library (UL), and when Schechter returned, he began the laborious process of sorting them. With assistance from Lewis, Gibson, librarian Francis Jenkinson, a handful of other British academics, and the Master of St. John’s College, Charles Taylor, Schechter estimated that the project would take about ten years. The first 40,000 sorted pages – our wayward Samuel glossary among them – became the core of what is now the Taylor-Schechter Cairo Genizah collection. Schechter’s work in recovering these texts revolutionised the study of the medieval Middle East, but ten years was a vast underestimate, and he gradually realised that he would not live to see the task completed. In 1902, exhausted after five years of constant sorting, he resigned his Cambridge post to take a job as President of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His departure, followed by Jenkinson’s death in 1923, sapped the UL’s motivation to continue sorting work in the so-called “salt mine” of the Genizah. Library staff exiled the remaining manuscripts to the seventh-floor attic, and they were once again forgotten for decades.

This bleak situation continued until 1955, when another Jewish scholar named Shelomo Goitein rediscovered the unsorted crates. He and his students sorted a further 45,000 manuscript fragments, and Goitein devoted the rest of his life to studying the medieval world of the Cairo Genizah. Still, most of the manuscripts remained in a precarious state of exposure until 1973, when Stefan Reif, a professor of medieval Hebrew and later fellow at St. John’s, founded the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit (GRU) to organise, conserve, and catalogue the last 105,000 unsorted fragments. The GRU has kept up Schechter, Goitein, and Reif’s work to the present day, studying Genizah fragments to reveal an unparalleled picture of ordinary people who lived in the pre-modern Middle East (they also give tours). Right now, GRU scholars are analysing 9th-century Bibles, 11th-century poems, 13th-century calendars, 15th-century business letters, 17th-century folk tales, and 19th-century wedding invitations – all found in the Cairo Genizah.

By the early 1980s, University Library conservation staff had cleaned and preserved nearly all of Schechter’s 190,000 fragments. Most have also been digitised, but cataloguing them presents an ongoing challenge. This brings us to the Autumn of 2019, when I first came across the Samuel glossary while updating the Genizah catalogue for the GRU.

Recall that the glossary’s scribe used it to remember the Arabic translations of Hebrew words, and they wrote those Arabic translations using Hebrew characters. As it turns out, in some ways, the Hebrew script can record spoken Arabic dialects more precisely than the Arabic script can. This is because the Arabic script was designed to represent the formal Arabic of the Qur’an, which does not include all of the sounds that occur in vernacular Arabic speech. By contrast, many of those sounds do occur in Hebrew, so our scribe was able to record their exact pronunciation of each Arabic word. For example, while the Classical Arabic word for “cheese” is jubn, the modern Egyptian Arabic word is gibna. There is no “g” in the Arabic alphabet, so modern Egyptian writers spell it with the character for “j”, but there is a “g” in the Hebrew script, and the medieval scribe wrote gubun.

The journey of this glossary is a story of remembrance and forgetting.

This script choice reveals linguistic features that are shared between the scribe’s dialect and the dialects of modern Cairo, allowing for a much more precise reconstruction of medieval spoken Arabic than would be possible if the text were written in Arabic script. It also shows not just how Cairene Jews pronounced Arabic, but probably how their Muslim and Christian neighbours pronounced it, too. Other Judaeo-Arabic Genizah manuscripts can provide similar insights into the everyday speech of medieval Cairenes, but most Arabic linguists do not read Judaeo-Arabic sources, so they remain an untapped resource for the field.

The journey of this glossary is a story of remembrance and forgetting. It began its life as an aide-mémoire for a medieval Arabic-speaking Jew to translate the Hebrew Bible into their native tongue. Over the years it helped many other readers, but persistent use took its toll, and eventually it suffered excessive damage. Its owner decided to dispose of it, but also believed that it was too sacred to simply destroy, so they deposited it in the Ben Ezra Synagogue’s genizah chamber. This genizah was a space designed for things to be both preserved and forgotten, and there the manuscript sat, unseen and unknown, until Solomon Schechter pulled it out of a musty heap of parchment scraps in 1897. His efforts ensured that the page would survive within the bowels of the UL for more than 11 decades, allowing modern researchers to stumble onto it again long after it was meant to fade from memory. It now offers us a written record to recall the shared language spoken by Jews, Christians, and Muslims in medieval Egypt, lest we forget a time when linguistic commonalities crosscut the Middle East’s diverse religious communities, and its peoples were not quite so divided as they are today.

**To learn more about the Cairo Genizah and its history in Cambridge, I highly recommend Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (2011), which provided many of the details in this article.


Nick Posegay [2017] is doing a PhD Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and is a member of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.


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