A geniza is a storeroom in a synagogue, a final above-ground abode for worn-out or discarded books and papers written in Hebrew (or in the Hebrew alphabet), since Jewish practice forbids throwing away writings containing—as even primarily secular documents often do—the name of God. In other words, genizot are useful for any researcher who can mine their riches before, as is the usual custom, they are periodically cleaned out and their contents buried in a cemetery. But the geniza at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo—a room the size of a walk-in closet that was left undisturbed for an entire millennium until Victorian scholars, descending like locusts on a wheat field, stripped it bare—turned out to be a treasure trove like no other.
Hoffman and Cole tell an engaging story about the extraordinary characters involved in exploring the hoard. They included the Scottish twins, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson—wealthy, fearless travellers, self-taught scholars knowledgeable in nine languages, including Arabic, Syriac and Hebrew—who sound like they were invented by Rudyard Kipling. It was the sisters who, in 1896, brought back to Britain the geniza material that sparked the scholarly gold rush, led by their friend, the Talmud scholar Solomon Schechter.
What Schechter found in that room—280,000 manuscript fragments—offers a superb portrait of a thriving medieval community. Snippets of Scripture mixed with personal letters, clouds of insects and a thousand years of dust. There are marriage contracts, including one between two members of antagonistic Jewish sects. The couple are remarrying—that is, marrying each other again: this time, they swear, they won’t insult one another’s religious rituals. The renowned philosopher and physician Maimonides appears, prescribing wine for his patients and writing loving letters to his merchant-traveller brother (who eventually drowns in the Indian Ocean). In total, 35,000 individuals are named, all people of the book—as Muslims call non-Muslims who nonetheless possess sacred texts—and all saved from oblivion precisely because of Judaism’s profound regard for the written word.