2019-05-20 | International News

Documentary unravels history — and digital future — of mysterious Cairo Geniza

By RENEE GHERT-ZAND16 May 2019, Times of Israel

In 1896, Cambridge University scholar Solomon Schechter jumped down into the dusty, insect-infected room-size geniza in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Cairo), Egypt. With that leap, Schechter opened an incredible window into the life of Jews in the medieval era.

With the […]

By RENEE GHERT-ZAND16 May 2019, Times of Israel

In 1896, Cambridge University scholar Solomon Schechter jumped down into the dusty, insect-infected room-size geniza in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Cairo), Egypt. With that leap, Schechter opened an incredible window into the life of Jews in the medieval era.

With the approval of the then-chief rabbi of Cairo, Schechter removed the majority of the hundreds of thousands of document fragments from Jews from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean that had been preserved in the synagogue’s geniza, a storage area for sacred documents awaiting burial. Those he brought back with him to Cambridge University.

The rest of the material — between 25% and 40%, depending on who is counting and how — ended up at another some 70 institutions and collections around the world.


In 1896, Cambridge University scholar Solomon Schechter jumped down into the dusty, insect-infected room-size geniza in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Cairo), Egypt. With that leap, Schechter opened an incredible window into the life of Jews in the medieval era.

With the approval of the then-chief rabbi of Cairo, Schechter removed the majority of the hundreds of thousands of document fragments from Jews from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean that had been preserved in the synagogue’s geniza, a storage area for sacred documents awaiting burial. Those he brought back with him to Cambridge University.

The rest of the material — between 25% and 40%, depending on who is counting and how — ended up at another some 70 institutions and collections around the world.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Edition by email and never miss our top storiesFREE SIGN UP

Schechter and other scholars and collectors were initially interested in the Cairo Geniza for its fragments of manuscripts of sacred books and liturgy. But by the mid-20th century, academics — led by Shelomo Dov Goitein at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), located in Princeton, New Jersey — realized that the Geniza, which curiously had never been emptied for over nine centuries and essentially acted as a trash receptacle for all sorts of documents, was also a treasure trove of information on daily life in medieval society under Islamic rule.

A new documentary, “From Cairo to the Cloud: The World of The Cairo Geniza,” traces the amazing story of the Geniza from its discovery by Schechter and other 19th century ancient manuscript hunters through to its digitization more than 100 years later. The film, which premiered in late 2018, is set to screen in Boston on May 16 and 18, as well in other cities worldwide this year.

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