Historic rivals join forces to save 1,000 years of Jewish history

8 February 2013

Genizah fragment

Cambridge University Library and the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries have today announced their first ever joint fundraising campaign to purchase the £1.2 million ‘Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection’, currently owned by the United Reformed Church’s Westminster College.

The campaign was officially launched this week at the British Academy in London.

The collection comprises more than 1,700 fragments of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts, originating from the Cairo Genizah, dating from the 9th–19th century. They represent an invaluable record of a thousand years of the religious, social, economic and cultural life of the Mediterranean world.

The fragments were brought back from Cairo by the intrepid twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson in 1896 and deposited at Westminster College. Treasures of the collection include the earliest known example of a Jewish engagement deed (dating from 1119), an eyewitness account of Crusader atrocities, and letters by leading Jewish traders of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Cambridge University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: “In the late 19th century, Oxford’s Bodleian Library and Cambridge University Library were rivals in trying to acquire materials from the Cairo Genizah. Today we are taking a different stance, seeking to build on our collections while recognising that there would be a greater benefit to scholarship if we joined together to save the Lewis-Gibson Collection from division and dispersal.”

Both libraries are already holders of substantial Genizah collections in their own right. Cambridge is home to the largest collection in the world with some 200,000 fragments out of the estimated 350,000 to be found in public collections worldwide. Meanwhile, the Bodleian holds 25,000 world-class Genizah folios, the size and quality of which rank it among the most important global collections.

A genizah is a sacred storeroom, a room set aside inside a synagogue for the interment of old religious writings, which, because they contain names of God or use the sacred Hebrew alphabet, cannot be simply discarded. For more than 1,000 years the Jewish community of Fustat (now a suburb of Cairo) deposited all manner of writings (not just sacred texts) into the sacred storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

The significance of the manuscripts haphazardly stored in the synagogue was recognised towards the end of the 19th century, and the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection represents some of the earliest fragments to emerge from it. Given its status as a ‘hand-picked’ collection, the Lewis-Gibson Collection contains perhaps more than its share of rare or unique items compared to its modest size.

Other treasures are a large leaf of Moses Maimonides’ (d. 1204) famous Commentary on the Mishnah in his own hand, an autograph poem by the medieval Spanish Hebrew poet Joseph ibn Abitur, the earliest known example of a Jewish engagement deed (Shtar Shiddukhin, from 1119), showing the complex legal relations that existed around marriage, and a rare, very early (10th-century), copy on vellum of the great Jewish sage Saadya Gaon’s translation of the Bible into Arabic.

The libraries’ fundraising campaign has received an early, significant and much-welcomed boost with the promise of a £500,000 lead gift from the Polonsky Foundation which in 2010 also gifted £1.5m to Cambridge’s Digital Library Project and £2m to the Bodleian Libraries’ initiative with the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana. Both libraries are now appealing for donors to come forward and secure the remaining £700,000 necessary to buy the collection outright.

Dr Polonsky, Trustee of the Foundation, said: 'I strongly support collaboration and am delighted to give momentum to the joint venture of these two great Universities in acquiring such an important manuscript collection.'

Bodley’s Librarian Dr Sarah Thomas said: 'This is a rare and special opportunity to jointly acquire the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection by Cambridge and Oxford, which combined hold almost 70 per cent of the fragments in public collections. Together, we will share the work of curating, conserving, digitising and presenting the manuscripts, making the best use of the strengths of each institution.'

The Lewis-Gibson Collection holds a special place in the modern history of the Cairo Genizah. When the twin sisters showed a selection of their fragments to their friend, Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter, he set off to Egypt to find the source. What followed was the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, changing the study of Judaism – and of the study of the wider history of the Middle East – forever.

Professor David Abulafia, author of the acclaimed The Great Sea: a human history of the Mediterranean believes that the Genizah is a unique historical archive. He said: 'The Cairo Genizah documents are like a searchlight, illuminating dark corners of the history of the Mediterranean and shedding a bright light on the social, economic and religious life of the Jews not just of medieval Egypt but of lands far away. There is nothing to compare with them as source for the history of the tenth to twelfth centuries, anywhere in Europe or the Islamic world.'

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