The Cairo Genizah, with with Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner

Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner, Director of Research at the Woolf Institute, Cambridge on the many hundreds of thousands of manuscripts found in the Cairo Geniza


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A Geniza is a storeroom where old manuscripts are discarded and stored. Every synagogue has one, because Jewish customs dictate that anything with the name of God written on it cannot be destroyed but must be stored away. For nine hundred years, Egyptian Jews deposited anything they wrote into a large, walled-off chamber, where they were unearthed at the end of the 19th century.

This is the story of what was in there and how it was found and what happened next. It involves ancient Talmudic scholars, dastardly dealers, identical twin Presbyterian ladies from England with scholarly leanings & large fortunes, a Russian Karaite from the Crimea, British colonial rule in Egypt, Cambridge academics, lifetimes of study, excited librarians across the globe, early biblical texts that pre-date anything seen before. The discovery of the documents in the Cairo Geniza has been compared to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls – but the Geniza also contained a wealth of material that gives a wonderfully detailed picture of life in the Middle East and the Mediterranean over many centuries.


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Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner

has been working on the Cairo Genizah for 15 years, mainly on correspondence sent between Jewish merchants around the Mediterranean. She is a specialist in medieval and Early Modern Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew characters), and has a keen interest in sociolinguistics, i.e. in how social circumstances influence the way people speak and write.

Miriam is the Director of Research at the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, Affiliated Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, and Research Associate at the T-S Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University Library.




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2017Martin Keeley