Cairo Geniza: Digitizing project underway

The Cairo Geniza, with some 200,000 documents and fragments, was discovered in the late 19th-century, in Old Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue annex in Fustat.

It is a rich source of genealogical information as well as documents – from the 9th-14th centuries – which include rabbinical court records, leases, deeds, endowment contracts, debt acknowledgments, marriage contracts and private letters.

The collection demonstrates the history of Jews in the region during the Middle Ages as well as information on religious beliefs and practices, economic and cultural life.

Today, technology is making it possible for everyone to access these treasures as the collection is being digitized.

Autograph draft of Mishneh Torah, the legal code compiled by
the rabbinic authority, philosopher and royal physician
Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1137/8-1204)
MS.Heb.d.32, fols.50b-51a

Learn more here.

The project is important because pieces of the Geniza are today in many institutions; even manuscripts were separated by single leaves and located in different places, making it difficult to understand the importance or significance of the whole item.

One major collection of 25,000 items, is at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, which possesses liturgical manuscripts and rare Talmud fragments among its holdings. These are unusual because 16th-century Europe experienced mass burnings of Talmud manuscripts.

Technology contributes to the study of these fragments and major libraries are, or have completed, digitizing their collections. The goal is to generate a worldwide database of digitized images, thereby enhancing the accessibility of the various collections and bringing them together. Other institutions involved are Cambridge University, Jewish Theological Seminary, John Ryland Library and the University of Pennsylvania.

Digital communications pioneer and philanthropist George Blumenthal of New York ( president, Center for Online Jewish Studies) and donated his organization’s professional services to this project.

The ability to compare fragments in Oxford with those in Philadelphia, New York, Cambridge and Manchester will enable global scholars to access these collections and to identify matching fragments in different collections.

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