Order of Multitudes

Preservational Palimpsests: The Sacred Burial and Archival Journeys of Two Cairo Geniza Fragments

Matthew Dudley is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Yale University and works as a research assistant in the Princeton Geniza Lab. His dissertation analyzes early modern Cairo Geniza fragments in the study of Jewish legal praxis, Mediterranean merchant networks, and the formulaic conventions of document production.


Ben Ezra Synagogue. Source: Wikimedia

For my Sawyer Seminar seed grant, I have been working on Cairo Geniza fragments from the sixteenth-nineteenth centuries that hold relevance for the study of early modern Jewish legal history in the Ottoman Empire. In keeping with the Seminar’s commitment to analyzing archival processes and digitization, in this article, I trace the circuitous journeys of two legal documents from their initial recording in 1822 CE up through their reunification within a multitude of online scans. This exercise in reconstructing the mechanics of provenance will illustrate a core line of inquiry in my research: how might we view any archived object as a palimpsest—not in the traditional sense of the word—but as bearing layers of erasure, preservation, and intentionality?[1]

In its current state of preservation, the Cairo Geniza consists of an estimated 400,000 textual fragments scattered across more than 70 public and private collections. For much of its existence, however, this reservoir of literary and documentary sources was kept in a limited array of locations. Across the tenth-twentieth centuries Cairene Jews frequently left their old and disused texts in geniza chambers so as to avoid improper disposal of the written names of God. Over time, the texts accumulated in three major sacred sites around Cairo—the two geniza chambers of the Ben Ezra and Dar Simḥa Synagogues and earthen burials at the Bassatine Cemetery. These “anti-archives” of unintentionally preserved texts were later retrieved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by scholars and manuscript sellers who brought them to university libraries and the hands of individual collectors.[2] Over the past two decades, a global digitization effort has successfully merged images of a majority of these texts through a single online database, the Friedberg Genizah Project (FGP).[3]

Although these fragments now appear within a shared digital platform, in a sea of 400,000 it is rare to find copies of the same documentary source in duplicate or triplicate.[4] The legal documents addressed in this article were drawn up in Cairo in June 1822 CE by anonymous scribes who issued them as evidence that Mordechai Qapinṭon, Eliyahu ben Ṣahel, and Yaʿaqov ha-Levi ʿAkubas had dissolved their partnership in money-changing and commerce.[5] Given that the parties signed the documents and three were issued, we can assume that one copy of each remained in their possession.[6] These paper instruments held long-term probative value; therefore, Qapinṭon, ben Ṣahel, and ha-Levi ʿAkubas likely kept them in private business archives until they, or family descendants, deposited each document in a sacred burial site. Despite the uncertainty of their initial disposal, it is clear that one of these sources (Evr. II A 1292) was discarded no later than 1864 CE because, in that year, it was retrieved from a geniza and left Cairo in the hands of Abraham Firkovich (1786-1874 CE). Firkovich was a prodigious collector of geniza fragments; many of them were purchased in the 1870s by the Imperial Public Library (today the Russian National Library).[7] Since then, this copy of the partnership dissolution has remained in St. Petersburg, where it was later microfilmed for the FGP and listed in the International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts.[8]

Its near-identical counterpart, AIU VII.D.99, followed a more complex pathway of disposal and preservation.[9] After its initial bearer discarded it, AIU VII.D.99 was removed from a geniza and purchased for the private manuscript collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934CE). In 1900 CE, de Rothschild donated it and roughly 3,000 other such fragments to the Consistoire Israélite de Paris, which in turn, housed the collection nearby at the Bibliothèque de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU).[10] This invaluable reservoir of papers and parchment quickly attracted conventional scholarly attention and, by the advent of the Second World War, preservational interests of a distinct and sinister nature. The AIU Bibliothèque appears at the top of an internal list of the Einsatzab Reichsleiter Rosenberg of eighty-one libraries in Paris that had been emptied of their holdings in the early months of the Nazi occupation.[11] The AIU geniza fragments were thus stolen in the Nazi Party’s sweeping efforts to amass archival materials for research on groups that it deemed enemies of the state. Following the summer of 1940, it is unclear where AIU VII.D.99 was stored for the remainder of the war and several years thereafter.

When Hannah Arendt visited the AIU Bibliothèque in 1949, she noted in a report to Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. that, in the years since Nazi Germany’s surrender, the “Alliance received all its books with the exception of the Genizah fragments.”[12] Perhaps as a function of Arendt’s advocacy, this situation changed in 1950-51, when the collection was returned to Paris.[13] The fragment AIU VII.D.99 has since remained there and was digitized as part of the Friedberg Genizah Project, where it is now accessible online alongside its counterpart Evr. II A 1292. These documents are a microcosm for understanding the connectivity of the Cairo Geniza’s scattered contents. They trace back to a single day in June 1822 CE when the former business partners Qapinṭon, ben Ṣahel, and ha-Levi ʿAkubas parted ways, each with a copy in hand. After nearly two-hundred years it is possible to read the congruence and probative value of these sources for the first time.[14]

By tracing the sacred burial and journeys of these geniza fragments, then, we sense the stakes of archival initiatives for the “virtual reunification” of texts and material culture.[15] Lamentably, efforts toward the plunder and destruction of physical archives have not abated since the Second World War.[16] These atrocities highlight the critical nature of digitization and the reality that many of our archival objects hang in the balance between conflicting intentions of erasure and preservation. With AIU VII.D.99 and Evr. II A 1292 we have seen this dichotomy manifest in counterintuitive ways: erasure can entail reverence for the sacred while preservation can be an act of persecution. These documents are not palimpsests in the traditional sense of the word yet their provenance entails an initial act of disposal followed by distinct layers of reusage. In reconstructing this process, I have offered a conceptual lens for considering the accidental and intentional conditions of any archived object’s preservation—an approach that resonates across the Sawyer Seminar’s related projects and initiatives. Beyond the contents of the Cairo Geniza, many other primary sources in archives and libraries today are preservational palimpsests.


[1] A palimpsest is a manuscript in which multiple layers of text are preserved. The layering results from a process by which scribes dissolved or scraped away base texts in order to record new ones on the same piece of parchment.

[2] The term “anti-archive” is derived from the work of one of the pioneers of Cairo Geniza studies: S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: Economic Foundations, Vol. I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, 1967), 7-9.

[3] The database is currently hosted by the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society at: https://fjms.genizah.org/. For more information on the methodologies of this digitization project, see especially: Yaacov Choueka, “Computerizing the Cairo Genizah: Aims, methodologies and achievements.” Ginzei Qedem 8 (2012): 9-30.

[4] During the final stages of the editing process for this article I happened upon a third copy of the sources discussed below. I have yet to trace its provenance but it is currently in the possession of the British Library (Or. 12369.11).

[5] The partnership dissolution documents AIU VII.D.99 and Evr. II A 1292 are copies of one another and remain in the possession of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris and the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. I thank my colleague at the Princeton Geniza Lab, Alan Elbaum, for initially bringing the duplicates to my attention: Email to author, November 15, 2020.

[6] Each document bears a clause in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic stating that it was issued in triplicate: “וכתבנו תלת נוסחי / and we recorded three copies.”

[7] Olga Vasilyeva, “Documents in the Firkovich Collection: Valuable Sources on the History of the Jewish Communities in Europe and the Middle East from the 12th to the 19th century,” Karaite Archives 2 (2014): 208-209.

[8] Evr. II A 1292 can be viewed directly via: https://web.nli.org.il/sites/nlis/en/manuscript.

[9] These fragments are identical in wording but bear a number of calligraphic intricacies linking them to different scribal hands.

[10] Jean-Claude Kuperminc, “The Return of Looted French Archives: The Case of the Library and Archives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle,” in Returned from Russia: Nazi Archival Plunder in Western Europe and Recent Restitution Issues, Patricia Kennedy Grimsted et. al., eds. (Builth Wells, UK: Institute of Art and Law, 2007), 136.

[11] The Einsatzab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was an arm of the Nazi Party dedicated to the expropriation and rearchivization of rare texts and material culture from occupied territories. The organization was headed by the party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, who worked to funnel Judaica into the Institute for Research on the Jewish Question, in Frankfurt, and other archives scattered throughout Nazi Germany and Austria. Ibid, 137.

[12] Hannah Arendt, The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem, Marie Luise Knott, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 235. At the request of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction in 1947, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. was founded in 1947 in an effort to return Jewish property that had been stolen during the Second World War.

[13] For an early citation of the AIU geniza collection after its return, see: S.D. Goitein, “L’état actuel de la recherche sur les documents de la Geniza du Caire,” Revue des études juives 118.1 (1959): 16.

[14] AIU VII.D.99, BL Or. 12369.11, Evr. II A 1292 can all be viewed in the FGP database after creating login credentials: https://fjms.genizah.org/.

[15] Ricardo L. Punzalan, “Understanding Virtual Reunification,” The Library Quarterly 84.3 (2014): 294-323.

[16] For instances that also tie into the history of the Ottoman Empire, see especially: Andras Riedlmayer, “Erasing the Past: The Destruction of Libraries and Archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Review of Middle East Studies 29.1 (1995): 7-11.


Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Gershom Scholem. The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. Marie Luise Knott. Ed. Anthony David. trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Choueka, Yaacov. “Computerizing the Cairo Genizah: Aims, methodologies and achievements.” Ginzei Qedem 8 (2012): 9-30.

Friedberg Genizah Project (FGP). AIU VII.D.99. BL Or. 12369.11. Evr. II A 1292. https://fjms.genizah.org/.

Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: Economic Foundations, Vol. I. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, 1967.

———”L’état actuel de la recherche sur les documents de la Geniza du Caire.” Revue des études juives 118.1 (1959): 9-27.

International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts (Ktiv). Evr. II A 1292. https://web.nli.org.il/sites/nlis/en/manuscript.

Kuperminc, Jean-Claude. “The Return of Looted French Archives: The Case of the Library and Archives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle.” in Returned from Russia: Nazi Archival Plunder in Western Europe and Recent Restitution Issues. Patricia Kennedy Grimsted. F.J. Hoogewoud. Eric Ketelaar. eds. Builth Wells, UK: Institute of Art and Law, 2007. 135-147.

Punzalan, Ricardo L. “Understanding Virtual Reunification.” The Library Quarterly 84.3 (2014): 294-323.

Riedlmayer, Andras. “Erasing the past: The destruction of libraries and archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Review of Middle East Studies 29.1 (1995): 7-11.

Vasilyeva, Olga. “Documents in the Firkovich Collection: Valuable Sources on the History of the Jewish Communities in Europe and the Middle East from the 12th to the 19th century.” Karaite Archives 2 (2014): 201-220.