In the Jewish religion, any document in Hebrew, or one which might bear God’s name, must be preserved. Since Ben Ezra’s restoration in 1041, therefore, nearly all the papers of Cairo’s Jewish community were consigned to a special storeroom in the synagogue, known in Hebrew as a geniza. In 1864, a Lithuanian Talmudist, Jacob Sapir, was the first outsider to explore this geniza, but although he realized that some of the ancient documents might be of historical interest, he was a religious scholar rather than a historian, and did not alert anybody in the academic community. Scrolls and texts subsequently began to leak onto the black market, and in 1896, two Scottish sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, who were familiar with a number of Semitic languages, including Hebrew, bought some mansucript fragments in Cairo which had come from the geniza. The two sisters realized that these might be important and, when they got back to Britain, they took them to Solomon Schechter, a rabbi who was a professor of Talmudic studies at Cambridge University. Schechter identified one of the fragments as a unique copy of a lost Hebrew text from the Apocrypha, and immediately rushed to Egypt to acquire everything that was left in the geniza. The 280,000 letters, contracts and legal rulings amounted to the most complete record of any medieval society ever discovered. Thanks to Schechter, most of them are now in Cambridge’s university library.

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