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Life in Fragments: Stories from the Cairo Genizah

In the last week of May 2013, in their documentary series ‘The Essay’, BBC Radio 3 broadcast five episodes on the Cairo Genizah written and presented by members of the Genizah Research Unit. After an introductory episode on the discovery of the Collection, each episode dealt with a specific topic, focussing on the historical documents and what they can tell us about the Mediterranean world of the Middle Ages.

The programme was produced by Miranda Hinkley and Michele Banal of Nightjar for BBC 3’s The Essay. We are making the original recordings available here. They may be used in accord with fair use and fair dealing provisions, including teaching and research. For all further inquiries, please contact




Episode 1: A Discovery


The Ben Ezra Synagogue

The exterior of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo

In this first essay, Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner of the Genizah Research Unit and the Woolf Institute tells the story of the discovery of the Genizah inside the ancient and crumbling synagogue of Al-Fustat, a suburb of modern day Cairo. Featuring a legendary curse, a pair of intrepid Scottish twins, an eccentric scholar and one very generous rabbi…


Episode 2: Letters


Appeal for financial aid

T-S 13J26.16: Appeal for financial aid from Josiah ben Aaron Gaʾon directed to the Jewish community of Damietta, Egypt, in 1024.

Intercepting private letters between medieval merchants, Dr Ben Outhwaite, Head of the Genizah Research Unit, uncovers an international trading network that united Jews, Muslims and Christians across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.


Episode 3: Women


Pre-nuptial agreement

T-S 20.160: 11th-century prenuptial agreement between Faʾīza and her fiancé Ṭoviyya (known as Ibn Zaffān ‘son of a buffoon’).

Looking at marriage and divorce deeds, as well as some incredibly detailed pre-nuptial agreements, Dr Melonie Schmierer-Lee of the Genizah Research Unit reveals the fortunes of women in medieval Cairo.


Episode 4: Three Lives


Autograph of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed

Moss. VIII.24.1: an autograph draf of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed

Reading the private documents of the legendary philosopher Maimonides, community leader Solomon ben Judah and Indian Ocean trader Abraham ben Yiju, Dr Daniel Davies sheds light on three very different lives.


Episode 5: Alchemy & Magic


Deadly spell

T-S AS 162.51: a deadly spell for killing an enemy

In this final essay, Dr Gabriele Ferrario of the Genizah Research Unit reveals the most secretive side of the Genizah collection: the manuscripts relating to alchemy and magic.