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Cambridge University Library

Crate Expectations

Genizah scraps display box
Genizah scraps in their new display box
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 13 Jun 2024

Cairo Genizah manuscripts are usually torn or damaged in some way. There are often pieces missing or words that are hard to read where the ink has rubbed or flaked away. But what happened to the missing pieces? Some of the scraps are kept in a crate in our manuscript storage area – blank or believed to be too damaged or fragmentary to be worth conserving, and picked several times over for anything worth assigning a class mark. Towards the bottom of the crate, the fragments become smaller and smaller, until they are just ink crumbs and dust: 'the dust of centuries' as Schechter once described it. To put these scraps to use, the UL's carpenter and conservators collaborated to create a small display crate for visitors to Cambridge University Library to see during show-and-tells. 

Genizah scraps

Genizah scraps: paper, parchment, and dust, with the odd twig.

Genizah scraps with amulet fragment

A recognisable fragment, with greyish-blue ink.

While transferring the scraps into the display crate, I kept a look out for anything recognisable – it would have been great to find a piece with Maimonides' distinctive scrawl! I didn't spot any Maimonides autographs, but I did find a small torn fragment of paper that I was able to identify: a piece of a printed amulet featuring the Ten Commandments. It's not terribly old – several of these amulets, printed between 1873 and 1897 at the Alexandrian printing press of Faraj Mizrahi, are preserved in pieces in the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection. My colleague, Nick Posegay, lists their classmarks in his article 'Searching for the Last Genizah Fragment in Late Ottoman Cairo: A Material Survey of Egyptian Jewish Literary Culture' (International Journal of Middle East Studies (2022), 1–19), and one of the larger pieces even features in the 'Printing' chapter of our forthcoming book, The Illustrated Cairo Genizah (to order your own copy:

Comparing the amulet scrap with a T-S fragment

Comparing the amulet fragment with another from the Taylor-Schechter collection (T-S NS 26.226), printed at the same press.

A quick check through the other known amulet fragments revealed the one our scrap was once part of: the torn edges of T-S AS 193.150 are an exact match. Other fragments are conserved in the same folder (T-S AS 193.141–149).

Amulet scrap joined with T-S AS 193.150

Another piece of the jigsaw: a 'join' with T-S AS 193.150.

Will this newly-identified scrap receive its own classmark? The other fragments of this decalogue amulet were selected, assigned classmarks, and conserved in the 1960s as part of the 'New Series', and in the 1970s and 1980s as part of the 'Additional Series'. As the Genizah Research Unit celebrates its semi-centenary this year, is there scope for another series, featuring some of the tiniest and most fragmentary pieces? And what else can we expect to find among the Genizah scraps?

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