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Pirates of the Genizaaaar!

T-S 13J20.25
T-S 13J20.25 (recto): negotiations with Bedouin pirates
Ben Outhwaite
Sun 19 Sep 2021

When you took to the high seas in the Middle Ages it was a calculated risk, but quite a considerable one. You were at the mercy of the weather, the seaworthiness of your chosen vessel, the reliability of its captain, his crew and your fellow travellers, and of the intentions of other seafarers you might encounter on your voyage. The poet Judah ha-Levi, who sailed from Spain to Egypt in the 12th century, described it unsettlingly:

‘Greetings from a prisoner of hope, who sold himself to the sea and put his spirit in the power of the winds. Shoved by the west wind eastward, then shoved back by the east wind to the west, advanced, repelled. Just a step between himself and death – just the thickness of a board. Interred alive in a wooden box, a place too small even to call a space. No room to stand, and lying down, no room to stretch his feet; no choice but sit. Seasick, afraid of Gentiles, panicky because of pirate ships and hurricanes.’
Judah ha-Levi, קראו עלי בנות ומשפחות, translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin (2008: 223)

In Hebrew, Judah ha-Levi’s poetic fears are מפני לסטים ומרוחות, ‘of bandits and of winds’. These lisṭim, a Rabbinic Hebrew borrowing from Greek, are the same bandits or freebooters who might mug you on land too: a traveller to Palestine in the 11th century received harsh treatment at the hands of lisṭim: ויצאו עליו לסטים ושללו כל אשר ‘and bandits came out upon him and plundered him of everything [he had]’ (T-S 10J10.9). We do find a specific Hebrew term for their nautical analogues, שוללי הים, ‘plunderers of the sea’, but it only makes an appearance in Genizah documents some centuries later (e.g., T-S 6J4.5) – when Barbary Corsairs roamed the Mediterranean. The usual words in Hebrew and Arabic are either simply ‘the enemy’ (often used of the Byzantines at sea) or general terms for those who engage in banditry: for instance, a letter informs an India merchant אן אלמרכב אלדי כאן פיה חצרה מולאי אכדהו אלסראק ‘that the ship in which my most excellent lord was has been seized by thieves’, in Arabic, al-surrāq, ‘robbers’ or ‘thieves’ (Bodl. MS. Heb. b. 11.22) – in this case Indian Ocean pirates.

One reason that we find no specific terms for ‘pirates’ is that piracy was not an exclusive occupation in the Middle Ages. Both the Muslim and Byzantine navies engaged in what was effectively piracy against one another and against Christian and Muslim travellers (respectively), as acts of hostility. In their wars against the Byzantines, the Fāṭimids used the fleets of North African Bedouin to attack the Christians, and the Normans of Sicily were also actively engaged at sea. All sides took not just booty but captives too. Jewish travellers were particularly at risk, since they could be taken and sold into slavery, or offered up for ransom, by either side.

One letter from Byzantium describes how its writer, Abū ʿAlī b. Abū l-Mānī, met just this fate:

דע אדוני כי כשגזר הגוזר להראותנו צרות רבות נתננו ביד שובינו והביאוני עם כמה אנשים ונשים ונמכרנו הנה בקוסטנדינא ופדאונו בעזרת הבורא
‘Know, my lord, that when He who makes decrees decreed that we should experience many trials, He gave us into the hand of our captors who brought us with a number of men and women, and sold us here in Constantinople. But we were ransomed with the Creator’s help’ (T-S Misc.35.8, translated in Outhwaite 2009: 188–194).
T-S Misc. 35.8
Detail of T-S Misc. 35.8: captured by pirates and hated by his father-in-law.

He was bought out of slavery by the Jewish community of Constantinople and he married a fellow captive, ʿAšira, with whom he had several children, but only a daughter survived. Unfortunately the match was not approved by ʿAšira’s family back in Egypt, perhaps understandably given the circumstances, and his letter is directed to his embittered and hostile father-in-law, Joseph al-Baḡdādī.

In Egypt, Alexandria was the usual landing place for Jewish captives. Many Genizah documents from the 11th century reveal the efforts made by the community there to raise the funds to redeem captured Jewish travellers (Frenkel 2021:81–86). A letter from Yešuʿa ha-Kohen b. Joseph, written around 1050 CE, approached the trader Nahray b. Nissim for funds to free three Jews held by ‘cruel masters, some traders of Amalfi’ (אדונים קשים מסוחרי מלף, T-S 12.338). They had originally been captured by the Byzantine navy (נלקחים מספינה שדדום חיילי רום, ‘taken from a ship and robbed by Byzantine soldiers’), who intended to sell them as slaves, but the Amalfitan traders, who were evidently already en route to Alexandria, bought them, knowing that they could turn a greater profit by bringing them to the Jewish community there. Such actions by established traders were probably opportunistic, rather than a cornerstone of their trading activity, but at least one Mediterranean city state did thrive on piracy in the 11th century.

Barqa (formerly Cyrenaica) in Libya was occupied by the Banū Qurra, a Hilālī Arab tribe, who were ruled by their Amīr Muḵtār (Mukht-aaaar!) ibn al-Qāsim in the first half of the 11th century. The Banū Qurra had a combative relationship with the Fāṭimid rulers in Egypt, having served them as freebooters against the Byzantines before eventually turning against them and even attacking Alexandria. The impact made by the Barqa pirates is considerable on the Jews of Egypt – whether through disruption of trade, seizure of cargo, or through the capture and sale of travellers. We find frequent mentions of Muḵtār, his son Jabbāra b. Muḵtār, and their relative, who seems to have been a very active pirate, Yabqā b. Abī Razīn. One Genizah document (T-S 13J20.25) describes tense negotiations that Yešuʿa  b. Joseph held with the pirates, who were demanding 250 dinars in ransom: ‘And we went to his tents, and we sat in the drought of the day and the frost of the night (Genesis 31:40)’; before those negotiations were concluded a letter arrived ממכתאר הערבי, from Muḵtār ‘the Arab’ (i.e., the Bedouin), which stated that his son Jabbāra (גבארה) had sent yet more Jews to ארץ ברקה, the land of Barqa, necessitating further efforts by the Jewish community.

What emerges from all these texts is, once again, that the community was adept at rising to the challenge posed by piracy. In Alexandria Yešuʿa b. Joseph evidently played a leading role in both fundraising and negotiation and, importantly, piracy was one of those circumstances where the different factions of the Jewish community forgot their doctrinal differences. A lengthy letter addressed to Ephraim b. Šemarya and ‘the holy congregation who pray in the Synagogue of the Jerusalemites’ in Fusṭāṭ, is sent by ‘us, their brothers, who seek their well-being, the two holy congregations who pray in the synagogues of the region of No Amon, Alexandria’ (Bodl. MS. Heb. a 3.28). It’s written again by the busy Yešuʿa ha-Kohen b. Joseph, who asks that Ephraim make a public appeal for funds to free seven Jews from Antalya (on the southern shore of Asia Minor), who had been captured by, yet again, Yabqā b. Abī Razīn. The Jews are ארבעה רבנין ושלשה קראין, ‘four Rabbanites and three Karaites’. Thus, the Genizah shows yet another example of how the different Jewish communities of Egypt – Palestinian, Babylonian, Rabbanite and Karaite – banded together in the face of the significant challenges that assailed them as they went about their everyday lives.



Frenkel, Miriam (2021) “The Compassionate and Benevolent”: Jewish Ruling Elites in the Medieval Islamicate World.

Outhwaite, Ben (2009) ‘Byzantium and Byzantines in the Cairo Genizah: new and old sources’, in Nicholas de Lange, Julia Krivoruchko and Cameron Boyd-Taylor (eds), Jewish Reception of Greek Bible Versions: 182–220.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. (2008) The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah HaLevi’s Pilgrimage.

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