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Q&A Wednesday: Secret codes and erotic prose, with Alan Elbaum

T-S NS J479
T-S NS J479 (recto, inverted)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Alan Elbaum
Wed 22 Jun 2022

Alan, which fragment are you looking at today?

My job description at the Princeton Geniza Project is to look at uncatalogued or minimally catalogued documentary fragments, and while looking for these I came across T-S NS J479, a single page covered with strange symbols written in all directions. I’ve probably glanced at around 50,000 Genizah fragments by now, and I’ve never seen anything that looks like this.

What is it? Which language is it?

Most of it is written in what I think is a made-up code, though whether it was invented or borrowed by the writer, I don’t know. There’s also some Arabic and Hebrew script (the Arabic is a petition formula). At first glance one of the symbols reminded me of one from the Voynich manuscript, so that set me wondering whether the symbols were meaningful. I noticed the same set of around 22 symbols all in a row, written a number of times, and wondered if the letters could be assigned to an alphabet. As there are roughly 22, the Hebrew alphabet fits better than Arabic. The language seems to be Judaeo-Arabic though. I’ve annotated an image of the fragment showing the ‘translation’ of the cipher into Hebrew script.

T-S NS J479

Why do you think he wrote out the alphabet several times?

Maybe he was trying to work out his alphabet. Towards the end he’s a bit inconsistent with some of the symbols assigned to each Hebrew letter, so perhaps he was refining it. He also writes the cipher alphabet from left to right at one point, which was interesting to me.

We keep saying ‘he’ – do we know who the author was?

He writes his name – ‘al-faqīr Isḥāq al-Yahūdī’ – as well as two verses from the revered Sufi poem known as Qaṣīdat al-Burda by Al-Būṣīrī (fl. 13th century), so that helps to date the fragment somewhat. Here are the lines in Stetkevych's translation (Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, The Mantle Odes: Arabic Praise Poems to the Prophet Muhammad (Bloomington, IN, 2010), p. 92.):

Was it the memory of those you loved at Dhū Salam / That made you weep so hard your tears were mixed with blood?

Or was it the wind that stirred from the direction of Kāẓimah / And the lightning that flashed in the darkness of Iḍam?

It’s Mamluk or perhaps Ottoman era. There’s also some pornography. I’ve learned two different words for penis and all sorts of other terms while studying the text. It’s fairly graphic. It ends ‘all of this is lies’, so perhaps Isḥāq was covering his tracks in case his parents cracked his code! Kind of frivolous but also kind of interesting.

Do you know of any other ciphers that have been found in the Cairo Genizah?

Gideon Bohak has written about at least one cipher that he’s found in the Genizah, and Oded Zinger has found a letter in Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic with a portion in an incomprehensible cipher. Almost all the words begin with alef, which makes us think it’s not a straightforward substitution cipher. Amir Ashur pointed out that some merchants in the India Book use Coptic numerals to create a secret code that hasn’t yet been cracked. I put this fragment up on social media after I started working on it, and people offered up all sorts of interesting parallels. Arianna D’Ottone-Rambach shared her article on an encrypted Quran manuscript that I hadn’t known about, for example. I’m so excited to join the field when this spirit of collaboration is recognised and valued. If I can make a discovery that lets someone else discover something further, then that’s all the better.

Thanks, Alan!

Alan Elbaum is a Senior Researcher at the Princeton Geniza Project.

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