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Cambridge University Library

Refugee Week 2021: French refugees flee to Egypt

T-S 12.299
T-S 12.299 (verso)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Fri 18 Jun 2021

To mark Refugee Week (14–20 June 2021), here’s a letter from Alexandria, Egypt from September 1212 CE, reporting the arrival of a large number of French refugees at the port. As Europe became less and less hospitable to its Jewish population – Phillip II of France had been enacting policies to confiscate Jewish property since 1180 – refugees began to flee across the Mediterranean to safety in Egypt. Their arrival is mentioned towards the end of a letter (T-S 12.299) sent to the cantor Meʾir ben Yakhin in Fustat. It's mainly concerned with the problems of mail delivery (letters have been sent but not received), but also passes on some dramatic family news (‘Your brother Saʿid quarrelled with his wife and travelled, and no one knows where he travelled. A roof fell on his wife, but she was saved from death’). The writer of the letter, Judah ben Aaron Ibn al-ʿAmmani, was a court clerk responsible for managing the lists of people eligible for the bread ration to the poor, and his concern for how the community will absorb the arrivals is evident. 

‘On the very night I am writing you this letter, there arrived here seven of the rabbis [of France], all great scholars, accompanied by one hundred souls, men, women, and children, all in need of eating bread, as if we had not enough beggars of our own here in town – we have about forty. Most of the community are in trouble because of the sluggish business, and now such a great imposition is thrown upon them; let’s see how they will tackle it…’ (last lines at the bottom of verso and into the margin, transl. S.D. Goitein)

As S.D. Goitein notes, ‘…one should remember that hospitality was often required in times that were hard on the host himself and in places where demands on charity were made constantly’ (Med. Soc. Vol 5, p. 29). The Alexandrian Jewish community often found themselves digging deep to ransom Jewish captives put up for sale by pirates, but now European refugees were beginning to arrive at the port city too, Judah must have hoped that other communities living further inland would help to share the responsibility of caring for their Jewish brethren. 

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