Cambridge and Oxford Universities announced on Friday their intention to
collaborate on a fund-raising effort aimed at purchasing the Lewis-Gibson
Genizah Collection from the United Reformed Church’s Westminster College for
£1.2 million before it is sold off to private collectors.
is a significant historical resource made up of more than 1,700 fragments of
manuscripts, in Arabic and Hebrew, dating from the ninth to 19th centuries, that
were taken from the Cairo Geniza in Fustat to England in the late 19th
The Cairo Geniza was the document storehouse of the Ben Ezra
Synagogue in Fustat, a suburb of Cairo until it was swallowed by the Egyptian
capital’s urban sprawl. The documents there were in large part carted off to
England and now are held in several collections.
All told, they present
researchers with “an invaluable record of a thousand years of the religious,
social, economic and cultural life of the Mediterranean world,” Cambridge
spokesman Stuart Roberts said on Friday.
“Given its status as a
‘hand-picked’ collection, the Lewis-Gibson Collection contains perhaps more than
its share of rare or unique items compared to its modest size,” he
A geniza is a storehouse for manuscripts, books and letters that
cannot be thrown out due to their religious importance, usually attached to a
synagogue. According to Jewish tradition, papers bearing the name of God or
biblical texts may not be discarded in a conventional manner.
Lewish-Gibson collection is “in danger of being sold off and dispersed into
private collections if Cambridge and Oxford are unable to raise the necessary
funds to save it,” Roberts explained.
Among the documents in the
collection is a hand-written copy of Moses Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishna
and the earliest extant copy of a Jewish engagement deed.
Thomas, of the Oxford University’s Bodley library, said, “This is a rare and
special opportunity to jointly acquire the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection by
Cambridge and Oxford, which combined hold almost 70 percent of the fragments in
public collections. Together, we will share the work of curating, conserving,
digitizing and presenting the manuscripts, making the best use of the strengths
of each institution.”
Cambridge is already home to the largest collection
of documents from the Geniza.
University librarian Anne Jarvis noted that
“in the late 19th century, Oxford’s Bodleian Library and Cambridge University
Library were rivals in trying to acquire materials from the Cairo Geniza. Today
we are taking a different stance, seeking to build on our collections while
recognizing that there would be a greater benefit to scholarship if we joined
together to save the Lewis-Gibson Collection from division and
Levana Zamir, the president of the Union des Juifs d’Egypte
en Israel, said she found it “fantastic that Cambridge and Oxford Universities
Libraries are finally joining for the benefit of the Geniza project.”
Geniza documents remaining in Egypt were not being cared for at all by the local
antiquities authority, Zamir said.
“A lot of Geniza documents are still
confiscated in Egypt – the Egyptian government decided long ago that the Cairo
Geniza is Egyptian [property], and as such it has to remain in Egypt. All this
would be wonderful if the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo was working on
saving this remaining Geniza, which is becoming dust, but they don’t,” she said.