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Letters served many purposes in medieval Mediterranean society. Some individuals
wrote solely for business dealings, others for personal reasons, and often the
two were mixed. While recipients appreciated newsy letters, difficulties often
served as catalysts for letter-writing. Sometimes family members were simply
complaining about not having received news of a loved one; sometimes they were
in dire need of help. Often they faced illness and the untimely deaths of family
members. Whatever the reason, letters went to and from medieval
This letter, found among the Cairo Genizah documents, is not
dated, nor are the names of the writer or his wife – the letter’s recipient –
included in the body of the letter. (The reverse side of the paper has a
notation for the letter to be delivered to a man named al-Muhadhdhib the elder.
He might have been a neighbor, friend or relative, or perhaps the writer’s
Nevertheless, it contains ample information for us to
surmise how difficult the situation was for this writer. We imagine that his
wife and child were living in Fustat (Old Cairo), but again, no mention of the
destination appears in these lines. The husband had traveled to the Holy Land
for unspecified business purposes and was writing the letter while in Hebron. He
clearly was not having any great degree of success in his venture, whatever it
might have been.
One noteworthy aspect of this letter is the husband’s
expression of utmost respect for his wife. His greeting expresses this clearly;
he not only refers to her as pious and righteous, but also includes unusual and
impressive terms (in Judeo-Arabic, of course). Essentially he elevates her to an
incredibly high level and refers to her as a woman of high standing who demands
respect and whom he holds in utmost esteem. He then informs her that he is quite
ill, but because he knows that she is praying for him, he is most hopeful.
Because she is such a pious individual, he says, her prayers are sure to be
heard and will help improve his situation.
He also expresses his longings
for her and his son (“the little one”), who remains nameless in the letter as
well (although we are certain that he was named at his circumcision), and he
prays to the Lord that the three will soon be reunited.
He then informs
his wife that his financial situation is terrible. His income is minimal, he
writes, and – most likely because of his health situation – he cannot work very
much, if at all.
Rather than complain incessantly, this husband preferred
to present an optimistic front. In the letter, he prays that his wife will be
satisfied with him, and that they will eventually be blessed and sustained; he
is anxious for his wife to have what she deserves. There is an emphasis on her
health, for if he was ill, at least she should be healthy and happy. He sends
his regards to her and his son and to the rest of his family, to the
aforementioned gentleman who was to receive the letter, and more or less to
everyone else they knew.
In the end, he assesses his situation and
concludes that he is dependent on his wife’s prayers because she is a pious
woman. He prays for her while she prays for him. He does not seem to have had
immediate plans for travel or to return home, but he does express a deep wish to
be reunited with his family in the near future. We can only hope that he
recuperated and was able to earn enough to make his business trip worthwhile so
that he could successfully return to his wife and son.