Top UK universities to buy Lewis-Gibson Genizah

Collection, worth £1.2 million significant historical resource of manuscripts in Arabic and Hebrew dated from ninth century.

February 10, 2013 01:23
2 minute read.
Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishna in his own hand, is from the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection.

Manuscript Rashi script old looking 370. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Governors of Westminster College, )


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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.

The collection 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 century.

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 said.

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.

The 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.

Dr. Sarah 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 dispersal.”

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.”

The 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.

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