His Story/Her Story: A tortured brother in Egypt

The prisoner or his family was responsible for his well-being, such as providing food, personal needs, bribes or, in the Islamic lands, payment of the poll tax.

311_weird hieroglyphics (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_weird hieroglyphics
(photo credit: Courtesy)
S.D. Goitein informs us that being imprisoned in medieval times was extremely dangerous, even if the “criminal” was merely a debtor.
The prisoner or his family was responsible for his well-being, such as providing food, personal needs, bribes or, in the Islamic lands, payment of the poll tax. Taxpayers were not supporting the prison system; the prisoners were more or less on their own. Apparently, torture was not unusual; according to A Mediterranean Society, Volume II, in addition to being beaten, a prisoner might experience the stocks, various instruments of torture, being “chained with a nose ring like a bull” or suffer as needles were “driven beneath his fingernails and into other sensitive parts of his body.”
Cairo Genizah documents contain reports in which prisoners were in dire straits. They sought help from family members either in person (as most were allowed to have verbal contact with visitors) or via correspondence. One of these letters, written by a man to his sister, describes the unusual cruelty meted out to him and a cohort. R. Eliyahu, a judge in Fustat (Old Cairo), received his letter and was asked to read it to the sister; no one else was to have access to it.
After blessing his sister and wishing her well, the writer describes some of his experiences since the siblings parted, beginning with his arrest on Shabbat and being taken to the courtroom with a fellow Jew. It seems that thorns were extracted from palm trees for insertion between their fingernails and flesh. A fire was lit over their heads while they were tied up and suspended until collapsing, then dragged back into the courtroom and thrown into a corner there.
The brother states that it was a terrible day (which might also refer to the weather); it was indeed a horrible day on all counts.
The two prisoners rolled about on the ground covered with tar and dung beetles, but were eventually taken to the synagogue. Less than a week later an officer appeared who took them to the fortress for additional torture. His co-prisoner had clamps placed on his ankles and legs for hours. The two were then brought back to the court and ordered to talk. The writer informed them that he had no possessions except for his own spirit, and begged for a delay of punishment to allow them to recover – after all, they could always be punished later. For 12 days, the men awaited word of their fate; they were then informed that the money owed was due on Monday. On Wednesday they were brought to the courtroom where they trembled in fear as a result of the trauma already suffered. The judge’s son appeared on Friday, but they were not summoned to court until Sunday, when guards carried in vessels of water, salt and olive presses. According to this account, 14 guards threatened them, but the prisoner again declared that he had no money whatsoever.
As a result, he was placed in chains by some of these guards while others climbed on his chest and his thighs and put a piece of wood under his shoulders. His hair was grabbed in order to lower his head into the salted water which entered his nose while he was being forced to drink it. His face was beaten until the vessel of water and salt was emptied three times; a vice was tightly clamped his legs until the bone was exposed. This prisoner tried to reason with his torturers, explaining that killing them was pointless. There was no money to hand over; the foam emerging from his friend’s mouth was a sign that his end was near.
This letter, composed the following month, concluded with a reference to the insecurity of life and how difficult the separation from his sister and her children was for him. Needless to say, he hoped that his sister would not only be compassionate, but also help him financially to extricate himself from this unbearable situation. We are left to wonder if she had the means and the inclination to do so. ■
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and the academic editor of Nashim. She is currently a fellow in the School of Historical Studies at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study.