Interpreting an 11th century sister’s letter

It is interesting to see what people in this region wrote to each other more than 1,000 years ago.

The 11th century letter found in the Cairo Geniza, believed to be from a woman in Israel to her brother in Egypt (photo credit: REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF THE SYNDICS OF CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY/FRIEDBERG GENIZAH PROJECT WE)
The 11th century letter found in the Cairo Geniza, believed to be from a woman in Israel to her brother in Egypt
In today’s era of email and text messaging, it is interesting to see what people in this region wrote to each other more than 1,000 years ago.
A woman living in Tiberias wrote a letter to her brother, who was presumably residing in Fustat, Egypt because the document (BL Or 5544.9) was found in the Cairo Geniza collection. We do not know her given name; she did not sign the letter herself, but had it written by a male member of her family.
Moshe Gil (Palestine during the First Muslim Period 634-1099, Part II, Tel Aviv University, 1983, p. 450) suggests that the “scribe” is her son, but it is clear that she dictated the letter.
S.D. Goitein considers the possibility that the letter was penned by either her son or her brother (A Mediterranean Society, vol. 2, p. 589, n. 8). The former, however, seems most likely because the signature at the end of the letter is by Mubarakh, son of Wahb. The sister is referred to as the wife of Wahb (Sitt Wahb), so his son would also be hers, whereas a brother would not have a name similar to his. Since the name of the brother/recipient appears in the address, namely, Khalfa, the son of Ibrahim the doctor, a second brother would have to be the son of Ibrahim as well.
The sister begins this letter by blessing her beloved brother, wishing him a long life full of honor. She immediately informs him that she is well and in good health, but that she misses him terribly.
She is anxious to be reunited with him, for when this occurs, such a meeting will be the happiest of occasions.
Then she gets down to the essentials.
She had sent him a number of letters, but never received a response to a single one! The only letter that she did receive had arrived the previous day, and one gets the impression that its content was not related to her letters.
She refers to having been on the way to somewhere when she expected to receive a news update, but the bottom line is that the letter she received was so upsetting that she broke down in tears and wept all the way home.
Wahb’s wife added that she still had not managed to calm down. This letter compounded the distress in which she already found herself.
While her brother clearly knew what she was referring to, it is a bit surprising that she does not specify at all what happened to her brother and his family. The next line states that she truly wanted to share her brother’s burden and mourning with him. If someone in his family had died, his or her name is not mentioned. She tells him that she had a similar experience, for he knows what happened to them; since the moment she read the letter, they (presumably her husband and herself) have been very upset about the situation. But we still don’t know what happened: Did he lose a child? A wife? If she could empathize, then perhaps a child had been lost by both siblings. She prayed to God to improve her brother’s situation by providing him consolation and to heal his heart. This is followed by a reminder that others have suffered similarly; she tells him that he has an outstanding example in front of him. Again these inferences could only be understood by her brother.
THE SISTER hopes that her brother and his family extricate themselves from this “terrible” year. What happened to him is basically the way of living creatures; he is not the first to find himself in such a situation. She then informs him that more tears were shed – this time due to what she heard about Abu al Hassan and his daughter, as well as Abu Ali (we don’t know if these are relatives or friends, or what actually happened to these three individuals). Troubles arrive daily, she laments.
At this point, the discussion turns to practical issues. The brother, Khalfa, had asked about life in the city, presumably referring to Tiberias, in particular about livelihood and the cost of living.
The sister quotes the price of bread and reminds him that it’s hard to buy food when the prices are high, a situation that seems to be the result of a drought.
She notes that Tiberias is not as expensive as Ramle. Her family is quite attached to Tiberias. If he decides to come to Palestine, he should choose Tiberias, once he is informed about their situation.
She then reminds her brother that a woman named Sitt al Dar has no one except God and him. We don’t know who this person is, but she is important to this family, for her brother had asked about her and whether she will come with him. His sister answers in the affirmative, explaining that her brother will be rewarded if he does so, especially because this woman has only him to rely upon. The brother is contemplating leaving Fustat; presumably his sister would be delighted if he relocated to Tiberias. In the meantime, the sister is trying to determine who will be joining him in the move.
Sitt Wahb hasn’t heard any news of his paternal aunt, except for gossip, so she’d like to receive a proper update about her situation. He is instructed to mail his letter to the Jewish market addressed to Sitt Wahb. She then remembers to send a few instructions to him: Take the large curtain at my (maternal) cousin, Hannah’s, and hand it to my sister (Is she his sister as well? Or from another marriage?) and take care of it. As for the scissors and clothes at my cousin Moses’s, leave them behind.
“But if you [all] come, bring everything with you; don’t leave anything behind!” (Line 25) As for her sister, Bagda’s mother, he needs to ask about her and her children and let Sitt Wahb know how they are doing. (Was this another sister? And again, only hers?) She concludes by sending warmest regards to him, to his family, and to everyone under his tutelage; perhaps he was a wealthy man who cared for more than only the members of his immediate family. Regards also are sent to anyone asking about her well-being – and regards from Wahb’s wife (herself) and from Wahb.
We don’t know if Ibrahim joined his sister in Tiberias or remained in Fustat, but the two appear to have been extremely close and full of concern for one another, as siblings should be.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.