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Sex and business among medieval Cairo’s Jews go on display at Cambridge

New exhibit showcases dozens of fragments, some newly translated, that tell the story of ordinary folks living under Islam in the Middle Ages

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

A child’s alphabet and doodles, circa 1000 years old, from the Cairo Geniza, part of the Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo exhibit on display from April 27, 2017 (Cambridge University)
A child’s alphabet and doodles, circa 1000 years old, from the Cairo Geniza, part of the Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo exhibit on display from April 27, 2017 (Cambridge University)

‘Long pepper, galanga, ginger and aristolochia, an ounce of each, cinnamon and anise, two ounces of each, clove, mace and nutmeg, one quarter ounce of each.” These exotic ingredients are not only intended to spice up a dish, but also a man’s sex life.

The aphrodisiac recipe, intended for the nephew of Saladin, the Sultan Omar, was part of Judeo-Arabic draft scrawled by Maimonides in the 12th century that was found in Cairo. It’s one of several dozen fragments of texts from the Cairo Geniza featured in an exhibit opening Thursday at Cambridge University.

The university is home to the bulk of thousands of fragments found in the geniza — a depository of discarded sacred texts — at the end of the 19th century that document a millennium of Jewish life in the Egyptian metropolis. “Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo” is one of the largest collections of fragments to ever go on display, Cambridge University said, and sets out to tell the “lost history” of ordinary Jews.

The 50 or 60 fragments going on display for the next six months offer visitors a personal and first-hand glimpse of history through the lives of Jews — ordinary folks — in medieval Cairo. They deal with marriage, death, love, business, and sex.

A prenuptial contract from the Cairo Geniza, part of the Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo exhibit on display from April 27, 2017 (Cambridge University)
A prenuptial contract from the Cairo Geniza, part of the Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo exhibit on display from April 27, 2017 (Cambridge University)

The collection known as the Cairo Geniza comprises an estimated 320,000 fragments of parchment and paper that were discarded over the centuries by the Jewish community, including religious texts, contracts, recipes, magic amulets, and letters. Some were translated into English for the exhibit for the first time.

According to Jewish law, documents that bear the name of God cannot be destroyed. Instead, the Jewish community stuffed papers and parchments through a hole in the wall of the women’s section of the Ben Ezra synagogue in the Fustat district. Egypt’s arid climate helped preserve the trove of documents in the small room on the other side of the hole until they came to the attention of European scholars at the turn of the 20th century.

Among the highlights of the exhibit are the scratchings of a young student first learning the Hebrew alphabet, with doodles in the margin; an 11th-century prenuptial agreement requiring an unruly would-be groom to curtail his future behavior; letters and treatises written in Maimonides’ hand; and one of the earliest known examples of an engagement deed, from the 12th century, ensuring brides-to-be wouldn’t be locked into a dormant marriage if their husband disappeared while traveling overseas.

The oldest dated medieval Hebrew manuscript, from Iran at the beginning of the 10th century, part of the Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo exhibit on display from April 27, 2017 (Cambridge University)
The oldest dated medieval Hebrew manuscript, from Iran at the beginning of the 10th century, part of the Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo exhibit on display from April 27, 2017 (Cambridge University)

The aim of the exhibit was to show visitors the rich tapestry of Jewish life in the Middle Ages, when the vast majority of the world’s Jewish population lived under Islam, Ben Outhwaite, head of the Genizah Research Unit and co-curator of the exhibition, told The Times of Israel.

He said it was a challenge to select items from the “colossal material” at the university’s disposal and present it in a compelling way to a general audience.

“We didn’t want to paint either a picture of a happy interfaith utopia, where Jews lived happily under Islam and there were no problems; on the other hand we don’t want to paint the picture that is popular with some of the right wing press in this country, for instance, of dhimmi suffering under the oppression of the cruel Muslim government,” he said.

“It would be a mistake to impose a simple narrative,” Outhwaite said.

Both instances might have been true at different periods and places, but it was up to visitors to decide by seeing the life of Cairene Jews in their own words.

Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo is open to the public at Cambridge University Library through October 28, 2017.

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