Working with geniza fragments takes practice, but it can be mastered with a practice and patience. The first thing you'll need to do is to develop technical skills.
- Learning to read handwriting from an era that isn't your own (specialists call this palaeography) is challenging.
- Most geniza fragments are in Hebrew or Arabic script.
- If you're interested in Hebrew script, this aleph-bet chart (by Laura Newman Eckstein) contains the range of scripts you're likely to encounter in real-world manuscripts.
- If you're interested in Arabic script, check out this Arabic palaeography resource page from Evyn Kropf at the University of Michigan. But due warning: most guides to Arabic palaeography are geared toward codices.
- Documentary Arabic is a little different, and also varies considerably over time and place. Take a look at the Arabic Papyrology School from our friends at the Arabic Papyrology Database.
- Advanced palaeographers may be interested in these guides to Coptic (or zimām) numerals, the numeric ciphers most frequently used in medieval geniza fragments.
- For more on palaeography, see our FAQ under Skills.
- A language you'll frequently encounter in geniza fragments is Judaeo-Arabic. That's a modern name for the Arabic language written in Hebrew script, often with some code-switching to Hebrew and Aramaic thrown in (especially when the writer is trying to be formal or sound erudite).
- The best way to learn Judaeo-Arabic is to learn Arabic first.
- If your Arabic is good enough to read real-world prose (as distinct from the graduated prose in textbooks), you're ready for this primer: How to read Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts in five easy steps if you already know Arabic.
- There are also geniza documents in Hebrew, Arabic (in Arabic script), Judaeo-Persian, Ladino and other romance languages.
- You'll even find some Aramaic, but mainly in legal deeds and/or in frozen phrases. By the tenth century, Jewish Aramaic was no longer a spoken language outside a geographic region roughly coterminous with modern Kurdistan.
- Perplexities may, however, remain. When deciphering letters, for instance, you may be able to read every letter and translate every word, but you may still have trouble understanding what's going on. This is especially true with frequent correspondents, who have built up a context over time but aren't, alas, telling you what's going on. The key is knowing when the difficulty is merely yours or inherent in the text. Distinguishing between the two circumstances takes some experience; it can be easier to get there if you work with a study-partner or a group.
- Princeton regularly offers graduate-level seminars in Judaeo-Arabic, Arabic and other geniza-related subjects through the Department of Near Eastern Studies.
Dating and calendar systems
- Sometimes documents are agreeable and explicitly give you their dates, but usually in calendars other than the common era (CE) such as the Anno Mundi, Hijrī and Seleucid. For more about the calendar systems in use in geniza documents (and how to convert those dates to common era dates) head over to our Glossary.
- Even though most of the documents in the PGP survived in Cairo, they come from a vast swath of the planet stretching from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) to Sumatra.
- Check out this interactive map, which contains some common points of origin for geniza fragments. The bigger the circle, the more documents started out there.
- Today, geniza fragments are housed in more than sixty libraries and private collections, mostly in Europe, North America, Egypt and Israel.
- This graphic shows the distribution of fragments in some of the major collections.
- You'll find all the geniza collections worldwide listed in the Friedberg Genizah Project Database (login required), together with images, bibliographic information and helpful functionality (like computer vision–based join-finding algorithms).
- Some libraries have open digital repositories of their geniza fragments, notably:
- The Genizah Collections of the Cambridge University Library, roughly half of all geniza fragments worldwide. The library's Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit publishes a newsletter called Genizah Fragments, a column for new discoveries called Fragment of the Month, and audio-visual material made by the Unit's staff.
- The Genizah Collections of the John Rylands Institute and Library at the University of Manchester
- The Genizah Collections of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. (The catalogue information is more than a century old; it's a good idea to cross-reference it in PGP.)
- All the geniza fragments at the Jewish Theological Seminary Library are online by agreement with the Princeton University Digital Library (DPUL).
- The website of our home unit, the Princeton Geniza Lab, contains plenty of other resources, including datasets and a bibliography with links to articles, catalogues and dissertations.
- If you're looking more specifically for references listed by individual shelfmark, your best bet is the Cambridge Bibliography Editor — Cairo Genizah Collection, which is extremely thorough, but of utility only for fragments housed at Cambridge, or the Friedberg Genizah Project Database (login required), which is complete for editions but less thorough for passing references to fragments.
Videos and Podcasts
- We've posted a plethora of geniza-related videos and podcasts on the Princeton Geniza Lab website.