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).
  • 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.



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