Breaking Ground — Near Eastern studies

Cairo, in the 11th and 12th centuries, was a comfortable place for Jews, who comprised a significant minority in the city. Though treated as second-class citizens under Islamic rule, Jews lived side by side with Muslims, in relative harmony, and took part in a flourishing economy, according to Mark Cohen, professor of Near Eastern studies. “Jews were heavily invested in international commerce, interacting with people of other faiths,” he says.

Cohen’s assessment is drawn largely from documents found in the Cairo Geniza, a tomb for sacred texts that was discovered at a synagogue in the late 1800s. In addition to holding religious poems and fragments of Torah scrolls, the Cairo Geniza contained thousands of mundane papers from the medieval period — letters, contracts, wills, and other legal documents — preserved in the area’s arid climate. This collection represents a unique window on daily life in Egypt from about 1000 to 1250.

For more than two decades, Cohen and his Princeton colleagues have been working to bring the ancient papers into the digital age. Their work, called the Princeton Geniza Project, has created the world’s only online, searchable-text database of the Cairo Geniza’s historical documents.

The Hebrew word “geniza” refers to both the place and the act of burying worn or damaged sacred papers, a practice that continues today. (The Jewish Theological Seminary Library in New York, Cohen says, has a wastepaper basket labeled “geniza” for discarded photocopies of sacred books.) The medieval Jews of Cairo had a broad definition of sacred. Letters that began with the phrase “in the name of God,” for instance, ended up in the geniza. While Princeton does not hold any of the original documents, the Near Eastern studies department has thousands of photos and annotated transcriptions compiled by one of Cohen’s mentors, the late S.D. Goitein, a prominent geniza scholar who lived in Princeton and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study.

In 1986, Cohen and Abraham Udovitch, a colleague in the Near Eastern studies department, proposed using Goitein’s papers to start a computerized database of geniza documents. IBM and the Near Eastern studies department supported the effort, and in the past 20 years, with help from technology upgrades and recent grants from the Friedberg Genizah Project, the database has grown to include nearly 4,000 documents (at least a quarter of the historical geniza), available online and searchable in Hebrew and Arabic script or English keywords.

The project “reaches out to the world, and not just to the Western world,” says Cohen, who notes that scholars have used geniza documents to study history and culture in the Arab world. Roxani Margariti *02, an assistant professor at Emory University, wrote her Ph.D. dissertation, recently published as a book, about commerce in Aden, a medieval port city in present-day Yemen. Archaeology, literature, and travel accounts shaped her work, but the Cairo Geniza was a “crucial source,” she says, because it provided direct information about trade routes and the region’s economy.

Many of the geniza documents are incomplete, with the tears, holes, and frayed edges that one might expect to find in papers removed from an 800-year-old trash bin. Noting those imperfections on a plain-text Web page is an imperfect science, says Ben Johnston, a database specialist at Princeton’s Office of Information Technology, so the next phase in the Princeton Geniza Project may be to add images of the original documents and enable researchers to flip back and forth between the document and its transcription.

Expanding the database will require time, money, and capable transcribers, Cohen says, and he is dedicated to finding all three. “The technology itself is breeding new users,” he says, “because you don’t have to get on a plane and go to Cambridge [home of the largest collection of geniza papers]. ... This is an amazing resource, and it’s growing the field.”