Cohen on Goitein

Reflections by
Mark R. Cohen
Princeton University (Emeritus)

S. D. Goitein’s article, “What Would Jewish and General History Benefit from a Systematic Publication of the Geniza Documents?” published in PAAJR in 1954, was a landmark in the study of the Cairo Geniza. It amplifies on Alexander Marx’s PAAJR article, “The Importance of the Geniza for Jewish History,” published in the journal 35 years earlier. Marx’s essay was limited to Jewish history, especially the important figures of the Gaonate and other individuals about whom very little was known before the discoveries in the Geniza. But Goitein devoted most of his time and effort to the Arabic portion of the Geniza. He came to the conclusion that the significance of the hoard of manuscripts extended well beyond the internal life of Jews and Jewish institutions. He was convinced that they revealed details of life in general in Islamic society, details that, for lack of sources, were almost totally unknown to Islamic historians. Perhaps most significant were the documents pertaining to the trade between the Mediterranean and India via Egypt. Similarly, Geniza letters also disclosed details of the Crusades that were absent from European chronicles.

Goitein’s clarion call in PAAJR was echoed in some half-dozen articles he wrote in the following two decades. Islamic historians slowly came to realize the importance of the Geniza for their own discipline. Notable among these were Arabic papyrologists, who appreciated the importance of documents about daily life. But Goitein’s wish for a “systematic publication of the Geniza documents” had to wait for the digital age, in the form, first, of the Princeton Geniza Project, and more recently of the Friedberg Genizah Project, which has produced digital images of all the Geniza manuscripts, a project that has opened up the Geniza to anyone who knows Hebrew or even just the Hebrew alphabet.


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