Sacred Trash

April 26th, 2011 Comments Off on Sacred Trash


“At least once a month, from the ages of 5 to 15, I would take the little train from suburban Maadi to Cairo and back. Today it is electrified and goes underground as it reaches Bab-el-Luk Station in Cairo (not far from Tahrir Square), but it still stops at Mari Girgis, or St. George, on the way. This is where the Coptic Church stands, visible from the train, in what was once the center of Old Cairo. Right next to the grand Coptic Church, though invisible from the train, is the tiny synagogue of Ben Ezra.

The synagogue once housed a remarkable treasure trove of written material, thrown any old how into a small room high up above the women’s gallery and handed over, quite unlawfully, in 1898 by my grandmother’s great-uncle, Moise Cattaoui, then head of the Cairo Jewish community, to a Cambridge scholar to take back to England. The story of that transaction, of the cache that was shifted and of the scholars who subsequently deciphered it, has been told many times but never so well as by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole in “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.”

The room that housed the material was known as a geniza, from the Persian ganj, meaning “hidden treasure.” In the Talmud, the word usually implies concealment: Any writing that seemed heretical should, it was felt, be ganuz, hidden away. Gradually that came to include manuscripts that time or human hand had rendered unfit for human use but that could not be thrown out due to their sacred content and so required removal to a safe place that would allow them to decay of their own accord. In Old Cairo, the habit extended even further. Soon any piece of writing thought to include the name of God, and finally anything in Hebrew, was thrown into the upstairs room, there gradually to expire.

And so it remained for the better part of a thousand years, as Cairo shifted northward, as the synagogue of Ben Ezra became a backwater and as Egypt lost its place as the center of a thriving Mediterranean culture. But in the 19th century, material that had lain hidden for centuries in the Geniza, preserved by the dry climate of the region, began to surface, and stray items started to be sold to Western buyers in the markets of the region”

~from Gabriel Josipovici, “A World Revealed,” Review of Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole, Sacred Trash (Nextbook, 2011), Wall Street Journal (April 23-4, 2011): C10.

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