The Rylands Genizah Collection

Opening a window on a thousand years of Jewish life in Cairo.

The conservation, digital imaging and cataloguing of 15,000 manuscripts from a synagogue store-room (a Genizah) in Old Cairo, now housed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, has thrown a flood of light on 1000 years of Jewish history in Muslim lands.

The fragments show how closely and amicably the Jews of Cairo interacted with their Muslim neighbours.

The fragments, which cover all aspects of life and culture, from private and business letters and children's exercises to works of high literature and culture, show how closely and amicably the Jews of Cairo interacted with their Muslim neighbours, and challenge common assumptions about Muslim-Jewish relations.

A fragment of the 'Register of Deaths'
A fragment of the 'Register of Deaths'.

Among the treasures discovered are:

  • an autograph fragment of The Guide of the Perplexed, the philosophical magnum opus of Moses Maimonides, the greatest Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, in his own handwriting;
  • a new piece of an apocryphal work, known as the Aramaic Levi Document, important for the study of Christian origins;
  • an account of the exorcism of a Dybbuk, the only known historical example of such a ritual, naming the parties involved; and
  • a unique Judeo-Arabic version of a medieval Jewish anti-Christian polemical work known in Hebrew as Nestor the Priest.

Comparable in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls, this archive is of interest not only to scholars, but to the wider public, and particularly to the Jewish community, which now regards the Cairo Genizah as a precious part of its cultural heritage. It has featured in major documentaries such as Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews, and been the subject of a number of highly popular books such as From an Antique Land, by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh.

In the process of making this material available online we have pioneered ways of digitising and describing the fragments which have been applied to other collections of Genizah fragments in the Bodleian Library Oxford, and the University Library Cambridge, and adapted to other texts and cultural artefacts.

Our research

Specific outcomes of our research, which was funded by the AHRC and private donors, include:

  • Creation of a searchable online catalogue accompanied by over 26,000 high resolution images of the Manchester Genizah collection, thus making it accessible to scholars, journalists, writers, documentary makers, school teachers and the general public.
  • Integration of the Rylands’ images into the worldwide Friedberg Genizah database, which aims to reassemble the scattered Genizah manuscripts in cyber-space. 
  • Cross-linking of our database with the databases of the Princeton University Genizah Project and the Penn/Cambridge Genizah Fragments Project.
  • A crucial contribution to the creation of the commercially run Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care at the Rylands, which serves a wide range of clients, including other universities, museums, libraries, historic houses and individuals. 
  • Capacity-building of conservation expertise within the Rylands Conservation Unit, expertise now being applied to other artefacts.
  • Definition of rigorous standards for metadata, which have set a benchmark for other Genizah collections.
  • Promotion of public understanding of the Cairo Genizah through a dedicated website, a blog, public lectures and media coverage.

Key publications

  • An interpretative website which introduces the Rylands Genizah collection to a wider public. 
  • Smithuis, R. and Alexander, P.S. (eds) (2013), From Cairo to Manchester: Studies in the Rylands Genizah Fragments (JSS Supplement no. 31, University of Oxford Press).
  • Outhwaite, B. and Niessen, F. (2006), "A Newly-Discovered Autograph Fragment of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed from the Cairo Genizah", Journal of Jewish Studies 57(2):287-97.

Lead academics

Religions and Theology