Pitching in to unlock mysteries of Cairo Geniza

Pitching in to unlock mysteries of Cairo Geniza

Volunteers transcribe fragments of ancient documents

Discussing the transcription of texts from the Cairo Geniza are Haim Soicher and Louise Sandburg. “It’s amazing to be able to do this,” Soicher said.Photos by Michele Alperin
Discussing the transcription of texts from the Cairo Geniza are Haim Soicher and Louise Sandburg. “It’s amazing to be able to do this,” Soicher said.Photos by Michele Alperin

For scholars who study the past, primary documents are critical sources. But finding such texts is not so easy when the era under scrutiny is long ago. A find in 1896 in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, which dates from the 11th century, opened up a treasure trove of texts for people studying the medieval era in the Mediterranean basin. Personal, communal, commercial, and religious documents — the majority from the 10th to the 13th centuries — were discovered in the synagogue’s geniza, a repository for old, used, and damaged books, Torah scrolls, and other sacred texts.

Academics have been using these documents, written largely in Hebrew or Arabic script, to reconstruct the social, economic, political, and religious lives of Jews and other inhabitants of that time and place. But because in the last 120 years, less than a third of the 350,000 document fragments have been catalogued, most of what is recorded on them remains out of reach.

Now, a website called Zooniverse, set up by the Scribes of the Cairo Geniza project, is making an effort to fill those gaps. To do so, they are using software embedded in the site that enables ordinary users to be enlisted as transcribers of these remaining documents.

To engage both graduate students and community members in this effort, Scribes of the Cairo Geniza and Princeton Geniza Lab hosted a “Transcribe-a-Thon” on Nov. 12. About two dozen people sat around a table from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., using Zooniverse’s user interface to transcribe the Hebrew or Arabic letters from document image to electronic form.

Marina Rustow, professor of Near Eastern studies and history at Princeton University, a 2015 MacArthur fellow, and director of the Princeton Geniza Lab, told NJJN that the marathon session was “an opportunity for people with no expertise in Hebrew or Arabic to transcribe some manuscripts.”

Emily Esten, project coordinator for Scribes of the Cairo Geniza and Judaica digital humanities coordinator at Penn Libraries — part of the University of Pennsylvania — explained the rationale behind bringing together a group for an activity that can feel “challenging and intimidating on your own.”

“Getting in a space where a lot of people are doing it together can relieve tension,” Esten said.

Esten herself spends an hour a week trying to do transcription, even though she doesn’t know Hebrew or Arabic. “It’s something I’ve been able to improve on over time. In the beginning it was hard, but it is really exciting to be able to recognize one letter and one word at a time,” she told NJJN.

Minneapolis native Rachel Richman, a second-year doctoral student at Princeton University working on the Cairo Geniza, had already used Zooniverse to transcribe government petitions in Arabic for a class with Rustow. But at the Transcribe-a-Thon, she decided to work on a Hebrew document because, as a Jewish day school graduate, she figured it would be easier for her.

But even for Richman, who was able to easily recognize and transcribe the letters, that did not amount to understanding the document. “It could have been magical or some sort of religious text. It was not biblical and not normative,” she said.

Sarah Frank, left, and Mary Buckley joined forces at the Transcribe-a-Thon; to the left is Scott Weiner, who said, of his experience transcribing, “The letters are ambiguous, but you can figure it out from context sometimes.”

Manhattan resident Scott Weiner, a member of the city’s West Side Institutional Synagogue, told NJJN that he is planning to retire soon and decided to take a day off to join the Transcribe-a-Thon. Finding transcription to be harder than he had thought, he said, “The letters are ambiguous, but you can figure it out from context sometimes.” Pointing to the potential for misreading, Weiner added, “You might impose a meaning and read it the way you want it to be and not read exactly what was written on the page.”

Weiner took a guess about what his fragment was. “It was a biblical text — it has vowel points and cantillation marks, but it is fragmentary. If I had a concordance” — an alphabetical reference book showing where particular words appear in the Bible — “I could probably figure out where it comes from.”

Hearing Weiner say this, Rustow noted, “The internet is a great concordance.”

In fact, Yaara Perlman, a Princeton doctoral student focusing on early Islamic history, used the internet to identify a text she worked on. She usually deals with sources that have been edited, but, she said, “It’s always good to have practice in reading the actual documents.”

Perlman discovered that the Arabic text she was transcribing comprised sayings of Bilal ibn Sa’d. “Once I figured out his name, I could look up a few more words and found the entire text on-line, and I could check myself against the correct answer,” she said.

Native Israeli Sarah Frank of Flemington came to the Transcribe-a-Thon with her longtime friend Mary Buckley, who is from Ireland. They figured they made a good duo — Frank could handle the Hebrew, and Buckley was adept at using a computer. Buckley said she loves “anything about Israel and history,” having been to Israel twice. Frank, interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls, is fascinated by “all the things they find today and now can figure things out.” She added, “I wanted to see what was here.”

Frank said that the text assigned to her and Buckley was “very ancient and very beautifully written” and seemed to be “a sequence of kings and kingdoms and how long they lived.”

Jewish Center member Louise Sandburg captured the experience of many participants in the the Transcribe-a-Thon. “It’s fascinating. I love all the scripts. It’s such a treat.”

Anyone wishing to be notified about a future Transcribe-a-Thon (not yet scheduled) should contact Deena Abdel-Latif at deenaa@princeton.edu
and ask to be put on the mailing list of the Princeton Geniza Lab.

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