NOTES ON THE CAIRO GENIZA AND THE STORY OF BEN YIJU AND HIS INDIAN (MANGALOREAN – PERHAPS TULU) SLAVE (or better servant) BOMMA
From Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land (Ravi Dayal Publisher / Penguin Books, 1992, 2008). Notes taken 15.08.2016.
Bomma, the slave of MS H.6, first appeared in an article by E. Strauss, “New Sources for the History of Middle Eastern Jews,” Zion [Hebrew, published in Jerusalem] 1942. The article contained transcriptions of several medieval documents, among them a letter by Khalaf ibn Ishaq, a Jewish merchant living in Aden, to Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish merchant living in Mangalore. Strauss estimates the date as 1148.
The name appears in the letters as B-M-H, which Ghosh proposes as BOMMA.
Bomma appears again in another letter between the same parties, but written in 1139 (9 years before the earlier one), and published in Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, tr. and ed. S.D. Goitein (Princeton University, 1973).
Ben Yiju: a Jewish merchant, originally of Tunisia, who had gone to India via Egypt, and had spent 17 years there in Mangalore. A calligrapher, scholar, and poet, besides trader. Returned to Egypt after amassing great wealth in India. Last years in Egypt; his papers found their way to the Cairo Geniza. [8.]
Ghosh, scholar student in Oxford in 1978, pursuing a PhD in social anthropology. To Tunisia in 1979 to learn Arabic, and in Lataifa, Egypt, in 1980, “a couple of hours journey to the south-east of Alexandria.” [8.]
The name Cairo comes from the formal name for the city, Al-Qahira, rarely used. More usually it is known as Masr. But when the people of Cairo speak of Masr, they often have in mind a particular district in the south: Old Cairo, Masr al-Qadima, Masr al-‘Atiqa, Mari Gargis, Fustat Masr, Fustat. [20.]
Within Fustat, a small enclave became the home to Ben Yiju. It used to be a Roman fortress called Babylon, built by Trajan in 130 AD, on the site of an earlier structure. The name may have come rom the Arabic Bab il-On, the Gate of On, after the ancient sanctuary of Heliopolis. Other names for the fort: Qasr al-Shama, Fortress of the Lamp. [20.]
The second gateway of Babylon, in its southern wall, is now a putrefying pit. This is the site of the single most important event in the history of Cairo: through this gateway the Arab general ‘Amr ibn al-‘As entered Babylon in 641 AD, victorious over the Christian powers in Masr. [21.]
With this victory, the centre of gravity shifted from Alexandria to Babylon, which was a small military outpost. The general elected to base his army in an entirely new city, the site of his camp while besieging Bablylon. [21.] The name: Fustat.
[So: Ben Yiju settled in Fustat, with its synagogue and Geniza; while Ghosh studied Arabic in Lataifa, much more to the north west, nearer to Alexandria.]
Fustat served as capital for 3 centuries. A new invasion and victory moved the capital a few miles north. The Fatimid general, Jawhar al-Rumi, built his new city bside the conquered one, and called it al-Qahira, the Martial or the Victorious, after the planet Mars, al-Qahir. As Cairo, this name passed into European languages. [22.]
When Ben Yiju first came to Masr in the early years of the 12th C, it was probably still a solemn bureaucratic place. The bustling market kind of place was Fustat, which was on the river, and an important port linking the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, nucleus of one of the richest and most cosmopolitan cities on earth. [23.]
Babylon became spiritual home to Ben Yiju. Majority Copts, but also at least 3 Jewish groups: Iraqis, Palestinians, and the Karaites. Ben Yiju joined the Palestinian group that included the indigenous Jews of Egypt, and followed the school of Jerusalem. Fustat is now a rubbish dump, but Bablylon proved to have greater staying power. [24.]
The synagogue of Ben Ezra, the synagogue of the Palestinians, lay near the eastern walls of Babylon. It lasted 700 years after Ben Yiju, still standing into the late 19th C. it was described in 1884 by A.J. Butler as a small and simplified version of a Coptic basilica. [37.]
This synagogue received an influx of migrants from Ifriqiya (Tunisia), Jewish merchants whose surnames reflected 3 continents, well-travelled people, but not born to privilege. Yet they were educated, read Hippocrates and Galen in Arabic translation, the medical writings of Arab physicians and scholars such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and al-Razi. One of their members was Musa ibn Maimon, Maimonides. He had close family ties with the India trade. [39.]
But the greatest achievement of the congregation was the Geniza, a name perhaps from the Persian ganj or storehouse (see the Anglicized Ballygunge and Daltongunj). [39-40.]
The Geniza, built perhaps when the synagogue was rebuilt in 1025, contained 8 centuries of papers. A great quantity in the first two and a half centries of rebuilding; and then again 300 years later, with the wave of immigrants because of the Spanish inquisition. The last document: 1875, a divorce settlement written in Bombay. [40.]
In 1890 the 11th C building was torn down and rebuilt; this still stands, and now has been rejuvenated. [40-41.]
18th C: Masr was part of the Ottoman Empire, now enfeebled, allowed to retain its territories only by consent of the Great European Powers. The indian Ocean trde had been destroyed by European navies. Masr attracted attention as a potential bridge to the territories of the Indian Ocean. [60.]
also a new interest in the past of Egypt. A new scholarly interest.
First report of the Geniza in Europe: 1752 or 1753, the Jewish traveller Simon Van Geldern visited the Synagogue. But the interest was in Egypt of the ancients. [61.]
After Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the country attracted fresh attention. Still the Geniza remained unnoticed. [61.]
The scholarly attention begins in 1864. Egypt is now in British hands. Jacob Saphir scholar and collected of Judaic antiquities, visited the synagogue several times. He found the Geniza 2 and half storeys high, open to the sky. He took a few leaves with him. Published his account in 1866. [62-3.]
Soon after, the visit of Abraham Firkowitch, a Crimean Karaite Jew. His collection is now in the St Petersburg State Public Library. The MSS were bought in two lots; they contain a huge number of biblical MSS; but there is no way of knowing for sure which came from the Geniza. F never revealed his sources, because he had obtained many by swindle. He was merely following the method then usual in Western scholarship. [63.]
1888 visit of Elkan N. Adler to the Jewish community and its prominent families. No mention of the Geniza.
The Synagogue was rebuilt. The dispersal of the Geniza begins. [65.] Documents to Parish, Frankfurt, London, Vienna, Budapest. The Bodleian at Oxford.
Solomon Wertheimer of Jerusalem sent some documents of the Geniza to Solomon Schechter, who dismissed them as worthless. [66.]
Adler returned to Cairo in 1896. Took away a sackful of documents. Much of this is in the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York. [67.]
1896, Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson, Presbyterians, visited and carried away some documents. They made Schechter interested. Visited Cairo. Carried away 30 boxes and sacks of material. [72.] Given to the University of Cambridge Library: the Taylor-Schechter Collection. Here the story of Ben Yiju and his slave. [72.]
Other documents discovered in the Jewish cemetery of Fustat, at the turn of the century and a decade later. [72.]