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Arabic Poetry in the Cairo Genizah

Published May 08, 2018 by Dr Mohamed A H Ahmed

Cairo Genizah, Arabic Poetry, Jewish Studies, Judaeo-Arabic Poetry, Hebrew Poetry

The Cairo Genizah is a most fertile resource for Jewish studies. Through its religious materials it is invaluable to the study, for example, of the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash, and with its wealth of documents, it is the source for medieval Middle Eastern Jewish history. Equally important is its contribution to the study of Hebrew poetry in general and of piyyuṭ (liturgical poetry).  

Fragment T-S Ar.30.71 (1r), Cambridge University Library, All rights reserved

Unlike the Hebrew liturgical poetry, Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic poetry in the Cairo Genizah is an area that has hitherto received very little attention. While many scholars have worked on the Hebrew poetry, with extensive collections collated in books and on websites, the Arabic material has been largely neglected. If mentioned at all in catalogues, labelling is mostly limited to 'Arabic poetry', without any further details, and the large majority of sources still await description. 

Poetry is one of the earliest genres of Arabic literature and certainly considered its most popular. As Arabic speakers, Jews adopted this creative literary writing in the pre-Islamic period. For instance, the Jewish poet Samaw'al ibn Jarīd ibn 'Ādiyā' who lived in Arabia during the 6th century. There is evidence of shared interest in poetry between Jews and Muslims from the 7th century onwards, which lasted through the ages until modern times. The emergence of secular Hebrew poetry in Andalusia was a direct consequence of exposure to Arabic poetry traditions, such as in meter and rhyme. Al-Ḥarīzī (ca. 1166–1225) was one of the Jewish poets who wrote in both Arabic and Hebrew. Medieval Judaeo-Arabic poetry (Arabic poetry written in Hebrew script) can be found in many fragments in the Cairo Genizah, which adds further evidence of this intertwined Judaeo-Islamic heritage.

A trial survey of the Genizah's Arabic poems written in both Hebrew and Arabic script, put together for the development of a funding proposal together with Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner, showed very encouraging results.

The survey showed that Genizah fragments hold poems mainly written in Hebrew script (i.e., in Judaeo-Arabic) and fewer written in Arabic script. The topics are varied, including secular and religious poetry, although love poetry is the dominant theme. Poetry by ­­­various Fatimid authors, such as Tamīm al-Fātīmī (948 – 984), can be found in the Cairo Genizah, which are held at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collections of Cambridge University Library. The genres and poetic themes are variable and wide-ranging, including, traditional Arabic poetic genres: romantic poetry (ḡazal), elegy (riṯā'), descriptive poem (waṣf), eulogy (madīḥ), literary poetry: muwaššaḥāt (girdled) and vernacular poetry: zajal (shout). Some pieces are conserved in both Arabic and Hebrew script next to each other, we can find eulogies for the prophet Muḥammad, and handbooks about poetic meters. The most important feature of the Cairo Genizah poetry presented here are verses of famous poems which have only been preserved in Judaeo-Arabic fragments. The findings also suggest that the Genizah has preserved some Arabic poems in versions that are several hundred years older than the extent manuscripts from other collections and, therefore, demonstrates how useful and vital the Cairo Genizah could be for the recovery of lost works, or of more original versions. This confirms the extreme importance of the Cairo Genizah as an abundant resource for Arabic literature and Arabic poetry and shows the need for further study of the Arabic poetry in the Cairo Genizah. 

Dr Mohamed Ahmed is a native speaker of Arabic, an expert of Hebrew and composes Arabic poetry himself. Mohamed research interests lie in the areas of bilingualism, sociolinguistic variation between Arabic and Hebrew, code-switching in Modern Hebrew and medieval Judaeo-Arabic textsMohamed mainly works with Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner on Arabic letters of The Prize Paper Collections in the National Archives in Kew Gardens, in a project entitled: "From Tuscany to Alexandria: Arabic Letters in the Prize Paper Collections"



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