Archive for May 26th, 2011


May 26, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


‘Horse-latitudes. A space between the westerly winds of higher latitudes and the trade-winds, notorious for tedious calms. The name arose from our old navigators often throwing the horses overboard which they were transporting to America and the West Indies.’


From: The Sailor’s Word-Book, by Admiral W.H. Smyth, Blackie, London, 1876.




Sacred Trash

in Current Reading | Comments (1)


Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Schocken, New York, 2011.

The story of the Cairo Geniza – that great treasure-trove of documents from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo – is both fascinating and immensely complicated. It is a tale filled with interesting characters, extraordinary coincidences, deplorable errors and astonishing discoveries. I touched upon some aspects of this story in In An Antique Land and I remember thinking at that time: ‘Why hasn’t someone written a book about this? It would read like a thriller.’

Yet I can’t say I was really surprised that such a book had not been written. To call the task formidable would be to greatly understate the case: no one could even think of tackling it without being conversant with medieval Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and a wide range of European languages. In An Antique Land deals with only a small set of Geniza documents – the letters of Abraham Ben Yiju – and it took me years to acquire the necessary linguistic and orthgraphic skills. To write about the full range of Geniza documents – which include not only letters but also liturgical and scriptural texts, poetry, community records and much else – would be far beyond my abilities.

Well, I am glad to say the story of the Geniza has now been told and it does indeed read like a thriller. Sacred Trash is entertaining, lucid, enormously erudite and extremely well-written. Between them the writers possess all the scholarly equipment and narrative gifts that are required for the telling of this tale, and they have done a marvelous job of it.  The Geniza is one of the world’s richest and greatest archives: Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole have given it the biography it deserves.

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