In 1896, twins Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, experts in ancient manuscripts, decided to organize a trip to Egypt and Palestine. They returned to their native Cambridge carrying a sheaf of papers and parchments that they had bought from dealers. Since many were written in Hebrew, they were shown to the professor of rabbinism Solomon Schechter, who was surprised to discover that one of those documents was the original of the Book of Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus, written around 190 BC. C. “Please,” Schechter wrote to Agnes Lewis, “do not mention the matter to anyone. I will go to see you around 11 pm to discuss with you the question of how to make it public.” Thus began an exciting adventure that can be followed from September 15 at the exhibition The Golden Age of the Jews of Alandalús, at Madrid’s Centro Sefarad-Israel (Calle Mayor, 69).
At the beginning of the 11th century, the Umayyad dynasty – which had ruled al-Andalus for almost 250 years and which had Córdoba, Medina Azahara and Medina Azahira as great beacons of power, knowledge and opulence – was devastated by the arrival of the intransigent Almohads to the Iberian Peninsula. This Berber tribe was characterized by imposing, with blood and fire, the uniqueness of dogma and an austere life. The Jews would thus represent one of their main scapegoats: conversion or death. Therefore, thousands of them fled in terror to the part of the peninsula controlled by Christians, to French Provence or to Italy. The philosopher Maimonides, one of the most brilliant minds of the European Middle Ages, preferred to take refuge in Egypt with extensive documentation.
The British mathematician Charles Taylor listened attentively to Schechter. The rabbinism scholar needed money to go to Egypt and recover more texts. He was convinced that in the Ben Ezra synagogue, built in the 11th century in Cairo, there were more documents. In Jewish culture, when a text degrades over time, it is not thrown away, but rather kept in a room in the temple called a geniza, “a catch-all,” as the exhibition panels describe it. After a while, and after desacralizing them, they are buried. But in Cairo, “due to the Egyptian idiosyncrasy, fortunately these texts were never destroyed,” says José Martínez Delgado, professor of Semitic Studies at the University of Granada and curator of the exhibition. The climatic conditions of the area facilitated its conservation.
Letter to David “the great Nasi, head of the exile of all Israel”, from the end of the 11th century, from a woman suffering from a disfiguring disease that left her impoverished. Sefarad-Israel Center
Schechter thus found the greatest treasure he could ever dream of. The geniza kept Bibles, prayer books, shopping lists, marriage agreements, divorce deeds, school exercises, Arabic stories, books on philosophy, medicine, accounting, instructions on how to write correctly or how to recover a kidnapped loved one. …
As the Ben Ezra Synagogue was the social center of the Jewish community of Cairo, in addition to offering daily and festive acts of worship, it also played an important role as a place of teaching, business and charitable administration. Its faithful prayed there three times a day, but they also sent their children to study the Hebrew Bible, exchanged news in their surroundings or collected donations for the poor, refugees or the sick. This frenetic daily activity caused the documentation that was being generated to accumulate for centuries in the geniza, introduced without any order or concert through a hole that had been opened in one of its walls. A kind of library of destroyed books or papers – between 160,000 and 200,000 – that came from the Maghreb, al-Andalus, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Persia and that recounted in detail the daily life of the Jews in Muslim territory.
Among these texts there are 60 originals written by Maimonides himself, author of the well-known Guide for the Perplexed, where the man from Córdoba reconciles Aristotelian philosophy with the Bible and encourages the study of human and divine sciences to achieve full union with God. But as a human being – he wanted to die and was in bed for two years due to the pain caused by the death of his brother in a shipwreck – “he did what the rest of the people did,” explains Martínez, “for example, playing with glossaries of words”. One of them, which refers to vegetables and fruits, was written to try to remember the words that he knew in the Romance language, a language that he learned in the Córdoba of his childhood.
A young woman reads one of the panels of the exhibition ‘The Golden Age of the Jews in Alandalús’.Centro Sefarad-Israel
The exhibition allows us to delve into the life of a society that contributed names of diplomats such as Ibn Shaprut, poets such as Ibn Gabirol or Judá Haleví. Through facsimiles, virtual reproductions, images or recreations, a journey through time is undertaken that spans between the 10th and the end of the 19th centuries. The exhibition has been organized by the Sefarad-Israel Center, the University of Miami, the Network of Jewish Quarters of Spain, the World Jewish Congress and the Hispano-Jewish Foundation. It has the support of various Spanish and foreign universities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Union.
On March 31, 1492, the Catholic Monarchs signed the expulsion of the Jews from their kingdoms. Thus, almost 500 years after the Almohad, a second departure into exile occurs. “For Spanish Jews in the diaspora, Sefarad has always been present in their gastronomy, their literature, their music or their language, which they will maintain to this day, whether they are in the Balkans, Morocco, Turkey or Holland, or wherever they go. has led his life,” says José Martínez.
For Marta Puig, director of the Network of Jewish Quarters of Spain, “Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula was the most important in all of Europe, although the global impact of events such as the Holocaust have blurred that idea. We have to reconstruct our history and recover the legacy and its mark, even if it does not stand out as much in school books,” he asserts along with some verses found in the Cairo synagogue and written by a Jewish poet from the 11th century. They say like this: “Would you stay in Sepharad if you received half a kingdom from his lord?”
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