Janet Soskice, 2009.
Agnes and Margaret Smith were born (twins) in 1843. Their father was a lawyer. He was left around £7 million by his uncle, and when he himself died in 1866 Agnes and Margaret were unmarried at 23 and very rich. They immediately travelled to Egypt. They are known particularly for their discoveries of early versions of the Gospels at St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, and their editing and translation work on these texts. Their expedition to Sinai in 1892 was evidently very difficult and there were arguments with the people who went with them – other scholars and their wives. Throughout the sister’s lives they struggled both with public perception that they had fallen over manuscripts by chance, rather than setting out, via extensive planning and study, to find them, and also with press reports that minimised other scholars’ participation and therefore alienated their colleagues. These things may appear to be opposed, but in fact were not – as the press were able to exclude other scholars from accounts at the same time as presenting Agnes and Margaret as untutored.
Soskice’s description of the expedition and the interpersonal stuff is gripping and often wince-inducing, and she also makes it clear what difficult work – physically as well as intellectually – the photocopying, copying and translating of the texts was. But I was less interested in the actual results of their work on the Gospels than in their discoveries in Cairo in 1896 leading to their friend Solomon Schechter’s discovery (if that’s the correct word) of the Cairo genizah:
[Schechter] spent many hours, stretching into days, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee with the Chief Rabbi [of Cairo] until this patient nurturing was rewarded with trust and the rabbi took him, by carriage [not sure why she specifies the type of transport], to Cairo’s oldest synagogue, the Ben Ezra. At the end of one of the galleries was an opening high in the wall and accessible only by ladder. Schechter climbed up and peered down into a ‘windowless and doorless room of fair dimensions’. The sight that met his eyes was one to thrill and appal the scholar: a chaos of books and papers, manuscripts and printed texts, tossed in at random over eight centuries. He had found, as he suspected he might, a genizah.
A genizah, as Schechter explained in a letter to The Times  is an institution that takes its name: ‘from the Hebrew verb ‘ganaz’ and signifies treasure-house or hiding place. When applied to books it means much the same thing as burial in the case of men. When the spirit is gone, we put the corpse out of sight to protect it from abuse. In like manner, when the writing is worn out, we hide it to preserve it from profanation.’
Developed Jewish law determined that no document containing the four letters of the Holy Name, or Tetragammaton, should be destroyed. …
As well as ‘dead’ books, Schechter explained, genizot became home to ailing or invalided books (some of whose pages might be missing) and to ‘disgraced’ books whose contents were deemed not entirely orthodox. In time, any document written in the sacred language – love songs and wine songs, wills, marriage contracts, letters of divorce – might find its way into a genizah. The window high on the wall of the Ben Ezra synagogue was a postbox to nowhere that, for 800 years, had received the offcast Hebrew writings of Cairo’s Jewish community.
Soskice quotes more of Schechter’s letter to The Times:
It is a battlefield of books, a battle in which the literary productions of many centuries had their share, and their disjecta membra are now strewn over its area. Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others … are squeezed into big, unshapely lumps, which even with the aid of chemical appliances can no longer be separated without serious damage to their constituents. In their present condition these lumps sometimes afford curiously suggestive combinations; as, for instance, when you find a piece of some rationalistic work in which the very existence of either angel or devil is denied, clinging for its very life to an amulet in which these same beings (mostly the latter) are bound over to be on their good behaviour and not to interfere with Miss Yair’s love for somebody.
Agnes and Margaret joined Schechter in Cairo in January 1897 to work on the archive. Soskice lists some of the finds:
fragments of old Talmuds; old and forgotten hymns; rabbinic Midrash; a draft copy in his own hand of the Guide to the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides … many personal documents, such as a letter to Maimonides from his brother … a letter from a schoolmaster about a child’s bad behaviour, ‘As soon as he comes in, he starts fighting with his sister and cursing her incessantly’ … from a father to a schoolmaster, ‘Please don’t spank my son for being late. His homework delayed him’. There are a young child’s doodles from the eleventh century; letters from wives to distant husbands, ‘We have weaned the baby. Do not ask me what we suffer for him: trouble, crying, sleepless nights’ … A woman from Jerusalem writes [in 1567], in Yiddish, to her son in Cairo, asking him to bring the grandchildren to see her …
The book also describes the sisters’ later lives in Cambridge (they had both married, but neither of their husbands lived long) and gives a sense of that society and some of the problems for women in it, and the sisters’ achievements despite this.
Photograph from 1914 – Agnes and Margaret are the two older women to the left:
Good quote from Margaret from late 1890s or early nineteenth century, when they were living in Cambridge and involved with St Columba’s church mission. She “was asked by a young Sunday School teacher to visit a pupil about whom she was anxious. Margaret went at once, and reported back, ‘You are quite right. The father does drink. If I lived in a house like theirs, I should drink too’.”
Wd be interesting to read Agnes’s novels – Effie Maxwell and Glenmavis.
Quotes Florence Nightingale’s reaction to exploring the ruins in Egypt then having to return to mundane conversation: “It is very hard to be all day by the deathbed of the greatest of your race, and to come home and talk about quails or London”.
Genizah in Wikipedia
Agnes and Margaret in Wikipedia, including links to texts of their books.
Article about the Cairo Genizah collection now at Cambridge.
Short film about the Cairo Genizah.
IN THE SHADOW OF SINAI: A STORY OF TRAVEL AND RESEARCH FROM 1895-1897 and How the Codex was found : a narrative of two visits to Sinai from Mrs. Lewis’s journals, 1892-1893