We had to content ourselves with a peep ... at this lumber-room, the Genizah, whence have issued from time to time so many ragged scraps of writing to make glad the hearts of European scholars
Agnes Smith Lewis, Palestinian Syriac Texts, London 1900, viii
In August 2013 Cambridge University Library and the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, jointly purchased 1700 medieval Jewish manuscripts collected by the twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843–1920). The manuscripts were acquired by the two Scotswomen as they passed through Egypt on their adventurous visits to the monastery at St Catherine’s, Sinai, to inspect its ancient library towards the end of the nineteenth century. On their return home to Cambridge, their friend Solomon Schechter was able to identify one of their purchases as the lost Hebrew original of the book of Ben Sira (known in the Christian tradition as Ecclesiasticus), a momentous discovery. He travelled to Cairo to find the source of the manuscripts, uncovering the remarkable hoard known as the Cairo Genizah and bringing 200,000 medieval Jewish fragments back to Cambridge University Library, the famous Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection.
The sisters donated the leaf of Ecclesiasticus to the UL, but gave the rest of their manuscripts to Westminster College, a theological college of the United Reformed Church. Their collection, one of the first to be extracted from the synagogue’ s storeroom, possesses its fair share of rare and unique items, including autograph drafts of Maimonides’ literary works, large and handsome leaves from 11th and 12th century Bibles, early Christian Palestinian Aramaic palimpsests, and an eyewitness account of the Seljuk Turks’ 11th-century invasion of the Holy Land.
In 2012, Westminster decided to offer the collection for sale to the UL for £1.2 million. Cambridge, for the first time, entered into a partnership to purchase the manuscripts with Oxford, and following a successful public appeal the Lewis-Gibson Collection is now jointly owned by the two institutions. The Polonsky Foundation made a lead gift of £500,000 to the joint endeavour. Cambridge received generous donations of £350,000, arranged through the late Robert (Roby) Littman, a Director of the Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, and £100,000 from the Parasol Foundation. These, and other donations, have enabled us to conserve the manuscripts to modern standards of preservation and to digitise the whole collection, allowing it to be freely accessible online for the first time.
An article on the conservation of the Lewis-Gibson collection can be found on the Special Collections Blog.