Universities raise £1.2m to save rare documents

Oxford and Cambridge Universities compete as fiercely in the academic arena as they do in the boat race.

But, in a unique partnership, the two rival institutions have joined forces to save a collection of rare medieval Hebrew documents for Britain.

They raised £1.2 million in six months to acquire 1,700 manuscript fragments that came originally from the Cairo Genizah, a depository for sacred texts .

The two universities already have substantial holdings from the Genizah — the most important source of documents about Jewish life in the Middle Ages dating from as early as the ninth century.

But the 1,700 items — known as the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection after the two sisters who brought them from Egypt in 1896 — belonged to Westminster College, a private theological college in Cambridge.

When Westminster decided to sell them, it offered them first to Cambridge.

But Cambridge thought the price was beyond it and invited Oxford to help.

“Nothing like this will come on the market again,” said Richard Ovenden, interim Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford. The partnership had “broken the mould,” he said. “It’s a fantastic moment.”

If the Lewis-Gibson collection had been auctioned, it might have been broken up and gone to private collectors. Now it can be digitised and made available to scholars across the world, who will be able to make links with other Genizah manuscripts.

One of its prizes is a piece of Maimonides’s commentary on the Mishnah in his own handwriting.

There is also a heart-rending letter in Judeo-Arabic from a Jewish mother who fled the Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099-1100 to Tripoli in Lebanon. Having witnessed the killing of her son, she record: “I am an ill woman on the brink of insanity, on top of the hunger of my family and little girl”.

Last updated: 9:45am, November 29 2013