Traces of life and colour in dusty archives

Archaeologists and conservators whom I copyedit for, sometimes speak of the muddy brown sludge they come across in their excavations, which on careful examination turns out to be fragments of colourful textiles from bygone times.

Historians too can have similar experiences with archive material. There is a special moment, where one opens an archive box, sifts through the contents and suddenly gets lost in time. For a moment, one can feel the frisson of history.

Sometimes, it is those least expected finds, a pithy hand-written comment by a famous 20th-century statesman on the margins of a civil servant’s report, or as my colleague Sidsel Frisch found in an archive the other day, a doodle on a letter from a 17th-century statesman, that give life and colour to brittle paper.

By chance, I came across the most marvelous of archives, in an article by the late Yedida Kalfon Stillman who researched into female dress in medieval Egypt through the material in the old Cairo Geniza, “The importance of the Cairo Geniza Manuscripts for the History of Medieval female Attire”. The hues of the textiles she mentions in “Cover her Face”, p. 27 in T. Parfitt, ed., 2000:

Sky blue, cloud blue, chick pea, the hue of partridge eyes, emerald, pearl, pistachio green, pomegranate red, peppery grey, saffron, turmeric, apricot, quince coloured, mandrake

…are colours that spring out from the dusty papers in the Genizah manuscripts. They allow us a glimpse of the international textile trade in colorful fabrics and dyes in medieval times that stretched from the North African desert, through the Mediterranean and Red Sea ports to India and China.

The thousands of documents, mostly in fragments languished in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo where they had been stored in its genizah (a room where documents containing references to the divine were put, as they could not be thrown away as rubbish). Thus, not an archive in the traditional sense where papers are carefully preserved for later generations, but “sacred trash” as a book about the subject is entitled.

Over a 1000 years, from the 9th to the 19th centuries, these documents, in various languages including Judeo Arabic, accumulated and gathered dust. Religious, poetical and texts on magic and alchemy, legal documents, dowry lists, business and family letters and trading accounts, and above all, the very writings of the philosopher Maimonides, and what could technically be called the fusion music of Obadiah the Proselyte from Apulia. Over 75 libraries and collections around the world hold various fragments of the documents, including a single precious document, a letter, here in Copenhagen. Today, a great deal of scholarship is done worldwide, and exciting digital projects afoot to piece them together and make them accessible to the world online.

Volunteering in a real life archive, observing life behind the scenes, the interaction of the townspeople with the archive, the research enquiries that come in, and above all, the archive’s treasures – the as yet untold stories waiting to be found in the archive shelves, enable me to see the crafting of history in a new light.