Indo-Egyptian mystery

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Lameen Souag, "A little mystery: an unidentified Indic language in the Genizah collection", Jabal al-Lughat 10/14/2013:

In 1896, Cambridge bought a huge archive of documents from a synagogue in Cairo, starting as early as the 11th century: the Genizah collection. Most of them are in Arabic in the Hebrew script – or just in Hebrew – but the rest cover a wide variety of languages. One of them should be an interesting puzzle for any readers familiar with South Asian languages: the fragment below is obviously in Devanagari or some derivative, but so far no one has been able to determine what language it is written in or what it says. Given the trade connections revealed by the letters, it would probably have come from Kerala, or maybe later on Bombay, but there are no guarantees…

Any ideas?



  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    There are multiple Penn connections with the genizah fragments:

    So far as I know, the foremost scholar of the genizah fragments was S. D. Goitein, who was affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania from 1957. When I came to Penn in 1979, I often heard my colleagues in Oriental Studies mention S. D. Goitein, occasionally with hushed reverence, and I keenly recall that he was given a lifetime MacArthur award in 1983 (he died in 1985).

    Here is a fine article on the Cairo genizah:

    The Bibliography to this article lists many Ph.D. dissertations related to the genizah fragments that were written at the University of Pennsylvania. This is undoubtedly due to Goitein's presence at Penn. It is clear from all of this that Goitein played a central role in genizah studies. Moreover, Goitein paid particular attention to the role of trade with India:


    Goitein also gathered over 400 letters on the Mediterranean trade with India. This commerce, which went by way of Egypt, East Africa, and South Arabia, was the chief economic factor in the status quo of the countries of the Middle East. Not only did Goitein discover complete itineraries of the journey to India, descriptions of the dangerous voyage through the Indian Ocean, and the names and prices of numerous goods which made up that trade, but he also found eyewitness accounts of events barely known from the writings of the Arabic historians. One such account, in a letter from Aden to Egypt, gives a detailed description of the number of soldiers, the types of boats, and even the military tactics used by the rulers of the island of Kish (in the Persian Gulf) when they tried to extend their control over the sea route to India by conquering Aden.


    Indeed, Goitein was convinced that the India trade was key to understanding many aspects of the economic and cultural development of the Middle East, and he was working on a large project devoted to research on this subject when he died six years after I came to Penn.

    Now to contact my many friends in Indology and Indian Studies. I'm pretty sure that some of them will be able to read the document pictured above. I can almost make out parts of the text myself, but it will be a lot easier for specialists on Indian languages to identify and interpret it.

  2. Bill Benzon said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 8:53 am

    This remark is not directly related to the fragments, but: "I keenly recall that he was given a lifetime MacArthur award in 1983 (he died in 1985)." Interesting.

    I believe that three of those were given out. The first went to biologist Barbara McClintock in 1981; she was 79 at the time. I wonder who got the third?

  3. Ben said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 9:36 am

    There's a good popularizing book, In an Ancient Land, on the Cairo Genizah and the role of Jewish traders on India's Malabar Coast by the novelist Amitav Ghosh.

  4. Ben said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    And by Ancient I mean Antique.

  5. Leopold said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    I'm just posting this as a shortcut so you can go straight to the Cambridge site which shows the other side of the fragment. The only guess I would make right now has to do with the last few lines of the verso side – it looks like in the second and third lines from the bottom, roughly in the middle, is "40 S 41." The "S" only represents a similar looking penstroke there, which might be something like a slash meaning 40 out of 41? In the third line from the bottom there is "20 S 20 ||" and at the beginning of the second line from the bottom, "15 / 15 ||" (there it actually looks like a slash). So as a Geniza document, I would guess this could potentially be some kind of inventory of cargo. Does anyone know what that S means?

  6. Piyush said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    I am not a linguist, but somehow this looks to me like Kaithi Kaithi, a close relative of Devanagari which was much in vogue among traders and accountants in North India, but which lost the battle of standardization to Devanagari.

    I can make out some isolated Hindi words: "भारी" (heavy) near the middle of line 4. "क्या" near the middle of the 6th line, and what looks like "काशी" (Kashi, one of the several names of Varanasi) right after it.

    Given the period it is from (late 19th century?), and given that the script looks like Kaithi, my wild guess would be that language is Awadhi or Bhojpuri [since Kaithi was popular mostly in eastern UP and Bihar].

    But take all my guesses with buckets of salt. As I said, I am not a linguist. I am a native speaker of Hindi, but my knowledge of its precursors and sister dialects like Awadhi and Bhojpuri is rather minimal.

  7. Rubrick said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

    I like your somewhat unconventional yet apt use of the "WTF" tag for this one, Mark.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 6:35 pm


    "WTF" is a convenient catch-all for when we're flummoxed:

    From time to time, that includes being faced with a language concerning which we're completely or relatively clueless, e.g.,

    "Postcard language puzzle"

  9. sreadystare said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 3:51 am

    Seeing that the script is pre-modern Gujrati,it looks like that manuscript could be traced to 1750s-1800s Surat.Surat was a major trading center(which was eclipsed by Bombay after the British acquired it) during that period,and this is likely to be a trading document of that era.

  10. Colin Fine said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 9:22 am

    Piyush, sreadystare : the description from Cambridge says it's much older than your guesses.

  11. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    Somewhat off-topic, but do we have any records of South Asian languages in Hebrew script?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    From Raili Roy:

    A few letters look like Hindi, but I cannot make out the whole text. It surely referering to wealth of some sort as I can recognize the word dhan धन.

    From Babu Suthar:

    It seems to be Gujarati. I can decipher some words but not with certainty. If we have some more documents we can perhaps try.

  13. Bala Menon said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

    Gujarati seems most likely, because many of the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean traders were from the Gujarat coast. The Middle Eastern/West Asian trade extended right across the western coast of India up to Malabar in the south.

  14. Hal Schiffman said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

    I'm sorry but I don't recognize anything in this script.
    It does not seem to be a South Indian script, or a version
    of any of them.

  15. Lameen said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 1:40 am

    Thanks for passing this on. Re South Asian languages in Hebrew Script: as far as I know, Judeo-Malayalam was just written in Malayalam script. To Babu Suthar: there are three sides to look at, see (as posted by Leopold.)

  16. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 6:28 am

    From Ramya Sreenivasan:

    It looks like western Indian (Gujarat / Rajasthan) but still written in the Nagari script, my hunch is earlier rather than later based on the materials I am familiar with; if from Gujarat, for it to use Nagari script rather than Gujarati script (derived from Nagari), it would be between about eleventh and fifteenth centuries; but Deven may have a better sense of this than I, or I could ask my colleague Samira Sheikh at Vanderbilt.

    If it is from Rajasthan, then it could be anywhere between eleventh and sixteenth or even seventeenth centuries, going by script alone. And from the orthography, this was someone quite educated, it is a neat hand.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 6:30 am

    Ramya answers the question that had been bothering me since the consensus emerged that this is some kind of Gujarati: why isn't it written in Gujarati script?

  18. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 6:55 am

    Ramya commented further:


    Is it possible for you to send me a better scan with larger characters? I could piece together a couple of words but this one is hard to read and it wouldn't zoom in if I double-clicked.


    My reply:

    Thank you very much, Ramya. If you go directly to Lameen Souag's original post and click on the image, you can enlarge it.

    Also, follow the instructions in Leopold's comment to the Cambridge site which shows the other side of the fragment:

    This gives you a lot more of the writing to examine (and there is even a third fragment at the bottom, though it probably won't be very useful for you). The recto and verso of T-S AS 159.248 available on the Cambridge site are sufficiently large and clear that you might be able to make progress by working directly on them.

    An additional tip: often when I'm looking at manuscripts online (e.g., the International Dunhuang Project's magnificent collection), if — after zooming as much as the site will allow — I still feel the need for additional enlargement, I will put a magnifying glass next to my computer screen, and that will enable me to make out a lot more details than can be seen with the naked eye.

  19. David Stern said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 9:36 am

    Just to add to the previous comments: There is a fascinating book
    by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh entitled In an Antique Land which
    deals in detail with the correspondence between a Jewish merchant
    from Cairo and his Indian "agent/slave" living in India. One of the most valuable letters is one owned by the library of Penn's Center for Advanced
    Judaic Studies; Ghosh's book ends with him in the library of the Center on 4th and Walnut? Goitein also has another book on Letters of Medieval Jewish Travelers, which also contains a number of items relating to Jewish trade with India. The best book on the history of the Cairo Genizah, its modern discovery, and the scholars who have worked on it is the wonderful, extremely readable and entertaining Sacred Trash by Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman,
    David Stern

  20. Leopold said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 11:14 am

    If this is some type of Gujarati (whether language or script), then I am curious to know what specific letters or forms lead to that conclusion. I have no reason to doubt that it is, and know nothing about Gujarati. There are a few letters that are more interesting, like the ones I have included in the following page which I hope people can access:

    Are there any letters/symbols that are definitely not Devanagari, and which are either identifiable as Gujarati or Kaithi, or are completely unknown? The first letter on the link (which for lack of a better term looks like the Japanese の), for example – I can't find it in any Gujarati alphabet chart, and I don't think it's a handwriting-style ग.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    From Richard Salomon:

    From dim memory: Gujarati script as now known first appears around 1500 AD, and didn't become the standard until 19th century. Until recently, there were a wide variety of non-standardized scripts/styles/hand all over northern India, especially in the west; it is, after all, India.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

    From Ramya Sreenivasan:

    It's quite definitely western India, Gujarat most likely — I am currently in Madison and my chart for reading old western Indian orthography is sitting in my office at Penn — I will figure this out when I get back early next week.

    But it's recording money transactions of some sort — towards the end of the second fragment are references to 20 rupees and odd change, and 40 rupees …

  23. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    From Guy Welbon:

    Can contribute very little after only a quick glance.
    Certainly the script is a "version" of nagari. (If we're
    limited to 10th – 13th centuries — both for the paper and
    the writing thereon, we shouldn't expect to see mature
    kaithi or modi.) The author/scribe was well-trained and
    experienced. If the provenance is Western/West Coastal
    India, a form of Old Marathi (or anyway a close relative
    of maharastri) would be just as likely as Old Gujarati.

    I'll continue to play with this.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    From Mordechai A. Friedman:

    This fragment was described by Gideon Bohak in the following site:

    As I already told Bohan, I regret that I have no suggestions for identifying the language.

    The blog writers spoke of Goitein's years at Penn and his Geniza research on India. Goitein supervised my PhD (1969) at Penn on Geniza research. I have devoted many years to his unfinished "Geniza Book" study.

    Note should be made of our book

    S. D. Goitein & M. A. Friedman, India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza (‘India Book’), Leiden and Boston (Brill and Ben Zvi Institute) 2008.

    An additional five volumes of the India Book have been published in Hebrew. Unfortunately, none of this sheds light on the language in this fragment.

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