Palimpsests: How Recycled Books Preserve Lost Treasures

Alexandra Trachsel

Ancient texts have sometimes come down to us through unexpected circumstances. This holds true even within so-called “manuscript traditions”, which involve the direct transmission of ancient documents by being copied and recopied to preserve them and give them further circulation. If they were not copied, such texts tended to disappear through natural damage and inevitable decay over many centuries. Fortunately, many thousands of manuscripts have been preserved by accident and good fortune, or have been rediscovered after long periods of neglect, when all had presumed them lost.

A particularly fascinating example of an unusual process of textual transmission is found in the collections of the University of Geneva in Switzerland, where it has only recently been deciphered and made available to the public. This document, usually referred to by its inventory number Genizah Ms. 17, consists of a single leaf of parchment measuring about 16.3 cm in height and 12.0 cm in width. It is, therefore, even smaller than the size of two open pages of any volume from the Loeb Classical Library.

An open volume of the Loeb Classical Library.

Genizah Ms. 17 is what we call a palimpsest. The exceptional circumstances that ensured its preservation provide a glimpse of how palimpsests were produced, as a means of dealing with shortages of expensive writing material.

The word palimpsest is a transliteration of the Greek word παλίμψηστος (palimpsēstos). It literally means “scraped again”, from παλίν (palin) “once more” and the verb ψάω (psaō) “to scrape”. The term describes a sheet of parchment that has been prepared for reuse by scratching off what was originally written on it so that a new text can be written on top of it.

The famous “Archimedes Palimpsest“, in which the 10th-century text of Archimedes’ works was washed away and overwritten by a Christian liturgical text in the 13th century. In 1998, the manuscript emerged from a private collection, and two hitherto lost works of Archimedes were rediscovered.

This technique of recycling was not uncommon throughout the mediaeval period, when parchment was sometimes scarce on account of its time-consuming production process and consequent expense. Scribes felt compelled to reuse pages from works that no longer seemed important, as surfaces for writing out copies of ancient texts that they wished to preserve and perhaps put into circulation.

Palimpsests also existed in antiquity, but the procedure was different. If papyrus was used as a writing surface, the ink could easily be erased with water, or with the help of a paste. The recipe for at least one such paste has been preserved:

By the following process one can likewise make used papyrus sheets clean again so that they look as though they had never before been written on. Take some sodium bicarbonate and dissolve it in water. Then, when the soda solution has formed, add one part of ‘raw’ dirt [i.e. dirt that has not been exposed to sunlight], one part Cimolian earth, and also cows milk, so that it all forms a viscous mixture. Then mix in oil of mastic, and apply the mixture with a feather. Let it dry, then peel it off, and you will find the surface white. If it remains a deep yellow, apply it again. If dealing with a papyrus sheet, coat only the characters.[1]

A sample page of papyrus, which shows clearly the perpendicular interweaving of strips.

As a writing material papyrus was too fragile for scraping. It is made out of pieces taken from the stalk of the papyrus plant. Thus, sheets of papyrus crumble when the surface is scratched or rubbed too roughly.[2] The palimpsest technique was more appropriate for parchment, which is made out of animal skin (usually those of goats, calves or sheep).[3]

The Ben Ezra Synagogue (© Susanna Petrin).

Genizah Ms. 17

The story of Genizah Ms. 17 begins in Cairo, in the famous Ben Ezra Synagogue. In 1896, two scholars from Cambridge, Solomon Schechter (1847–1915) and Charles Taylor (1840–1908), became interested in the ‘Genizah’, the storage room for discarded religious items and documents, from the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

Inside the Ben Ezra Synagogue (© Susanna Petrin).

It is believed that this repository may have been in use from the 9th century onwards, yet it remained all but unnoticed until the end of the 19th century, when the synagogue was rebuilt. Schechter and Taylor were alerted to the Genizah’s rediscovery by two learned women, the twin sisters Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843–1920) and Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926) who were among Schechter’s closer friends in Cambridge. The twins acquired some documents from the Genizah and brought them back to England. It did not take Schechter and Taylor long to identify the texts on these manuscripts and appreciate their exceptional value. Indeed, since the Cairo Genizah boasted a wealth of ancient texts that had accumulated over centuries, these men decided to acquire these documents for themselves.

Thus began the Taylor-Schechter Collection of the University of Cambridge. But these were neither the first nor the only nineteenth-century scholars interested in the Cairo Genizah, although their collection of these texts would become the largest. Jules Nicole (1842–1921), Professor of Greek from the University of Geneva, purchased a small number of documents from the Genizah in 1898 and brought them to Geneva. Other such collections are held by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, various other university libraries around the world, and some private owners. Most of these collections feature palimpsests, such as Genizah Ms. 17, which was one of Jules Nicole’s purchases.

© Geneva, Library of Geneva, Genizah Ms. 17.

This document’s presence in the Cairo Genizah is explained by the later added “upper script”. The Hebrew text has been deciphered as a pair of liturgical poems (piyyutim). As sacred texts, these could not simply be thrown away, so they were stored in the Genizah to await ritual burial. Yet the now lower first text is not of Jewish origin, and is an extract of a martyrological text that tells of how a Christian named Plato (no relation to the philosopher: in the Greek Orthodox tradition he is known as Saint Plato the Great of Ancyra) refused to worship the pagan gods and was put to death.

This latter text has been identified as an excerpt from an anonymous Byzantine version of the Passion of St Plato of Ancyra. As such, it raises any number of questions. When was the document produced? Who wrote it? How much time elapsed between the martyrdom of St Plato of Ancyra and the moment the text was copied on this sheet of parchment? What happened to the parchment after the text was written? How was this page torn out of its original context and reused for writing down Hebrew poems? Finally, how did it end up in the Cairo Genizah?

Most of these questions remain unanswered; still, a thorough study of the physical features of the parchment (which we call “codicology”) and research into the historical context of the figures mentioned in the text yield some clues.

Analysis of the handwriting (“palaeography”) focuses on the the shape of the letters and the regularity of their flow; these tendencies allow us to date this document to the late fifth or early sixth century AD. The writing style also suggests that the codex from which this leaf was taken was probably produced somewhere in the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin. Beyond this we cannot reasonably speculate further. There is no evidence whatsoever to help us understand how this text ended up in a Jewish community that reused the parchment to write down some liturgical poetry. Nothing can be known for certain about how it arrived in Cairo, and then at its final destination, the Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

St Plato of Ancyra.

At least we know that this piece of parchment has twice been thought obsolete. The first time was at some point after the sixth century, when the text of St Plato’s martyrdom was seen as irrelevant to the needs of the Jewish community that reused the page for its own purposes. But eventually, this palimpsest was seen – for whatever reason – as being of no further use, so it was deposited (or disposed of?) in the Cairo Genizah. Yet, ironically enough, it was this double obsolescence which created the very circumstances that allowed the document to be preserved and deciphered so that it can be read today!

St Plato of Ancyra, the Christian martyr named in the text, is known through an inscription that may be dated to the 5th century AD,[4] but the story of his struggles with the Roman authorities presumes an earlier context, presumably the Diocletianic persecutions of Christians (AD 303–5).[5] An anecdote concerning a Christian who was martyred for refusing to worship Roman gods is not likely to have taken place after AD 313, when Christianity became officially tolerated by the Roman Empire. This approximate dating helps define the broader historical context in which the author of the martyrological text wanted to situate his narrative.

This time-frame also allows us to establish that the text must have been copied several times over two centuries before being written down on the page that has been preserved as Genizah Ms. 17. It is indeed the oldest known textual witness for the story of St Plato of Ancyra. But nothing can be known of its authors or of the state of the text before the sixth century. The document should therefore also remind us of the instability of ancient texts, as well as our limitations when it comes to knowing about the different stages such a text passed through before its wording was finally fixed.

Documents like Genizah Ms. 17 are exceptionally precious. They were preserved due to exceptional circumstances, and survived despite being discarded by their owners. They may be studied as fascinating and enigmatic objects from remote times, and as unique carriers of ancient texts – even if they can often pose us scholars more questions than answers.

Alexandra Trachsel is Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Hamburg. Her current research topic focuses on the transmission of knowledge, and she studies ancient quotation practices in imperial miscellanies. Further interests of hers include Homer, Homeric scholarship and its frustratingly fragmentary state of preservation.

Further Reading

Good starting points to learn more about the Genizah corpus are M. Glickman, Sacred treasure — The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic (Woodstock, VT, 2011), and A. Hoffman and P. Cole, Sacred Trash: the Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (New York, 2011). The first instalment of my two-part article on this palimpsest was published last year: “Genizah Ms. 17: an Extract from an Early Version of the Passio of St Plato of Ancyra, Part 1,” Philologus 164 (2020) 277–99 (Part 2 is forthcoming).

Some methodological and practical problems posed by palimpsests are raised by T. Schmidt, “Greek Palimpsest Papyri: Some Open Questions,” in J. Frösén, T. Purola and E. Salmenkivi (eds.), Proceedings of the 24th International Congress of Papyrology, Helsinki 1–7 August (Societas Scientiarum Fennica, Helsinki, 2007) Vol. 2, 979–90. For broader context about the transmission of Greek and Latin texts from antiquity into the modern world, L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars. A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. (4th ed. Oxford UP, 2013) is unsurpassed.


1 P. Holmiensis § 12; fol. γ, ll. 18–29: text and translation adapted from Schmidt 2007. The Greek text is as follows: αὕτη δὲ καὶ χάρτας γεγραμμένους πάλιν ψᾶ, ὥστε δοκεῖν μηδέποτε γεγράφθαι. λαβὼν ἀφρόνιτρον τῆξον εἰς ὕδωρ. εἶτα κατὰ τὸ γεγενῆσαν νίτρωμα προσέμβαλε γῆς ἐμπάσα(ς) ὠμῆς μέ(ρος) α’ καὶ γῆc κιμωλίας μέ(ρος) α’ καὶ γάλα βόϊον, ὡς πάντα μιγέντα γενέσθαι γλοιώδη, καὶ προσμίξας σχίνου χυλοῦ κατάχρισον πτερῷ. καὶ ἐάσας ξηρανθῆναι, εἶτα ἀπολέπισον, εὑρήσεις λευκά. ἐὰν δὲ κατὰ βάθους ᾖ κιρρά, πάλιν ἐπίρχιε, ἐὰν δὲ εἰς χάρτην, μόνα τὰ γράμματα χρῖε.
2 Further details of this process are given here.
3 A good account of the complex process of producing parchment is given here.
4 Inscriptiones Christianae Graecae 2441: “Here lies Georgios, servant of God and most God-fearing chief presbyter (of the church) of the holy and glorious martyr Platon.”  ἔνθα κατάκιτε | ὁ δοῦλος τοῦ θ(εο)ῦ | ὁ εὐσεβέσ- | τατος προ- | τοπρεσβ(ύτερος) | Γεώργις | τοῦ ἁγίου | καὶ ἐνδό- | ξου μάρτυ- | ρος Πλάτον- | ος (text and translation: Pawel Nowakowski, Cult of Saints, E01007, accessible here). Further information is given here.
5 T. D. Barnes, Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History (Tübingen, 2010) 11–50.

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