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Red Glasses from Beirut

All About Glass

In his monumental study of documents from the Cairo Genizah, the late S.D. Goitein drew attention to a letter requesting, among other items, "a wickerwork basket with red glasses from Beirut, and if they cannot be had, white glasses."1 The letter, which is written in Arabic but with Hebrew characters, was sent to Cairo from Aden, in the 1130s.2

The reference to "red glasses" catches the eye for two reasons. First, if the words really refer to red glass, the writer was requesting something that was rather rare in the 12th century. Second, opaque red dishes and bowls have been found in early Islamic contexts in Jerusalem and at other sites in Israel,3 and it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the objects mentioned in the letter were of the same general type as the objects found in the ground.

The purpose of this note is to draw attention to the fact that Goitein's use of the word "glasses" raises false hopes for historians of glass. Prof. Simon Hopkins of The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, kindly tells me that the passage in question (verso 28–29) consists of the words "wa-qafas kīzān min al-kīzān al-humr bayrῡtῑ wa-ìllā bīd." Professor Hopkins translates these words as follows: "and a jug-basket of red jugs, Beiruti, and if not, white (jugs)." The word Goitein translated as "glasses," kizān, Hopkins explains, is the plural form of kῡz, which means " jug" or "pitcher." (Elsewhere in his study of the Genizah documents, Goitein translated kῡz as "cup" and noted that glass was "probably the material mostly used" for making cups at Fustat.4) A qafas is a wickerwork box or trunk to contain objects such as jugs. The word bayrῡtī clearly associates the jugs with Beirut, Lebanon, but in no particular manner; the objects could have been made in Beirut, sold in Beirut, or of a type somehow associated with Beirut (cf. india ink or plaster of paris).

From the point of view of readers of the Journal of Glass Studies, the most important of Professor Hopkins's observations is that we have no reason to suppose that these kīzān were made of glass; indeed, despite Goitein's remark about glass cups, the most extensive and authoritative dictionary of classical Arabic does not quote a single example of a glass kῡz.5 Beiruti kīzān therefore should be removed from the roster of glass vessels made or available in the Levant in the 12th century.

David Whitehouse
This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 46 (2004), 195–196.

Acknowledgments. I am indebted to Stefano Carboni, Les Goody, Giancarlo Lacerenza, Ben Outhwaite, and Carol Reekie for their assistance, and in particular to Simon Hopkins for translating and explaining the passage about red Beiruti kῑzān.


1 S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, v. 1, Economic Foundations, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1967, pp. 110 and 422, n. 70. "Cairo Genizah" refers to the vast repository (Hebrew, genîzah) of documents, many of them ranging in date between the l0th and 13th centuries, that was discovered in the Ben Ezra Synagogue at Fustat (Old Cairo) in 1896.
2 The letter is Genizah Fragment Misc. 9 in the collection of Westminster College, Cambridge, England. Goitein (ibid., p. 422, n. 70) mistakenly identified the letter as manuscript "Genisa Misc 27" in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He subsequently published the fragment in his Hebrew monograph, The Yemenites: History, Communal Organization, Spiritual Life. Selected Studies, ed. M. Ben-Sasson, Jerusalem: Mekhon Ben-Tsevi le-heker kehilot Yisrael ba-Mizrah, 1983, p. 119. Goitein dated the letter to the 1130s.
3 Stefano Carboni in Stefano Carboni and David Whitehouse, Glass of the Sultans, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, pp. 16-17. See also "Recent Important Acquisitions," Journal of Glass Studies, v. 37, 1995, p. 100, no. 4, and Anita Engle, One Thousand Years of Glassmaking in Ancient Jerusalem, Readings in Glass Hisrory, v. 18, Jerusalem: Phoenix Publications, 1984, pp. 29-32.
4 Goitein [note 1], v. 4, 1983, p. 148.
5 Manfred Ullmann, ed., Wörterbuch der klassischen arabischen Sprache, Wiesbaden: Orro Harrassowitz Verlag, 1970, v. 1, pp. 433-434. An earlier, equally nonspecific mention of kῑzān in our very document (recto 19, qafas kizān milāh, "a case of fine jugs") is classified by Goitein as glass, yet he himself notes the fact that the text is "without definition of the material they were made of" (Goitein [note 1], v. 4, 1983, p. 394, n. 72).

Published on February 27, 2013