A trove of medieval scrolls, smuggled out of Afghanistan into the hands of London art dealers, could shed new light on a once-vibrant Jewish heritage
Afghanistan for many people is synonymous with the War on Terror, radical Islamic movements such as the Taliban and al-Qaida, and a state of almost perpetual instability. However, recent reports of the discovery of some 150 medieval Judaeo-Persian manuscripts purporting to be from Afghanistan, possibly worth several million dollars on the open market, open a window to a very different place. At the same time, they offer scholars a chance to learn more about a little-known Jewish heritage. Though they cannot compare to the thousands of works of the Cairo Geniza or the Dead Sea Scrolls, these manuscripts are the most important cache of Jewish documents ever to have been found in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, despite having passed in 2004 draconian laws against the trade, removal, or excavation of heritage sites, has been a free-for-all for looters and pillagers for more than 30 years. Today the preservation of the country’s rich heritage, both Islamic and pre-Islamic, remains very low on the priority list of the Karzai government, which commits only a token sum of its annual budget to protection measures. It is left to UNESCO, a few dedicated, underpaid officials, and a handful of foreign archaeologists to battle against what is a well-connected and highly organized trade in illegal antiquities, in which government officials have sometimes been implicated.
Despite this sad situation, some effort has been made to preserve Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, including the country’s historic Jewish heritage. In 1994, when the Herat museum opened, one exhibit was a Hebrew scroll, presumably part of the Torah. Jewish synagogues in the main cities have been allowed to function with little problem, though today there is just one left. Jewish material also turns up occasionally. In 1997, during a visit to Bamiyan, I was shown a Hebrew Book of Psalms (Tehillim) dating from the 16th or 17th century, though the whereabouts of this manuscript is now unknown.
Little is known about the contents of the new cache of Afghan Jewish documents; the London dealers who are offering them for sale are coy about sharing information. However, according to the Jerusalem Post two Israeli scholars have confirmed their authenticity. The specific provenance of the manuscripts, though, remains a mystery, but the most likely source is the well-documented medieval Jewish community at Jam in the province of Ghur in central Afghanistan. Recently a joint Australian-British archaeological mission to Jam reported that the area of urban occupation around this site had been robbed. Probably pillagers came across the cache of documents, which had been hidden or buried during a time of war.
Press reports claiming the manuscripts were found in a cave by a shepherd can probably be discounted, as this story sounds like a rehashing of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery. Dealers always give false provenance to smuggled antiquities, while those who do the actual pillaging are equally reluctant to reveal the location of the hoard for fear that competitors might move in. And while Afghanistan’s strict laws on cultural heritage are honored in the breach, they do make pillagers and middle-men nervous. If caught, such individuals face heavy fines and long terms of imprisonment.
The manuscripts in this latest cache are all said to date from the 11th century and indicate the presence of a sizable Karaite community in the country. The documents are written in Judaeo-Persian or Judaeo-Arabic and include an ancient copy of the Book of Jeremiah and a previously unknown work by Rabbi Sa’adia ben Yosef Gaon (892-942), founder of Judaeo-Arabic literature. If this is the case, these works alone are a major discovery. The manuscripts are also said to include lamentation poetry and financial records. The commercial documents could prove to be particularly important as they will hopefully give us more understanding of Jewish trade links and land ownership.
Afghanistan’s Jewish heritage is ancient. When Arab Muslim armies swept into the area in the mid-8th century CE, they encountered a well-established Jewish community known as Jahudan or al-Yahudan al-Kubra, or the Great Jewry, whose inhabitants claimed to be descendants of Jews displaced by the fall of Jerusalem in 597 BCE. The Arabs renamed the town Maimana, or auspicious town, because they believed a place called the Great Jewry was unlucky. Yet despite the Arab renaming of the settlement, local people continued to refer to Maimana by its old name, Jahudan. In the late 10th century CE, a local writer noted that the town “located at the foot of a mountain” was still “prosperous and pleasant.”
Maimana’s Jews were mainly traders, engaged in the transcontinental commerce of the Silk Road, for their town straddled the main caravan route between Herat and Balkh. Maimana also had strong commercial links with Merv, Khiva, and Bukhara, all of which had fairly large Jewish populations. The Jews of Afghanistan were also money-lenders, brokers, and bankers. Maimana today is the capital of Faryab province and is still a sizable if somewhat run-down trading and market town—a convenient stopping point for truck drivers plying the Herat-Balkh road. The Maimana area is one possible source for the newly discovered cache of Jewish manuscripts.
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