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
In the late 1950s, a French archaeologist, André Maricq, recorded a previously unpublished 12th-century minaret 65 meters high at Jam in Central Afghanistan. The minaret is dated 1174-5 CE, which placed its foundation in the reign of the Ghurid Sultan, Giyath al-Din (r. 1163-1203 CE), when the town, which at that period was known as Firozkoh, was the summer capital of the Ghurid dynasty. A few years later, Italian conservators working on the minaret came across some 20 Hebrew inscriptions carved on large pebbles about a kilometer from the minaret. The inscriptions were headstones of Jewish graves written in Judaeo-Persian—a mix of Persian and Hebrew that was written in Hebrew script. To date, more than 70 Jewish gravestones have been recorded in the area.
The inscriptions reveal that the Jewish community of Firozkoh was self-governing and had their own courts, judges, and schools. The secular head of the community was called Rosh Kahal while the most senior religious leader held the title of Rosh ha Sadranut, probably a translation of Raish Sidra, a title bestowed on a senior rabbinical judge of the Pubethita school.
Nearly 30 of the headstones bear the title Alut or Aluf, or a rabbinical judge. There were also several Hakham, or religious teachers. The use of the term Melamed and Rosh Kanisa indicates the community had at least one synagogue, kanisa being Persian for synagogue. Clearly this remote Jewish community was devout and had a number of well-trained religious scholars with links to Iraq. Other members of the community included traders, an accountant, a weaver, and a goldsmith. Oddly, not a single woman’s headstone has been found.
The dates on the headstones range from 1012 to 1220 CE, which suggests that there was a Jewish presence in Firozkoh for over two centuries. Exactly why Jews decided to live in such a remote mountain area, though, is still a mystery. Jam is located near a seasonal trade route between Herat and Kabul that is open from April to October. Maybe the early Jewish settlers lived in Jam during the trading period and moved back to Herat for the winter. By the early 9th century CE, urban Jews and other non-Muslims were living in a society increasingly dominated by Islamic law. The mountain regions of Ghur, on the other hand, were largely un-Islamized; indeed, until the early 11th century the region was the home of a large pagan enclave. Ghur may have offered Jews a chance to live without the restrictive dress and social codes imposed on non-Muslims under Islamic law.
The latest date on the gravestones is 1220 CE, a date that coincided with the Mongol invasions of Balkh; undoubtedly the devastations wrought by the Mongols were the reason for the demise of Jam’s Jewish community. The Mongols systematically destroyed the fortresses that protected Ghur, massacring any garrison that refused to surrender. Those who did capitulate were enslaved, sent to Mongolia, or conscripted into the army. Most of Jam’s population would have fled or been killed or made captive as a result of the Mongol onslaught.
Jewish communities, however, still survived in Afghanistan’s urban centers, and 19th-century European travelers made frequent reference to them. When Arthur Conolly, who was later executed by the Amir of Bukhara, passed through Herat in the 1830s, he was a guest of Rabbi Isma’il and celebrated Sukkot with him. Another visitor at this period was the German Jewish Orientalist Rev. Joseph Wolff. A convert to Christianity, Wolff was a missionary for the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. His life’s mission was to track down the Lost Tribes of Israel and convince them that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah. During his travels though Afghanistan, he held debates with the rabbis of Balkh and Kabul.
By the 1830s, life for Afghanistan’s Jews was increasingly difficult. Dynastic wars, conscription, intolerance, extortion, and the collapse of the overland trade led to many Jews quitting Afghanistan for good. By 1886 there were just six Jewish families left in Maimana, though there were still eight synagogues in Herat and four in Balkh. A further exodus took place in the 1930s after the government ordered all Jews living in the north to leave and reside in either Herat, Kandahar, or Kabul. As war in Europe loomed, the Nazis tried to secure Afghanistan as an ally against Britain. Part of their strategy was to flatter the Afghan ruling clique, who were all ethnically Pashtuns, that they were also Aryans and part of the so-called Master Race.
Hitler failed to draw Afghanistan into an alliance with Germany, but Nazi Aryan propaganda became embedded within dynastic and Pashtun nationalist discourse. The royal family, court historians, and some of the Pashtun-dominated intelligentsia were convinced that they were descendants of Aryans. Afghan officials began to claim that Balkh was the ancestral homeland of the Aryans, and Aryana became regarded as synonymous with Afghanistan. The national carrier was named Aryana Airlines, and the official government print house was called Aryana Press.
Inevitably, Afghanistan’s Jews suffered as a result of this Aryan myth, and soon the majority decided they had had enough. Most of Afghanistan’s Jewish population ended up in the Old City of Jerusalem or in New York. Today Afghanistan has only a single indigenous Jew, who is guardian of the Kabul synagogue. The synagogues of Herat, Balkh, Maimana, and elsewhere are now private dwellings, though some traces of Hebrew inscriptions are still visible.
One can only hope that the important documents chronicling a lost Jewish community will end up in a public collection where they can be properly preserved and studied—and eventually returned to Afghanistan.
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