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Tracing Jewish History in Afghanistan

A look at the Afghan Geniza sheds new light on Jewish history

Adam Chandler
October 23, 2012

Today our friends at On Being have a story on the Afghan Geniza, which has shed an unlikely light on the Jewish history in the region dating back to the seventh and eighth century.

Beginning as a community of traders, like our letter writer, who traveled as far as China and India along the branches of the Silk Route, with time Jews settled permanently in cities like Kabul, Ghur, and Herat. As indicated by their knowledge of Persian, Afghani Jews seem to have spread east from Iran, where, by the time the new documents were written, Jews had lived for over one thousand years.

Given its significance, the find has attracted media attention. A number of reports, including special coverage on Israel’s Channel Two, have compared the Afghan discovery to the Cairo Geniza, the giant cache of manuscripts stored for centuries in a synagogue attic in Old Cairo that have helped to rewrite the history of Jews in the Middle East.

Earlier this year, Jonathan Lee wrote in Tablet about a trove of Jewish documents from Afghanistan that have recently been discovered:

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.

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.

Related: War Papers
The Afghan Geniza [On Being]

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

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