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This undated Handout photo made available by the National Library of Israel shows an ancient manuscript discovered inside caves in a Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan - the first physical evidence of a vibrant Jewish community that thrived in that region a thousand years ago.

Anonymous, Associated Press

Hebrew treasure found in Afghanistan

  • Article by: ARON HELLER
  • Associated Press
  • January 5, 2013 - 10:11 PM

JERUSALEM

A trove of ancient manuscripts in Hebrew characters rescued from caves in a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan is providing the first physical evidence of a Jewish community that thrived there a thousand years ago.

Israel's National Library unveiled the cache of documents that run the gamut of life experiences, including biblical commentaries, personal letters and financial records. Researchers say the "Afghan Genizah" marks the greatest such archive found since the "Cairo Genizah" was discovered in an Egyptian synagogue more than 100 years ago, a depository of medieval manuscripts considered to be among the most valuable collections of historical documents ever found.

Genizah, a Hebrew term that loosely translates as "storage," refers to a storeroom adjacent to a synagogue or Jewish cemetery where Hebrew-language books and papers are kept. Under Jewish law, it is forbidden to throw away writings containing the formal names of God, so they are either buried or stashed away.

'We had nothing of this'

The Afghan collection gives an unprecedented look into the lives of Jews in ancient Persia in the 11th century. The paper manuscripts, preserved over the centuries by the dry, shady conditions of the caves, include writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judea-Arabic and the unique Judeo-Persian language from that era, which was written in Hebrew letters.

"It was the Yiddish of Persian Jews," said Haggai Ben-Shammai, the library's academic director.

He said the documents included mentions of distinctly Jewish names and evidence of their commercial activities along the "Silk Road" connecting Europe and the East. The obscure Judeo-Persian language, along with carbon-dating technology, helped verify the authenticity of the collection, he said.

"We've had many historical sources on Jewish settlements in that area," he said. "This is the first time that we have a large collection of manuscripts that represents the culture of the Jews that lived there."

The documents are believed to have come from caves in the northeast region of modern-day Afghanistan, once at the outer reaches of the Persian empire. In recent years, the same caves have served as hideouts for Taliban insurgents.

It remains unclear how the ancient manuscripts emerged. Ben-Shammai said the library was contacted by antiquities dealers. Last month, the library bought 29 out of hundreds of the documents believed to be floating around the world. The library refused to say how much it paid for the collection.

'They actually existed'

Ben-Shammai said it was too early to compare the new findings with the ones discovered in the late 1800s in Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue, built in the ninth century. The Cairo documents included thousands of documents Jews stored there for more than 1,000 years.

Ben-Shammai said that it would take a long time to sift through the new findings but that they were already significant because no other Hebrew writings had even been found so far from the Holy Land.

He said the Jewish community in the region at the time lived largely like others in the Muslim world, as a "tolerated minority" that was treated better than under Christian rule. Afghanistan's Jewish community numbered as many as 40,000 in the late 19th century, after Persian Jews fled forced conversion.

By the mid-20th century, only about 5,000 remained, and most emigrated after Israel's creation in 1948. A lone Jewish man remains in Afghanistan, while 25,000 Jews live in Iran -- Israel's bitter enemy.

The library promises the documents will be digitized and uploaded to its website.

Aviad Stollman, curator of the library's Judaica collection, said much more would be gleaned after research on the papers, but already it tells a story of a previously little known community.

"First we can verify that they actually existed -- that is the most important point," he said. "And of course their interests. They were not interested only in commerce and liturgy; they were interested also in the Talmud and the Bible. They were Jews living a thousand years ago in this place. I think that is the most exciting part."

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