Earlier this month, Israel’s National Library announced that they had acquired a cache of ancient Hebrew manuscripts that were rescued from caves in a northern Afghanistan Taliban stronghold, showing physical evidence of a 1000 year-old thriving Jewish community there.
The documents reveal an array of life experiences pertaining to the Jewish residents in the region and they include biblical commentaries, personal letters and financial records.
Providing an unprecedented glimpse into the daily lives of the ancient Persian Jewish community in the 11th century, 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. That find included an impressive depository of medieval manuscripts considered to be among the most valuable collections of historical documents ever found. Loosely translated as “storage”, Genizah is a Hebrew term that refers to a storeroom adjacent to a synagogue or Jewish cemetery where Hebrew-language books and papers are kept. Under the rules of Jewish law, it is forbidden to discard writings that contain the formal names of G-d, so they are alternatively buried or stashed away.
Preserved over the centuries by the dry, shady conditions of the caves, the trove of paper manuscripts include writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judea-Arabic and the unique Judeo-Persian language from that era, which was written in Hebrew letters. Haggai Ben-Shammai, the library’s academic director said, “It was the Yiddish of Persian Jews.”
Been-Shammai held the documents which were protected by a laminated sheath and said they included references to distinctly Jewish names and provided evidence of their commercial activities along the “Silk road” connecting Europe and the East. He added that what helped to verify the authenticity of the collection was the obscure Judeo-Persian language, along with carbon dating technology.
“We’ve had many historical sources on Jewish settlements in that area,” Ben-Shammai said. “This is the first time that we have a large collection of manuscripts that represents the culture of the Jews that lived there. Until today we had nothing of this.”
News sources who have investigated the collection said that if the dates are accurate, they will probably serve as ample proof that Jews and Muslims once lived together in harmony in Afghanistan, as they did at one point in the modern era. If the dates on the manuscripts reveal that they are older than 1,000 years or if they point to references from previous centuries, then this will change many perspectives; as the religion of Islam has only existed for 1,500 years.
Experts have opined that this extraordinary discovery will place pressure on the Taliban who are politically driven and like their antecedents, they are part of the Mujahideen, and thus, are pro-Palestinian. While claiming to not be overtly anti-Jewish, they have adopted some of the anti-Israeli sentiment that emanates from the Arabs who have been there, and are now in Pakistan, since the 1980s.
The caves where the manuscripts were discovered are located in a region of Afghanistan where the far reaches of the Persian Empire once stood. In recent years, the same caves have served as hideouts for Taliban insurgents.
While it remains ambiguous on precisely how the manuscripts publicly emerged, Ben-Shammai said the library was contacted by various antiquities dealers who were able to attain them. Last month, the library purchased 29 out of hundreds of the documents believed to be floating around the world, after long negotiations with antiquities dealers. The library refused to say how much it paid for the collection, adding that it hoped to purchase more in the future and didn’t want to drive up prices. The documents arrived in Israel last week.
The new discovery has led to inevitable comparisons with the other significant find in Egypt. Discovered in the late 1800s in Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue, built in the ninth century, the Cairo Genizah included thousands of documents Jews stored there for more than 1,000 years. Stating that it was a bit premature to compare the two “Genizahs”, Ben-Shammai said it would take quite a while to scrupulously examine the findings from the Afghan caves but did admit that the find was unlike any other of its kind since no other Hebrew writings had even been found thus far in Israel.
Living largely like others in the Muslim world at that time, Ben-Shammai said the Jewish Community in the region was seen as a “tolerated minority” but were accorded better treatment than they sustained under Christian rule. In the late 19th century, the Jewish community in Afghanistan numbered as many as 40,000, 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 neighboring Iran, a country known to be, bitterly hostile to Israel.
The Afghanistan collection will be digitized and uploaded to the library’s website so that all may have access to it. The curator of the library’s Judaica collection, Aviad Stollman, said that subsequent to the meticulous research that will take place on the manuscripts, a great deal more information would be acquired but conceded that it already provides a substantive narrative 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,” he said. “They were Jews living a thousand years ago in this place. I think that is the most exciting part.”