The Afghani ‘Geniza’

A few months ago, news broke in the Israeli media of an important manuscript trove that was discovered in Afghanistan. A spate of articles appeared in the press, each one covering just a bit more than the one prior it. Even Israeli television did not lost interest. With all the breathless reporting, the purple prose, and the melodramatic music playing in the background, it has been difficult to get a clear picture of what the value of the collection really is.

Last evening, Shaul Shaked delivered the annual Sara Soroudi lecture on Mount Scopus in a small, stuffy, and packed seminar room. In his unassuming and dignified manner, Shaked gave an initial report on the find, and presented some documents which he read and commented upon.  First things first: The collection apparently stems from around Dareh-Usuf in the vicinity of Balkhs in Northern Afghanistan. Of course neither Shaked nor the other Israeli researches interested in the documents have themselves seen the cave in which the collection was supposedly found. However, Shaked said that his sources in the region, which he claims are trustworthy, did testify to having seen the specific cave that stored the documents.

We know that Jews lived in Afghanistan in the Middle Ages from inscribed gravestones in Kur, but until now we have had virtually no further evidence about the community. Documents have been trickling out for some time now, and particularly in the last two years. There seem to be some two-hundred fragments, though more turn up all the time. And the majority of the collection is held with dealers in London, though in some other locations as well – including Jerusalem. As of yet, all of the research has been done via photographs. The dealers have yet to make a deal.

The find is known as a geniza by name alone. Like the Cairo Geniza, its contents are haphazard and do not represent a planned archival storage. Other than that, there is no evidence that the cave in which the contents were allegedly stored was associated with a specific Jewish communal institution. Further, its contents do not seem to have accrued gradually, rather apparently as a result of one (emergency?) deposit. The texts are mainly in Judeo-Persian, but also in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and Arabic proper (that is in Arabic script, and sometimes even written by Muslims).

Shaked provided a nice sample of documents, many of which were actually quite colorful and of interest beyond specialists. He discussed two piyutim that have yet to be identified. One poetically referred to a mosaic of nations of the world. Tafsirs were a favored genre in the Judeo-Persian world, and Shaked discussed two of them – one on Genesis and the other on Jeremiah. Both hewed very closely to the original Hebrew, and the tafsir on Jeremiah contained “Babylonian” vocalization on both the biblical text and the Persian translation. “Babylonian” vocalization is actually quite common in the documents, and seems to point to a ninth century CE dating.

In general, medieval Persian-speaking Jews were not particularly interested in rabbinic texts. Shaked did show, however, a few texts of interest to Talmudists. One was a fragment from the second chapter of Mishna Avodah Zara. It seems that the text is close to the known geniza fragments, which would then again imply that written Mishna fragments outside of the Babylonian Talmud stem from a Palestinian and not Babylonian tradition – even when they may well have been written down in Iraq. Mention was also made of fragments associated with Saadya’s commentary on Jeremiah and his responses to Hiwi, while a fragment was shown that refers to the ba’alei miqrayim – perhaps a reference to Karaites. In addition, a charming philosophical text spoke of the endless production of books and book learning. The apparent connection to the Muslim world could be seen in a hadith-like Arabic fragment from the collection; while a business ledger dated to the eleventh century provided a window into everyday life. Finally, a long and detailed letter recounted the story of a poor chap who fled Bamiyan due to accusations of improper business practices and Sabbath desecration. He had to leave his wife back in Bamiyan in order to go live in Razny, and he defends himself in the letter. And so, a nearly millennium old human interest story.

From the evidence, the people associated with the documents seem to have known not only Judeo-Persian and Hebrew, but also Arabic, which may point to recent origins in Babylonia. Regardless, from the small sample that was shown, there is no doubt that the collection is extremely important for reconstructing the history and texture of life of c. eleventh century Afghani Jewry.

The problem of course is that nothing can really be published until the collection is purchased. And here one begins to wonder about matters that Shaked did not discuss: Have some of the dealers been feeding off of the media hype and inflating the prices beyond reason? There is no doubt that there are serious potential buyers out there interested in purchasing these truly important documents and making them available to scholars. But generally, buyers with the serious funds needed for a collection of this sort are not dumb, and they are not interested in paying far beyond the reasonable value. No doubt, antiquity dealers have a right to charge a handsome sum for a valuable collection, but it must be within reason.  They should know that sales of this type are based essentially on trust. And let us not forget, they too have a responsibility to preserve the heritage reflected in the documents by making them available for research.  If the documents are to finally reach scholars, it will take a dealer, or a group of dealers prepared to negotiate in good faith. There is simply no other way.

UPDATE: See Avraham Yoskovich’s comment in the comments section for a review of Haggai Ben-Shammai’s “companion” lecture at the National Library on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.

10 responses to “The Afghani ‘Geniza’

  1. Hagai Ben Shamai spoke yesterday at the evening in honor of the memorial volume for Israel Ta-Shma (Published by Yaakov Hertzog College, and edited by Rami Reiner and others) in the National Library. He didn’t add much, his lecture was much shorter than Shaked’s. He showed part of the images already shown by Shaked, though he also focused on Rav Saadya’s responses to Hivi (so called; hiyoi as the real persian inclination, as in Pirkoi, Baboi; as noted by Ben Shamai). This is significant because the new fragments were found in the area of Balchk – Hivi’s area as his surname, Ha-Balchki, may reflect.
    Talmudically speaking, the copy of the mishna’s fragment as shown by Ben Shamai wasn’t as good as the one shown by Shaked; but in contrast to the impression I got from Shaked’s response to that copy, Ben Shamai had both halves of the double paged copy. It contains the rest of the second chapter of Avodah Zarah with a nice hole in the bottom of the page. That is the only additional information I gained via a brief look of the copy from some distance.

  2. Pingback: Afghansk geniza? « Arne Berge·

  3. It is obvious that this stuff is all stolen. Probably from Iraq. A Jewish genizah in Afghanistan is about as likely as a Lubavitch shtieble in Kiryas Yoel.

    • I actually have no idea what you mean. Why couldn’t there be medieval Jewish documents discovered in Afghanistan (some of which even list locations all over Central Asia) and taken out of the country by dealers wanting to make a buck? After all, we have grave inscriptions testifying to a Jewish community there.

      • Stop being a tamim.

        More specifically:

        a. For a genizah to exist it would require a vibrant Jewish community to exist for a period of at least a thousand years, i.e. back to the date these documents were written. Egypt had such a community. Needless to say Afghanistan was never close to fulfilling this condition.

        b. Why the incredible secrecy surrounding the provenance and ownership of these materials?

        c. The antiquities market is flooded now with materials that the various soldiers/mercenaries/terrorists/thieves/pillagers are ransacking from Iraq. Any reason they shouldn’t steal Jewish stuff? And if they are, where is it landing up?

        Bekitzur, use your seichel…

        • First things first, “Not Important” – I’m going to have to ask you to read the comments policy section. There’s no place for disrespectful language on this blog.
          Second, perhaps before belittling every post you comment upon as not important (Indeed, what IS in a name!), perhaps you might take the time to read them. I make clear that the find is a geniza in name alone and did not accumulate over time. And there’s no secrecy at all about the provenance of these finds. I list the region in which they were found. Do you want a GPS coordinate for the cave?
          The contents of some of the documents themselves refer to specific locations within Afghanistan, and the dry mountainous climate is what would have kept the documents intact for the centuries that they lay undisturbed. They simply would not have lasted in Falluja for that long. I don’t know what you gain by insisting that they were taken from Iraq.

          As for their present location, until there is a serious buyer and the dealers come together (a number of them are holding the pieces in different locations), there’s nothing really to talk about. I should mention that I happen to actually know the name who the original dealer was. He is a fairly well known and respected dealer. He does not wish to be named for valid reasons.

          I again will request that you keep the dialogue respectful.

          • This is a “Talmud” blog, this is how people talk when they “study” “Talmud”. And please spare me the eye-rolling and spare yourself climbing the moral high ground. It’s erev Shabbos much too many things to do.

            Giving me the GPS coordinates for a cave in Afghanistan is about as useful as giving me the coordinates for a hill on the moon. I don’t insist they were taken from Iraq, I am assuming that this is the most likely location they were stolen from given present day circumstances. Take into account that the US government stole a huge amount of Judaica, under the pretext of conserving the materials. What’s to stop some marine from slipping some papers into his pocket, in order to fund a dira for his future son-in-law?

            In sum, there is no way in the world a bunch of papers would have lasted in a cave in Muslim Afghanistan. In order for these papers to last, you need other conditions besides a hot and dry climatel.

            However, this is really an unimportant argument. If you sleep better at night knowing that these papers emerged from a mysterious cave deep in rural Afghanistan, then yehi loch ashe loch, I will be the last person to destroy your beauty sleep.

  4. I know it was a long time ago, but I’m curious, Shai, if you remember any of the details about “a business ledger dated to the eleventh century provided a window into everyday life”. I’m composing a story of a Jew trekking with Marco Polo, and specific information about goods that were traded, and their value, would be of great use to me.
    Steve Berer

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