Russia exhibit to showcase medieval Jewish life in Afghanistan
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Russia exhibit to showcase medieval Jewish life in Afghanistan

Documents from the National Library of Israel’s Afghan Geniza collection shine spotlight on a forgotten period

This fragment of Tractate Avoda Zara from the Mishnah represents the earliest evidence of a rabbinic text found in Persian-speaking lands to the east of the traditional rabbinic center in Babylonia. (National Library of Israel)
This fragment of Tractate Avoda Zara from the Mishnah represents the earliest evidence of a rabbinic text found in Persian-speaking lands to the east of the traditional rabbinic center in Babylonia. (National Library of Israel)

When Westerners think of Afghanistan, if they do at all, the mental picture evoked by decades of news coverage is of a remote, desolate and war-ravaged land.

However, during the 9th to 11th centuries, the region was booming, being at the time an integral part of the Silk Road trading route connecting Europe and China.

The region featured a thriving Jewish community whose history is chronicled in a series of documents collectively known as the Afghan Geniza, which are set to go on display this week at St. Petersburg’s famous Hermitage museum.

A geniza is a storage area for disused sacred texts awaiting their traditional burial, though many documents of a more mundane character have also ended up in such depositories over the years.

Some two dozen artifacts from the National Library of Israel’s collection will be viewable at the storied Russian museum through December, highlighting Jewish life in a region now barren of Jews. The National Library began collecting documents from the Afghan Geniza after learning of their existence in 2011 and now has some nearly 300 pages.

“This is a particularly impressive find related to the lives and culture of Jews from this part of the world from the beginning of the second millennium,” Prof. Haggai Ben Shammai, an expert on Jews in the Islamic world, said in a statement released by the library. He explained that the importance of the collection stems from the previous lack of information on Jewish life in medieval Afghanistan.

This 28-page account book contains information about the economic activity of the archive owner, Yehuda son of Daniel, in 1018–1028 CE. (National Library of Israel)

According to the library, much of the collection comes from an archive of the eleventh-century Abu Netzer family of Jewish traders living in and around the city of Bamiyan, a commercial center located on the Silk Road. Other documents come from a local government administrator’s archive and provide what the library described as “an unparalleled view into the workings of government administration, politics, and law in the region.”

According to the library: “One fragment represents the earliest evidence of a rabbinic text found in Persian-speaking lands to the east of the rabbinic centers of Babylonia. The collection, written in Persian, Arabic, Aramaic, and Judeo-Persian, also includes legal documents, liturgy, poetry, texts of Jewish law, a historical chronicle, and Biblical passages.”

The contents of the geniza also provide some of the only documentation regarding contemporary Islamic life as well as Persian and Arabic culture and language in the region prior to the Mongol conquests of 1221.

One document in the collection, a 28-page account book that belonged to Yehuda son of Daniel in the 11th century, contained numerous financial transactions that scholars believe “attest to strong ties between the Jewish trader and the Muslim rural and urban populations” in the area.

Winter Palace, the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. (Wikimedia commons/Sasha Petite)

Another, a fragment of Tractate Avoda Zara from the Mishnah, a 3rd century rabbinic codification of Judaism’s oral law, represents what the library described as the “earliest evidence of a rabbinic text found in Persian-speaking lands to the east of the traditional rabbinic center in Babylonia.”

“This fragment attests to a tradition of copying and, presumably, studying the Mishnah in 11th century Afghanistan,” said Prof. Matthew Morgenstern of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Hebrew Language and Semitic Linguistics.

“Readers could apparently understand the Hebrew, though some difficult words were glossed with the vernacular, a Judeo-Persian dialect. Already by this time, the Palestinian and Babylonian editions of the Mishnah had become mixed, and our manuscript attests to the ongoing process of comparing the different textual traditions. The fragment provides evidence of a vibrant tradition of Jewish study far from the previously known centers of Jewish learning.”

While important, the Afghanistan Geniza is less well known than its Egyptian counterpart known as the Cairo Geniza, which was discovered in the late 19th century in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Cairo), Egypt.

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