Exclusive ExcerptBook of The Times

The Aleppo Codex, by Matti Friedman

In an age when physical books matter less and less, here is a thrilling story about a book that meant everything. This true-life detective story unveils the journey of a sacred text — the tenth-century annotated bible known as the Aleppo Codex — from its hiding place in a Syrian synagogue to the newly founded state of Israel. Based on the independent research of The Times of Israel reporter Matti Friedman, documents kept secret for fifty years, and personal interviews with key players, the book proposes a new theory of what happened when the codex left Aleppo, Syria, in the late 1940s and eventually surfaced in Jerusalem, mysteriously incomplete

1. Flushing Meadow


The first limousines pulled up beside bare trees and a grove of flagpoles at Flushing Meadow, on the outskirts of New York City, discharging their passengers into a gray building that had once housed a skating rink. Crowds gathered in the chill out­side. An auditorium inside was full of spectators and delegates. It was November 29, 1947, a Saturday afternoon.

Grainy footage filmed that day shows men in suits seated in rows before a raised podium where three officials had their backs to a giant painting of the globe. Aides arrived and departed from the podium with sheaves of paper and expressions befit­ting the gravity of the occasion: the delegates to this new world organization, the United Nations, were about to alter the course of history simply by holding a vote.

“We will start now,” said the man in the middle — this was the assembly’s presiding diplomat, a Brazilian — and a silver mi­crophone on the podium picked up those words in accented English and relayed them to Jewish garment workers clustered around radio sets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, then across the Atlantic to camps for the refugees of the Second World War, which had ended barely two years before, and far­ther east to Arab students in Damascus, merchants in Jaffa and Cairo, store owners in sandy Tel Aviv, a city not yet thirty years old. Some had pencils ready to tally the votes. A two-thirds ma­jority meant Palestine, ruled by the British since 1917, would be partitioned into two states, one for Jews and one for Arabs. The vote followed months of desperate diplomacy and strong-arm politics influenced by the horror of recent events in Europe. For supporters of the Jewish national movement, Zionism, passage of the resolution would mean justice for a persecuted people and the realization of a two-thousand-year-old dream of national re­birth. For the Arabs of Palestine and of surrounding countries, it would mean the imposition of a foreign entity in the heart of the Middle East, an unbearable humiliation, and certain war.

From the outskirts of the Old City, labyrin­thine passages led into the quarter where the Jews had always lived, and in the heart of this quarter, behind high walls, was their great synagogue. Inside the synagogue, at the end of a cor­ridor and down a few steps, was a dark grotto. In the grotto sat an iron safe with two locks, and in this safe was the book

In the north of Syria, six thousand miles away from New York, it was evening. An aviator arriving from the west across the flat screen of the Mediterranean might first have seen that night’s full moon reflected on the water and then a dark ex­panse of tribal grazing lands and farming plots stretching inland toward the Euphrates and the deserts of the interior. Aleppo would have appeared below as a cluster of lights at the meeting point of the rail lines and roads that converged from all direc­tions, the city spreading around a nucleus of bazaar streets by the crumbling mass of the Citadel. Down in those streets, the stores now shuttered, the women of the manzul were receiving clients, and men were submerged in café smoke like deep-sea divers, tubes between their lips, inhaling the rose-scented oxy­gen of water pipes. From the outskirts of the Old City, labyrin­thine passages led into the quarter where the Jews had always lived, and in the heart of this quarter, behind high walls, was their great synagogue. Inside the synagogue, at the end of a cor­ridor and down a few steps, was a dark grotto. In the grotto sat an iron safe with two locks, and in this safe was the book.

In Aleppo, the sexton of the great synagogue — Asher Baghdadi was his name — a thin man in a robe that fell to his ankles, would have been making his rounds at this time, after the Sabbath had ended and the last of the worshippers had left, walking through the rooms as he always did, through the courtyard where prayers were held in summertime, past the grotto known as the Cave of the Prophet Elijah, with the safe inside. The double lock served as an additional precaution, this one against the treasure’s own guardians, requiring the two elders entrusted with keys to be present and to watch over each other when the safe was opened. It rarely was. The sexton was not important enough to have one of those keys, though he did have an iron key to the synagogue’s gate that was as long as the forearm of a small child. The sexton crossed a narrow alleyway and climbed the three flights of stairs to his home, where the windows looked down into the deserted courtyard of the building he had just left. Kerosene streetlamps flickered in the alleys.

Most of Aleppo’s Jews appear to have been only vaguely aware of the events at Flushing Meadow, if at all; many believed Palestine had little to do with them, and only a lucky few owned a radio. Among those who did understand the gravity of the events afoot was fifteen-year-old Rafi Sutton, the retired spy I would encounter six decades later. Rafi was in his living room, in a modern neighborhood that was home to middle-class Jews, Muslims, and Christians who had fled the crowding and pov­erty of the Old City. He sat with his parents and sisters next to a Zenith radio housed in a wooden cabinet.

In the broadcast from Flushing Meadow, a flat American voice replaced that of the Brazilian. The new voice began reading from a list.

“Afghanistan?” he asked, and then repeated the inaudible an­swer from the assembly floor: “No.

“Argentina,” he said. “Argentina? Abstention.

“Australia?” he said. “Yes.”

In the days and weeks leading up to the vote, Arab leaders and diplomats had moved beyond threatening to eradicate the Jew­ish enclave in Palestine by force to threatening the Jews of the vulnerable Diaspora archipelago strung throughout the lands of Islam — Baghdad, Aleppo, Alexandria, Tunis, Casablanca. There were eight hundred thousand Jews in Arab countries, and another two hundred thousand in non-Arab Islamic states like Iran and Turkey. These people were not Zionists, for the most part, but that didn’t matter: they were hostages now. “The lives of a million Jews in Muslim countries would be jeopardized by the establishment of a Jewish state,” an Egyptian representa­tive warned. If the resolution passed, Iraq’s prime minister said, “severe measures should be taken against all Jews in Arab coun­tries.” The fate of the Jews in Arab lands could become “very precarious,” a Palestinian Arab delegate had reminded everyone. Though Arab governments might do their best to protect them, he said, “governments, in general, have always been unable to prevent mob excitement and violence.”

“El Salvador?” the American voice continued. “Abstention.

“Ethiopia? Abstains.


In the hall at Flushing Meadow, many held their breath; the French had been wavering and were expected to abstain.

“Yes,” said the American voice, and raucous cheers swept the auditorium.

“Excitement,” remembered one Zionist delegate who was in the hall, “became a physical pain.”

Rafi’s radio emitted a knocking sound — this was the Bra­zilian rapping for order with his gavel on the other side of the Atlantic. Rafi and his parents were worried about his three older brothers, who had left home to join the Zionist project in Pales­tine years before and whom Rafi knew mostly from their letters. His mother, who was illiterate, had him read the letters aloud before she wedged the enclosed photographs of suntanned young men into the wooden frame around her wardrobe mir­ror. The Suttons were not yet worried about themselves.

“Ukraine?” the American voice was saying. “Yes.

“South Africa? Yes.

“Soviet Union? Yes.

“United Kingdom? Abstains.

“United States? Yes,” said the American voice.

When the voting ended, the Brazilian banged again with his gavel. Those present in the hall saw him put on his spectacles. “As he spoke,” one of the Jewish delegates later recalled, “a feel­ing that grips a man but once in his lifetime came over us. High above us we seemed to hear the beating of the wings of history.”

The Brazilian diplomat read from a paper. “The resolution of the Ad Hoc Committee for Palestine was adopted,” he said, “by thirty-three votes, thirteen against, and ten abstentions.” Shout­ing erupted in the hall.

In British-ruled Jerusalem, crowds poured into the streets. Trucks with loudspeakers drove through the Jewish section of the city, waking people up to celebrate, and the staff of a winery rolled a barrel into the middle of downtown and began handing out free drinks

In British-ruled Jerusalem, crowds poured into the streets. Trucks with loudspeakers drove through the Jewish section of the city, waking people up to celebrate, and the staff of a winery rolled a barrel into the middle of downtown and began handing out free drinks. Golda Meir, a future Israeli prime minister, ad­dressed revelers from the balcony of the low headquarters build­ing of the Jewish Agency, the Zionist leadership in Palestine. “For two thousand years we have waited for our deliverance. Now that it is here it is so great and wonderful that it surpasses human words. Jews,” she said, “mazel tov!”

Arab leaders and diplomats responded with stunned fury. “My country will never recognize such a decision,” the Syrian delegate to the United Nations warned before he and the other Arab representatives walked out of the assembly in protest. “It will never agree to be responsible for it. Let the consequences be on the heads of others, not on ours.” Soon the clerics at the Islamic seminary of Al-Azhar in Cairo would release a call for a “worldwide jihad in defense of Arab Palestine.” The Syr­ian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood would echo the call for holy war, saying the battle was one of “life or death” for Arabs, “whom the vilest, the most corrupt, tricky and destructive peo­ple wish to conquer and displace.”

In Aleppo, Rafi Sutton’s parents switched off the radio. There was no sound from the streets outside. Nothing had changed. Not yet.

In the ancient synagogue where the Crown had been kept for two hundred thousand nights, this night, which would be the last, seemed no different.

The Crown had arrived in the synagogue from a world in which wars were fought with swords and arrows and which ex­tended no farther west than the Atlantic coastline. Whatever had changed outside the Crown’s grotto since then, its keepers still came from generation after generation of Jews from the same Diaspora outpost, one that had been in place before the birth of Islam or Christianity. The Jews of Aleppo swore oaths on the Crown, lit candles in its grotto, and prayed there for the welfare of the sick. Each generation added to the protective web of stories that surrounded the treasure, though almost none of those who venerated it had ever set eyes on it. The moral of these stories was always the same. Once, long ago, one tale went, the elders took the Crown out of the synagogue, and plague swiftly struck the Jews, abating only when the Crown was returned. In another, the Crown was similarly moved, only to reappear, miraculously, in its place. If ill befell the treasure, according to traditions of great age and import, or even if it ever left the synagogue, the community was doomed. This might have been fanciful, many admit now, long after the events in question, but then they invariably point out that in the end it did turn out to be true.

An inscription in the book read as follows:

Blessed be he who preserves it

and cursed be he who steals it

and cursed be he who sells it

and cursed be he who pawns it.

It may not be sold and it may not be defiled forever.

The delegates at Flushing Meadow had set in motion the events that would lead to a war in Palestine, a Jewish victory, and the birth of the state of Israel. That is well known. But they also began a very different chain of events known to few: the story of the Crown of Aleppo, one that must be rescued from decades of neglect, myth, and deliberate deception.

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