Nearly 100 mysterious manuscripts thought to be 1,000 years old and written by a Jewish family that lived along the ancient Silk Road have been discovered in an Afghan cave.
Scholars and historians are excited about this new cache of documents, which was purchased by Israeli antiquities dealer Lenny Wolfe six months ago.
He came across them as part of an ongoing search for the "Afghan Genizah," a reference to the Cairo Genizah collection of 300,000 Jewish manuscript fragments discovered in a synagogue storeroom in Egypt.
Written in a plethora of languages, including Aramaic, Hebrew, Persian, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo Persian, these new documents are attributed to an 11th Century family headed by Abu Ben Daniel from the northern Afghan city of Bamyan, according to Haaretz.
They would have been quite familiar with the area’s two biggest attractions back then and up until 15 years ago - giant Buddha statues built in the 6th Century and blown up by the Taliban six months before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Wolfe first purchased 29 of the documents in 2013, which he returned to Israel where they have been studied in the National Library.
Since then, he’s been on the lookout for more documents from the family’s archive, at the behest of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and purchased the new batch six months ago.
While Wolfe has yet to find a buyer from what he calls an "appropriate institution," it’s understood negotiations are ongoing and his asking price is unknown.
Experts believe the documents, which contain only text and no illustrations, were originally buried in a cave around a 1,000 years ago by the owners, with the cache consisting of a mixture of legal and commercial manuscripts and sacred and personal letters.
Wolfe came across a photograph of the documents "from southern Russia", according to Haaretz, before finding out in a European coffee shop that a Pakistani dealer had some of the ancient artifacts.
Of the documents which have been studied to date, Ofir Haim, a researcher from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says they give a fascinating insight into the lives of the Jewish community in Afghanistan of the time, such as where they lived, worked, and functioned as a family.
“If I could have made a living in Bamyan, it is true that I would have fulfilled your wishes,” Yair’s letter reads, reported Haaretz. “You know that in my occupation, if I am missing from the store for a day, on that day I will lose everything.”
“Eggplants were not yet in abundance and so I did not send any. They were very small. I will send [some] next week,” Yair wrote in different letter, hinting at another reason why he is living in Bamyan.
Wolfe’s latest batch also includes a notebook which Abu Nassar used to keep track of all those who owed him money over several decades, with some not only owing money but also quantities of wheat or barley.
The several hundred entries, which are primarily Muslim names but did include Iranian Jewish names, allows historians to see how society worked at the time, particularly the economic problems they faced and how the different religions overlapped in day-to-day life.
Reuters 2 February 2012
Old Jewish scrolls found in Afghanistan
Reuters 2 February 2012
Israeli professor says 150 documents dating back to 11th century provide 'exciting evidence' enabling researchers to study Jewish community's writings
The 150 or so documents, dated from the 11th century, were found in Afghanistan's Samangan province and most likely smuggled out – a sorry but common fate for the impoverished and war-torn country's antiquities.
"Here, for the first time, we see evidence and we can actually study the writings of this Jewish community. It's very exciting," Shaked told Reuters by telephone from Israel, where he teaches at the Comparative Religion and Iranian Studies department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The hoard is currently being kept by private antique dealers in London, who have been producing a trickle of new documents over the past two years, which is when Shaked believes they were found and pirated out of Afghanistan in a clandestine operation.
It is likely they belonged to Jewish merchants on the Silk Road running across Central Asia, said T. Michael Law, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford University's Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
"They might have been left there by merchants travelling along the way, but they could also come from another nearby area and deposited for a reason we do not yet understand," Law said.
'Sold elsewhere for 10 times more'Cultural authorities in Kabul had mixed reactions to the find, which scholars say is without a doubt from Afghanistan, arguing that the Judeo-Persian language used on the scrolls is similar to other Afghan Jewish manuscripts.
National Archives director Sakhi Muneer outright denied the find was Afghan, arguing that he would have seen it, but an advisor in the Culture Ministry said it "cannot be confirmed but it is entirely possible".
"A lot of old documents and sculptures are not brought to us but are sold elsewhere for 10 times the price," said advisor Jalal Norani, explaining that excavators and ordinary people who stumble across finds sell them to middlemen who then auction them off in Iran, Pakistan and Europe.
"Unfortunately, we cannot stop this," Norani said. The Culture Ministry, he said, pays on average $1,500 for a recovered antique item. The Hebrew University's Shaked estimated the Jewish documents' worth at several million dollars.
Thirty years of war and conflict have severely hindered both the collecting and preserving of Afghanistan's antiquities, and the Culture Ministry said endemic corruption and poverty meant many new discoveries do not even reach them.
Interpol and US officials have also traced looted Afghan antiquities to funding insurgent activities.
In today's climate of uncertainty, the National Archives in Kabul keep the bulk of its enormous collection of documents – some dating to the fifth century – under lock and key to prevent stealing.
Instead reproductions of gold-framed Pashto poems and early Korans scribed on deer skin, or vellum, are displayed for the public under the ornate ceilings of the Archives, which were the nineteenth century offices of Afghan King Habibullah Khan.
"I am sure Afghanistan, like any country, would like to control their antiquities... But on the other hand, with this kind of interest and importance, as a scholar I can't say that I would avoid studying them," said Shaked of the Jewish find.