KABUL, Afghanistan — A cache of ancient Jewish scrolls from northern Afghanistan that recently came to light is creating a storm among scholars who say the find could reveal an undiscovered side of the religion in medieval times.
Experts said the 150 or so documents, dated from the 11th century, were found in Afghanistan's Samangan province and most likely smuggled out — a common fate for the impoverished country's antiquities.
Israeli emeritus professor Shaul Shaked, who has examined some of the poems, commercial records and judicial agreements that make up the treasure, said while the existence of ancient Afghan Jewish civilization is known, the culture was still a mystery.
"Here, for the first time, we see evidence and we can actually study the writings of this Jewish community. It's very exciting," Shaked said from Israel, where he teaches in the comparative religion and Iranian studies department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The cache is 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.
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 Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
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 denied the find was Afghan, arguing that he would have seen it, while an adviser 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" the ministry pays, said adviser 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.
"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," Shaked said of the find.