Monday, July 13, 2020 -
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Afghan Geniza treasures on display

Some of documents on display at the Hermitage.

By Zack Rothbart, National Library of Israel

Some two dozen, extremely rare treasures from the National Library of Israel’s Afghan Geniza collection are on display to the public for the first time as part of “Life in Medieval Khorasan. A Geniza from the National Library of Israel” at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

The exhibition also features rare artifacts from the Hermitage’s collections that will give a fuller sense of life in Medieval Khorasan. The curator is Anton Pritula, leading researcher in the Hermitage’s Oriental department. The exhibit runs through Jan. 19, 2020.

The term “geniza” refers to a storage area in a synagogue for holy and administrative papers.

The Afghan Geniza presents virtually the only original documentation about this once-thriving Jewish community on the Silk Road, as well as the region’s Islamic and Persian cultures prior to the devastating Mongol invasion.

The 11th-13th century documents provide unprecedented access to the day-to-day life, society and economy along the Silk Road, the ancient highway which once linked Europe and China.

The library’s Afghan Geniza holdings comprise nearly 300 pages, some 250 of which were acquired in 2016.

It is considered perhaps the most important find of Hebrew manuscripts since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-20th century.

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 once-bustling commercial center located on the Silk Road. 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.

“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,” explained Prof. Haggai Ben Shammai, an expert on Jews of the Islamic world.

According to Ben Shammai, the collection is of exceptional importance due to the previous dearth of first-hand accounts and evidence of Jewish life under local dynastic rule. Literary source materials had also been severely lacking until this discovery.

Another portion of the collection contains documents dating from the early 13th century, chronicling the broader Islamic culture on the eve of the devastating Mongol conquests of 1221.

As a result of the destruction wrought by Genghis Khan and his army, almost no documentation of the Persian and Arabic culture and language of the region exists besides these documents.

Many items in the collection had been part of a local administrator’s archive, and contain administrative documents and fragments of religious and literary works, mainly in Persian. This material provides an unparalleled view into the workings of government administration, politics and law in the region.

Though later Muslim scholars have written histories of the Islamic dynasties who reigned over the region, this collection of primary sources has shed light on uncharted areas of research, including economics, geography and social and political history.

NLI has digitized the materials and made them available to the international community of scholars and the general public.

They will be preserved and displayed in the National Library of Israel’s new campus, now under construction adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem.

“We are grateful to our partners at the Hermitage for this historic collaboration,” said David Blumberg, chairman of the National Library of Israel board.

“The exhibit highlights the National Library of Israel’s role as a dynamic international cultural center dedicated to promoting discourse and opening access to knowledge. It reflects the timeless Jewish values of treasuring the power of texts to unify, educate and inspire.”

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