Afghan cave find is ‘monumental’

By Sarah Pilchick, January 10, 2013
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Thousand-year-old documents found in an Afghan cave are shedding light on the region’s ancient Jewish community.

The documents, found in north-eastern Afghanistan in an area now controlled by the Taliban, are the first physical evidence of a Jewish community in the region. Israel’s National Library unveiled its acquisition of 29 fragments of the “Afghan Genizah”, named after the so-called “Cairo Genizah” of documents found in Egypt, last Thursday.

Genizah is a Hebrew word that refers to a synagogue’s antechamber where liturgical documents were stored before they could receive a proper burial. In Judaism, it is forbidden to throw out writings containing an invocation of God.

The National Library dated the documents to the early 11th century. The Genizah documents myriad life experiences, including biblical commentaries, financial records and personal letters.

The documents are written in a number of languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Judea-Arabic, and the so-called “Yiddish of Persian Jews”, referring to the unique Judeo-Persian language written in Hebrew characters. The fragments represent the earliest stage of the Judeo-Persian language.

Professor Haggai Ben-Shammai, the Academic Director of Israel’s National Library, said that the discovery of the documents was monumental because previously historians had only had indirect evidence of Jewish presence in the region of Khorasan, which encompasses parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

“We haven’t had any evidence of Jewish life [in Khorasan], just physical evidence of Jewish death,” Professor Ben-Shammai said, citing a number of Jewish cemeteries found.

While researchers cannot use the documents to estimate the number of Jews living in the region, which was historically part of the Persian Empire, Professor Ben-Shammai suspects that the region’s prime location along the “Silk Road” meant that it was a flourishing centre of economic, cultural, and academic activity, and that many Jewish merchants passed through in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Officially, only one Jew remains in Afghanistan today.

Last updated: 3:53pm, January 10 2013