The Afghan Geniza
An Afghan boy stands inside an old Jewish synagogue undergoing renovation in the old part of Herat city northeast of Kabul. (Photo by Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)
The road between the Afghani cities of Ghazni and Bamiyan is fraught with danger. The Kabul-Kandahar highway that makes up most of the journey was improved and reopened in 2003, but in the last several years travelers on this road have been targets for Taliban, insurgents, and bandits of all stripes. A recent article in Afghanistan Today reports that hundreds of people are kidnapped and attacked on this route every year.
The road was also dangerous, so it seems, in the Middle Ages. A cache of Jewish documents was recently discovered in Afghanistan, and among its contents is a trader’s letter written in Judeo-Persian; like Yiddish, this Jewish language sounds similar to the standard Persian spoken in Iran and Afghanistan today, but is written in the Hebrew script. In the still-unpublished letter, the author, a trader in Ghazni, complains to his brother that he is far from his wife and family in Bamiyan. Despite the relative closeness of the two cities, for the author a journey was out of the question. “I am not a man of traveling and absence from home,” he writes, expressing his grief at the absence of his loved one: “My heart is occupied with her, for I know she is in distress.”
This trader’s letter is just one of the documents that have the potential to shed new light on the history of medieval Afghanistan and its Jewish community. The documents include not only letters, but contracts, poetry, theology, biblical interpretation, and more. While the vast majority of the documents are as yet unavailable to scholars, experts who have seen the texts, such as Shaul Shaked of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, are certain that the documents can be dated between the ninth and the early thirteenth century, when the Mongol invasion devastated the region’s Jewish communities.
An Afghan man rides his bicycle on the Kabul-Kandahar highway on the outskirts of Kabul (photo by Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images).
Most scholars agree that the history of the Afghani Jewish community goes back to the seventh or eighth centuries. Beginning as a community of traders, like our letter writer, who traveled as far as China and India along the branches of the Silk Route, with time Jews settled permanently in cities like Kabul, Ghur, and Herat. As indicated by their knowledge of Persian, Afghani Jews seem to have spread east from Iran, where, by the time the new documents were written, Jews had lived for over one thousand years.
Given its significance, the find has attracted media attention. A number of reports have compared the Afghan discovery to the Cairo Geniza, the giant cache of manuscripts stored for centuries in a synagogue attic in Old Cairo that have helped to rewrite the history of Jews in the Middle East.
However, what most of the media coverage has left unsaid is that the “Afghan Geniza” is not our only record of Jewish life and literature in Persian from this period. Manuscripts and inscriptions discovered in today’s Afghanistan, China, India, and Iran already tell the story of a thriving intellectual culture among Persian-speaking Jews. These documents include two Judeo-Persian letters, also between traders, found in the Silk Road oasis of Dandan Uiliq; signatures in Judeo-Persian found on a king’s grant to foreign traders in Kerala, South India; and the longest text from this early period, a nearly complete translation and interpretation of the biblical book of Ezekiel.
For scholars of Persian such as myself, the importance of these documents even goes beyond their historical or literary significance. Judeo-Persian texts from before the thirteenth century — including, it is safe to assume, the new finds from Afghanistan — are not written in a single language. Without a court or other central authority to promote one unified standard, as was the case with Muslim Persian from an early period, Jews writing in Persian with the Hebrew script used a number of different regional dialects. In addition to these regional differences, the register of the language varies from document to document. Some writers used local literary languages — micro-standards, one might call them—while others simply wrote as they spoke.
This variety is what makes the documents so important for uncovering the history of the Persian language. These early texts in Judeo-Persian help explain the transition from the ancient Persian used before the seventh-century Muslim conquest of Iran to the full-blown modern literary language that emerges several centuries later, for instance in Ferdowsi’s Epic of Kings. While Judeo-Persian is not itself the missing link — Ferdowsi, for instance, was not plagiarizing the Dandan Uiliq letter — these documents do record snapshots of changing grammar, vocabulary, morphology, and even phonology.
In this light, the significance of this new find in Afghanistan is not only historical. For scholars of Persian — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — the documents help fill in the missing links in the development of the language from ancient times to the present.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.