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Mystery swirls around Judaic manuscripts discovered in Afghanistan

NEW YORK (JTA) — It was said to be a finding of groundbreaking scholarly and historic significance, comparable in importance to the 19th-century discovery of the Cairo Geniza and rivaling the Dead Sea Scrolls for sheer drama.

That, at any rate, was the buzz in scholarly circles when reports began surfacing last month that an exceptionally rare collection of ancient Judaic manuscripts — some of them dating back more than a millennia — were discovered in a cave in Samangan province in northeastern Afghanistan.

The manuscripts are of several varieties, both religious and secular, and are drafted in a number of languages, including Judeo-Persian and Judeo-Arabic. Among the documents recovered are fragments of the writings of the Saadia Gaon, a famed Jewish sage born in Egypt in the ninth century, and financial records that may shed light on the little-known medieval Jewish merchant class known as the Raddanites.

But those who have seen the documents, and who are familiar with the shadowy trade in Middle Eastern antiquities, say the fantastic tales of an unsuspecting shepherd happening upon documents of incalculable historic value are not to be believed.

“Generally, you have to be very careful of what a Middle Eastern antiquities dealer tells you,” said Lenny Wolfe, himself a Middle Eastern antiquities dealer based in Jerusalem. “You’re probably safer not believing it.”

What no one disputes is that the documents are authentic and, if they can be made widely available to scholars, can potentially shed light on a period in Jewish history that remains shrouded in mystery.

The documents, which number about 150 — far fewer than the thousands in the Cairo Geniza — are generally believed to be about 1,000 years old, though a few are probably older. They include early texts suggesting the community may have been Karaite, a Jewish sect that rejected rabbinic law and flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries. There are also financial documents that may have much to teach about the Jewish merchants who acted as middlemen along the trade routes between East Asia and Europe. The writings of Saadia Gaon include fragments of a biblical commentary and a rebuttal to the claims of a local heretic. Poems also were recovered.

“I think that it’s a very important find,” said Shaul Shaked, an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who saw some of the documents in London several months ago. “This is the first time that we have a large quantity of handwritten documents from that area, from Afghanistan, where we knew vaguely there was some kind of Jewish settlement, a Jewish community, but we had very vague ideas about what their life was like.”

Wolfe told JTA that he had the opportunity to purchase a small portion of the documents recently and is holding them in Jerusalem until a national institution can come up with the money to acquire them. He declined to say how much he paid for them, where he got them or how much it would cost to deliver them to a museum.

In all probability, the manuscripts were illegally smuggled out of Afghanistan. The director of the Afghan National Archives told Reuters that the find was not Afghan, but a Culture Ministry adviser conceded that it’s not uncommon for local antiquities to be shipped abroad where they fetch much higher prices.

As a result, efforts to determine who now holds the documents, where they are being stored or how they were acquired proved to be inconclusive.

What is clear is that the collection is split between several private dealers, at least one of whom is based in London. Other lots are said to be in the hands of dealers in Dubai and Switzerland. Other than Wolfe’s acknowledgement of his holdings, JTA could not confirm claims regarding who has ownership of the documents or how they were acquired.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of colorful stories floating around. One story, which several of those involved had heard, involves a Russian-Jewish billionaire who supposedly had expressed interest in purchasing the manuscripts but had pulled out after his attorneys advised that he may run into legal difficulties. No one would divulge his name.

It “adds an element of mystique,” Wolfe said. “I personally never spoke to any Russian oligarch. What I’ve heard is hearsay. I don’t trust hearsay.”

Menashe Goldelman, a London-based expert in Middle Eastern antiquities who has authored a 23-page report on the documents, told JTA that they emerged on the London market several months ago. Goldelman said he had been enlisted by a dealer to sell the documents on his behalf. At present, Goldelman said he was trying to broker an agreement with the various dealers to bring the collection together. Goldelman estimates their total value at about $5 million.

“They are not things that are stolen from an institution or found in a legal excavation,” Goldelman said. “At some point, everything that comes from the ground goes to the black market. The black market, this is the institution that helps to save this material. If something has, let’s say, commercial value, it gets saved. If you don’t have a commercial value for the manuscript, they go and put it in the fireplace.”

Goldelman’s involvement may not reassure skittish buyers about their provenance. In 2010, two professors reportedly accused him of trafficking in stolen antiquities and protested his scheduled appearance at a conference in Israel. Goldelman’s lawyer denied the accusations and threatened to sue for libel.

None of the experts who have spoken publicly on the matter of the Afghan documents appeared to be too troubled by unanswered questions about their origins, seeming to accept such things as the cost of doing business in ancient artifacts.

“What is important for us is that these fragments and documents don’t get buried again in some safe of a collector,” said Haggai Ben-Shammai, a professor of Arabic at Hebrew University and the academic director of Israel’s National Library. Ben-Shammai said the library was searching for a donor who would acquire the manuscripts on its behalf.

“We don’t have the means to acquire them on our own,” Ben-Shammai said. “We need some assistance in this.”