A letter in Judeo-Persian (a Persian dialect written in Hebrew script) from the “Afghan Genizah”. National Library of Israel (via Wikimedia Commons)

A letter in Judeo-Persian (a Persian dialect written in Hebrew script) from the “Afghan Geniza,” National Library of Israel (image via Wikimedia Commons)

They were found in a cave, so the story goes.

There were hundreds of documents from Afghanistan dating from the 11th to the 13th centuries CE, written in several languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, Persian, Arabic, the last two in both Hebrew and Arabic scripts. Business and legal documents, personal letters, poetry. Religious works, too: fragments of the Mishnah, said to be the earliest examples of rabbinic texts found east of Babylonia; selections from Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Proverbs; a prayer book; and a copy of a previously unknown commentary on Isaiah by Saadia Gaon. Some of the documents come from the archive of a Jewish merchant family, others from Muslim traders. Together these manuscripts are of enormous potential significance given how little we know of medieval Jewish communities in Afghanistan.

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Channel 2 report on the “Afghan Geniza”

The story was first brought to the world’s attention by a report from Israel’s Channel 2 in December 2011. By that point the manuscripts had already been circulating for about three years, among antiquities dealers in London, Geneva, Dubai, and Jerusalem. Channel 2 dubbed them the “Afghan Geniza.” Geniza is a Hebrew word meaning “storage” or “archive”; it refers specifically to a temporary repository in a synagogue for religious items before they are ritually buried. The most famous example is the Cairo Geniza, a storage space in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, where hundreds of thousands of documents dating between the 9th and 19th centuries CE were found by Western scholars in the 1890s. In this case, however, there is no evidence to suggest a connection with a synagogue. The National Library bought an initial set of 29 documents from this cache in 2013, and an additional set of about 250 documents earlier this month.

Beyond these basic facts, we enter the realm of rumor and myth. “There is something enchanting about discovery stories,” as Eva Mroczek writes about other ancient texts found in caves. The mystery adds to their appeal. The “Afghan geniza” manuscripts were said to be found in one cave, or several caves; in the northeastern part of the country, or in Bamiyan in north central Afghanistan, or Samangan province nearby, or maybe in Jam in the west. Some versions have a shepherd following a sheep into the cave; the cave was home to a family of foxes — or are they wolves? — who may have led villagers to the discovery. In one especially confused version we read that “foxes scratching in the dirt revealed a hidden cave.”

Caves have an allure: there are special things hidden in them, like secret knowledge. The most famous example are the Dead Sea Scrolls, reportedly found by a Bedouin shepherd following a stray goat into a cave at Qumran. But finding texts in caves has a long history. Around 800 CE, Timothy, patriarch of the Church of the East in Baghdad, described in a letter the news of hundreds of scrolls in jars, including Psalms unknown from the Bible, discovered near Jericho by an Arab following his dog into a cave while hunting. Earlier still, the Christian theologian Origen (early 3rd century CE) had reported the find of scrolls in jars in the same region, though there is no mention of caves. Yaʽqūb al-Qirqisānī, a Karaite scholar of the 10th century CE, referred to an ancient group of people he called al-Maghāriyah (the “cave people”) because they left books in caves.

The name given to the Afghan cache deliberately recalls the Cairo Geniza, even though the Afghan documents have no known link to a synagogue, and reportedly included only hundreds of documents, not hundreds of thousands. The story of discovery does recall the Dead Sea Scrolls. In other words, we are led to associate it with two most important modern discoveries of historical Jewish documents.

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National Library of Israel promotional video, September 16, 2016

But caves, or at least the caves of Afghanistan, have a dark side too. They are inaccessible places, where supposedly primitive, backward people live, and where enemies lurk. The documents of the “Afghan Geniza” have made “their journey from a dark cave to the glow of the world’s computer screens,” writes Isabel Kershner in the New York Times. “The exact source of the documents is murky. The manuscripts are said to have come from a remote area near the borders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, wild terrain largely controlled by warlords” (emphasis mine). Others describe them as from a “war-torn Afghanistan province,” an area that was once a thriving cultural center on the Silk Road but is now remote.

The National Library of Israel posted a video to promote their new purchase, which begins with stereotypical images of Afghanistan: “The Taliban, Bin Laden, war … These are perhaps our most immediate connotations with Afghanistan, a land all too familiar with strife and destruction.” All of this is narrated to a soundtrack of gunfire — which immediately stops when we transition to the discovery of the “Afghan Geniza.” (There are similar images and sounds in the original Channel 2 report.) We even read from Aron Heller of AP that “the same caves have served as hideouts for Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan” (even though the exact location of their discovery is completely unknown).

Caves are also a place of forgery, of fake manuscripts and invented tales of discovery. While one Karaite scholar talked about an ancient people leaving writings in caves, Moses Taku (13th century CE) accused Karaites of planting newly written texts that could be found and declared old. In 1883, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer named Moses Shapira offered to the British Museum a set of strips containing what he claimed was an ancient version of Deuteronomy — for one million pounds. Shapira claimed that these texts, too, were found by Arabs in a cave by the Dead Sea, just like Timothy a millennium earlier. But this time, the documents were denounced by experts as forgeries, and Shapira left London in disgrace, committing suicide six months later. By the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s, “a Bedouin and a cave” was already a mythic cliché in find stories of manuscripts, as Mroczek notes — leading one prominent scholar at the time (Solomon Zeitlin) to dismiss the Dead Sea Scrolls as fake because the discovery story conformed to the myth. Of course, the myth is sometimes based in truth, sometimes outright false — but it is always embellished. When it comes to unprovenanced antiquities — for ancient manuscripts and other artifacts, this generally means those lacking secure origin in an archaeological excavation — we would do well to heed the words of Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military hero who was also a notorious antiquities collector and looter: “I follow the principle of my teacher, Professor Givon, who said that whenever one acquires antiquities, one should beware of buying at the same time the tales which the dealers attach to their merchandise.”

This brings us back to the “Afghan Geniza.” Without provenance, we are left with so little information about the documents and their context, and left to question so much about them, down to their very authenticity. Although scholars such as Shaul Shaked of Hebrew University have attested to their genuineness, suggesting (among other things) that the range of languages represented makes forgery extremely unlikely, scholars have often been fooled by fakes before.

But assuming the manuscripts are authentic, this means they have likely been illegally trafficked and transported from their country of origin. Smuggling thousand-year-old artifacts out of one country and into the national library of another might be acceptable practice in an Indiana Jones film (after all, this is what “That belongs in a museum” really means), but that reflects the time period in which the films are set, the 1940s. Professional ethics in academia have greatly evolved in the decades since; and there is a new regime of national and international laws governing these activities. Afghanistan’s Law on the Protection of Historical and Cultural Properties (2004) strictly regulates the excavation and sale of antiquities: allowing private ownership of only registered antiquities, and prohibiting export except by the state. It appears that none of the required steps was followed in the case of the “Afghan Geniza,” starting with the fact that the texts were likely found in an illegal excavation.

In addition, we have the odd role played by an Israeli antiquities dealer, Lenny Wolfe. In multiple reports, especially Nir Hasson’s June 2016 piece for Haaretz (based on an interview with Wolfe), Wolfe becomes the central hero of the story: working with Israeli scholars to identify the manuscripts, authorized by a government agency (the Israel Antiquities Authority) to purchase the manuscripts on behalf of the state, rescuing them from private hands and ensuring that they end in a public Israeli institution. But the casting is puzzling considering the notorious connections of antiquities dealers to both illegal trafficking and forgery of artifacts. And if we pay careful attention, we see that Wolfe, deputized by the state, begins to haggle with it once he acquires the manuscripts. After his initial purchase, negotiations last a year before the manuscripts are sold to the National Library — and then Wolfe is reauthorized by the IAA. And again after purchase, Wolfe negotiates for months before selling, suggesting in the meantime that he might find other buyers: “I’m sure the material will eventually find its way to an appropriate institution.” Or is his account mythical too? As Wolfe himself has said, “Generally, you have to be very careful of what a Middle Eastern antiquities dealer tells you … You’re probably safer not believing it.”

The entire affair is both a legal and an ethical minefield. And so it is especially unsettling to see the role academics have played: the head of the Hebrew Language department at Tel Aviv University traveling with Wolfe to inspect material held by dealers; Shaked authenticating the manuscripts, by his own admission driving up the price — and creating greater interest in the manuscripts, along with an incentive for further looting.  None of this is new. Moshe Dayan cited “his teacher” Raphael Givon, the Egyptologist who authenticated artifacts for him. Meanwhile Shaked himself had previously worked for several years on the Schøyen incantation bowls, a set of hundreds of unprovenanced artifacts likely looted from Iraq in the 1990s. In fact, reports on the “Afghan Geniza” often refer to the illegal activity explicitly — they are said to be “smuggled” and held by a “shadowy network of antiquities dealers” — but no one seems to care, including the scholars. As Ben Harris of JTA writes, “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.”

The role of the National Library also merits careful attention. It emerges as yet another buyer of unprovenanced manuscripts, increasing the market for looted material. This role becomes even more disturbing if we consider it in the context of the library’s history of confiscating material. Israeli scholar Gish Amit has documented at length how the National Library of Israel built much of its collection by confiscating books from Palestinian houses after 1948 and from Yemenite Jews newly arrived in the country around the same time. There are other cases, too, including the bizarre story of how the Mossad conducted an operation in Damascus in the 1990s specially designed to smuggle eight medieval Bibles (the “Damascus Crowns,” among the earliest complete manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible) out of Syria, depositing them in the National Library. The state of Israel has historically laid claim to all kinds of Jewish cultural heritage outside the borders of Israel. But with the “Afghan Geniza” that claim becomes especially problematic, as over half of the documents (the 12th–13th century manuscripts of “Muslim traders”) have no connection to Jews.

Returning to the library’s promo video, we now see that the negative stereotypes of Afghanistan end up being used to justify the library’s purchase of likely stolen material. And those stolen manuscripts are said simply to have “made their way” to the library’s collection: no illegal trafficking, no smuggling, no Lenny Wolfe, no negotiations — in short, no hint of lawbreaking or unethical actions. The agency of the National Library is entirely removed.

Caves, it turns out, have another function: their murkiness appears to allow for the (white)washing of sins.

Michael Press is an archaeologist who writes on Middle Eastern archaeology, biblical studies, and how these fields are presented to the public. He received a PhD from Harvard University in Near Eastern...