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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Rare biblical treasures, smuggled out of Syria, displayed today in Israel

A fascinating story from AP:
Precious Bible manuscripts originating in the Jewish community of Damascus, Syria, went on display for several hours Wednesday, offering a rare glimpse at a collection that includes books spirited to Israel in clandestine operations before the ancient community disappeared at the end of the 20th century.

The books are held at Israel's national library. Because of security and conservation concerns, most of the collection has been on display just once before, also for just a few hours, more than a decade ago.

The collection includes 11 volumes. Three, including the oldest and most important book in the collection, were brought out of the library's vaults and displayed during a symposium Wednesday evening.

Ranging from 700 to 1,000 years old and written in the Middle East and Europe, the parchment manuscripts include meticulous Hebrew penmanship and illustrations in ink and gold leaf. Some boast intricate micrography - decorations made up of thousands of tiny Hebrew letters.

Genesis 12
Syria is accusing Israel of stealing the manuscripts - as if they ever belonged to Syria:
Zionist occupation security forces, with the help of Israeli Mossad, have succeeded in stealing 11 Old Testament books, some dating back 1,000 years.

But some of the details show that they were jealously guarded by the Jewish community; none of them were written in Syria:

The oldest of the Damascus Crowns was written in the late 10th century A.D. in what is now Israel. Because it shows the influence of two rival schools of textual scholars, it has provided modern researchers with important information on how the Biblical text evolved. It was purchased by a famed British collector of manuscripts, David Solomon Sassoon, in 1914 and taken to Britain. The library purchased it in 1975.

Another of the books displayed Wednesday, a 700-year-old Bible that scholars believe was written in Italy, had a riskier journey to Jerusalem.

Beginning in the late 1970s, a Canadian Jewish woman, Judy Feld Carr, undertook an effort to smuggle Jews out of Syria, raising money from North American synagogues, bribing Syrian officials, dispatching envoys and running an independent immigration operation for more than 20 years from her living room in Toronto. All told, Feld Carr's endeavor facilitated the emigration of more than 3,000 Syrian Jews.

Feld Carr learned of the manuscript, she said, from Jews who had already fled, and dispatched a contact to Damascus in 1993. She would identify the man only as a Western Christian who died last year.

Feld Carr orchestrated a meeting in Damascus between her envoy and the community's rabbi, she recounted. The rabbi slipped him the book, and the man then smuggled it out of the country hidden under his raincoat in a black shopping bag. The book reached Feld Carr in Canada and came to Israel the next year.

While the book was in her possession, Feld Carr saw there were two records of purchase appended to the manuscript. One showed it had changed hands in Spain before Jews were expelled from the country in 1492, and the second recounted another sale in the Ottoman Empire, where many Jews found refuge.

"It went from Italy to Castille, to Constantinople, to Damascus, and then to Toronto - this book was the story of the Jewish people," she said.

The eight books that were not put on display at the library Wednesday arrived in Israel in the 1990s in murkier circumstances, smuggled out of Syria via the West in an operation conducted by Israel's intelligence services. Few details of that smuggling operation have been disclosed. Aviad Stollman, the library curator in charge of the collection, said the eight books were not displayed to avoid putting a spotlight on a story that remains largely classified.

In Damascus, the manuscripts were guarded in some of the 24 synagogues that existed before the community's emigration. They were taken out only on special occasions or with permission from community leaders, said Shlomo Baso, a Damascus-born rabbi.
From what I can see in the photo that shows the text, it looks beautifully written, a bit more artistic than the Aleppo Codex.