NLI first learned of the texts in May 2011, but since then the scores of fragments have become scattered among dealers and collectors, says Prof. Haggai Ben-Shammai, Academic Director at the National Library and an expert on the Afghan Genizah. NLI has purchased twenty-nine fragments from this unprecedented cache with the hope of gathering the scattered manuscripts together in a single, searchable collection. Following steps to preserve the fragile and precious fragments, NLI will make them digitally accessible on the National Library website.
While the northern Afghani region may be remote today, in the 9th to 11th centuries, it was a hub of activity along the Silk Road, the main trading route between Europe and China. The Genizah documents written in Arabic are dated, and are of a legal nature, such as a trader’s annual accounting. Based on these items, we can date the Afghan Genizah to approximately the first half of the 11th century, explains Prof. Ben-Shammai.
The fragments bought by NLI include family letters and other documents in Judeo-Persian, which is essentially Persian written in Hebrew letters. There are also legal documents in Arabic and Persian pertaining to commercial and financial matters – and perhaps the most important manuscript of all, a previously unknown page of commentary on the Book of Isaiah by the 10th century rabbi and philosopher Saadia Gaon. Also, based on images of fragments seen by scholars from NLI, the cache contains other pieces of the Gaon's writings, says Prof Ben-Shammai, who points out that this isn't the Gaon's own personal handwriting – it would have been copied by his followers.