The Aleppo Codex Mystery Uncovered

Uncover the mystery of why a national treasure, the Aleppo Codex, was smuggled from Syria to Jerusalem and how some of the most important pages went missing.


| July 2012



Aleppo Codex

“The Aleppo Codex,” by Associated Press religion reporter Matti Friedman, is a true story of obsession, faith and the pursuit of the Hebrew Bible, the Aleppo Codex.

ALGONQUIN BOOKS

Matti Friedman’s true-life detective story traces how the precious Crown of Aleppo was smuggled from its hiding place in Syria into the newly founded state of Israel — and how and why many of its most sacred and valuable pages went missing. The Aleppo Codex (Algonquin Books, 2012) is an incredible story that involves greed, subterfuge, state cover-ups, and the fascinating role of the ancient Hebrew Bible manuscript, the Aleppo Codex, in creating a national identity. The following excerpt is taken from the introduction. 

In the summer of 2008, in a dark underground room at Israel’s national museum in Jerusalem, I encountered one of the most important books on earth. I had never heard of it. Up a winding flight of stairs from where I stood, in a hushed sanctuary dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls, a busload or two of tourists filed reverently past the glass cases containing the parchment celebrities of Qumran, but in the gallery below I was alone.

Off to one side, a bulky volume was open under a dim light. I was struck first by a certain air of dignity about it, a refusal to beg for attention: This book boasted no gold leaf, no elaborate binding, no intricate illuminations in lapis lazuli or scarlet, nothing at all but row after row of meticulous, handwritten Hebrew in dark brown ink on lighter brown parchment, twenty-eight lines to a column, three columns to a page. The margins contained tiny notes added by a different hand. It was open to the book of Isaiah. From the labels I learned that the volume was no less than the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, the singular and authoritative version, for believing Jews, of God’s word as it was sent into the world of men in their language. This lonely treasure and millennium-old traveler was the Aleppo Codex, and it would come to occupy much of my life for the next four years.

I was intrigued by the little I knew of the manuscript’s story and by the strange juxtaposition of its significance and its anonymity, and a few months after that first visit, amid my other journalistic tasks as a staff reporter at the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press — at the time, these tended to involve maintaining a stream of staccato wire copy from the Middle East describing incessant and fruitless political maneuvering and occasional carnage — I found time to make my first attempt to write about it. As I understood it then, the manuscript’s story was this: It was hidden for centuries in the great synagogue of Aleppo, Syria, where it became known as the Crown of Aleppo, or simply as the Crown. It was damaged in a fire set by Arab rioters in 1947, concealed, smuggled to the new state of Israel by the Jews of Aleppo as their community disappeared, and entrusted in 1958 to the country’s president, coming, in the words of one of the official versions of the story, “full circle.” This bound volume of parchment folios — a codex — had been kept intact for many hundreds of years, but a large number of leaves had mysteriously gone missing at the time of the synagogue fire. This hindered a quest by scholars to re-create the perfect text of the Bible, as the Crown had never been photographed and there were no known copies. A few vague theories existed about the fate of those pages, which I duly reported, along with a new attempt to find them by the codex’s custodians, scholars of the prestigious Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. I read some of the available material about the manuscript, interviewed several academics, and filed thirteen hundred words to an AP editor in New York City.

At the time of that article’s publication, I did not yet recognize the disappearance of the Crown’s pages for what it was — a real-life mystery with clues still hiding in forgotten crates of documents and in aging minds. And I did not see that there was another mystery hidden inside the story, one that turned out to be at least as interesting as the first: how, precisely, had the codex moved from a dark grotto in Aleppo to Jerusalem? I did not imagine, at the time, that there could be much new to say about something so old, and it certainly did not occur to me that the true story of the manuscript had never been told at all.

I would like to say I discerned that something was off about the codex’s story and that this is why I found myself thinking even months later about the volume I had seen in the museum. But I discerned nothing, and when eventually I began work on this book, I still imagined an uplifting and uncomplicated account of the rescue of a cultural artifact that was shot like a brightly colored thread through centuries of history, and of its return home. My reporter’s sense, a certain mental hum alerting me to the presence of a story concealed, began tingling only after I had spent a few bewildering months walking into locked doors.