The Aleppo Codex Mystery Uncovered

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“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.
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I first thought the story was about the power of a great book, and it still is, though in a manner far darker than I had originally intended. Considering the devastating insight into the nature of human beings contained in the Crown’s pages, one might be forgiven, whether one believes the Bible’s words to be prophetic or merely wise, for seeing this tale as that of a book that foresaw its own fate.

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.

I met the head of the Ben-Zvi Institute, a government-funded academic body named for the man who was given the manuscript upon its arrival in Israel: Itzhak Ben-Zvi, ethnographer, historian, and Israel’s president between 1952 and 1963. Though the manuscript is safeguarded at the national museum, the late president’s institute, set among trees in a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood and dedicated to studying the Jewish communities of the East, remains its official keeper. The professor, a polite and careful man, spoke to me at length and then, when I moved beyond generalities and requested access to documents pertaining to the Crown in the institute’s archive, stopped returning my e-mails.

Searching for details about what had happened to the manuscript since the 1947 synagogue fire in Aleppo, I found a Hebrew book published in the 1980s by the institute. Though it offered much detail about the Crown’s history before 1947, it was oddly blurred and contradictory about everything that had happened since. I got the impression, the amplitude of which inched upward with the page numbers, that the author was going to great lengths not to reveal something, or many things, and I closed the book with the unsettling feeling that I knew less than I had when I opened it.

I called another official at the institute and told him I was hoping to write a book about the Crown of Aleppo. “There already is a book,” he said.

I learned of a trial that had taken place in Jerusalem more than fifty years before and that seemed to have been linked somehow to the manuscript, and then found that no one appeared to have any official record of it.

I called one of the world’s foremost experts on Hebrew manuscripts, a former director of Israel’s national library and, in introducing myself, made a casual reference to a “page” of the Crown. “Not page,” said the librarian, his voice brittle with contempt. “Leaf.” If I did not know the difference, he said, perhaps I should write about something else — a layman, he seemed to mean, had no business poking around this story.

(In the technical language of the library, a page is one side of a leaf. Outside the halls of academia the words mean the same thing, and I have used them interchangeably throughout.) He then suggested several articles I should read, all of them written by him, and hung up.

Gradually I discovered a subculture of people fascinated by the Crown and its story, scholars, collectors, and Jewish exiles from Aleppo who became immediately attentive at the mention of its name. I began to think of them as a kind of Aleppo Codex Underground.

I went to a small store crowded with Hebrew books near the open vegetable market in west Jerusalem, whose owner, I had been told, was an Aleppo Jew who might have information about the manuscript. The bookseller, a bearded man with a black skullcap, apologized: he could not help me. He had also asked questions, he said, in vain. “In the Aleppo community there is a conspiracy of silence about the Crown,” he said.

Hearing rumors that agents of the Mossad, Israel’s covert intelligence service, had somehow been involved, I contacted an old spy I had befriended while working on an earlier piece for the AP, a former Mossad station chief in Beirut and Tehran who now spent his days padding around a Tel Aviv apartment in slippers. “You want to speak to Rafi Sutton,” he said. Sutton, Aleppo born and approaching eighty, was a veteran of the Mossad and several of Israel’s other intelligence arms. Twenty years earlier, after retiring from professional spy work, Sutton had conducted his own investigation into the Crown’s recent history.

At one of our first meetings, he placed a thick file folder on his coffee table, leaned back, and gave me an interrogator’s stare so finely honed that I could almost feel his thick fingers rummaging through my brain. “What do you know?” he asked, and then he scoffed when I told him. I knew nothing. “The whole story is in here,” he said, nodding at his file folder, his imposing nose pointing down past the disconcerting glint of his grin to a tuft of white hair sprouting from his tracksuit. But spies do not just give information away. The folder was a prop, a come-on, and for now he had no intention of letting me see what was inside.

Through my new contacts in the Aleppo Codex Underground, I met Ezra Kassin, a man in his forties who could describe in minute detail the great synagogue of Aleppo and the grotto where the Crown had been concealed. But he had never been there; he was born to an Aleppo Jewish family in Israel, where he served in the army as a military police detective and later ran a center for the study of Jewish mysticism. Kassin was preoccupied to the point of obsession with the missing pages of the Crown, as if by reconstituting the book something much more important could be put back together. Like Rafi Sutton, the old Mossad agent, Kassin had run his own amateur Crown investigation, documenting it in binders and computer files that he kept in the home he shared with his wife and two-year-old son.

“Listen,” he told me when we met in a café, “you’re entering a minefield.” I nodded, pretending I knew what he meant. He shook his head. I had no idea.

“There are traps and pitfalls and mirages and cats guarding the cream,” he said. “Say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and ten other doors will slam shut.” He raised his cappuccino to his lips, enjoying himself.

My first visit to the gallery at Israel’s national museum should have prepared me for what came afterward. The volume I saw open to the book of Isaiah, the one that launched me on this enterprise, was not the Crown of Aleppo at all. Only the two pages on top were real, resting upon a dummy tome cleverly arranged to look like the original. For reasons of conservation and security, I later learned, the rest of the manuscript was kept in a vault elsewhere in the building. Access required three different keys, a magnetic card, and a secret code. In the display case was a curator’s trick meant to give visitors a sense of the real thing; like so much else in this story, it was a useful deceit.

With persistence, the doors did crack open. The story begins at the moment when something new was being born and something very old was ending, and unfolds between two cities not all that far away from each other — Aleppo and Jerusalem — branching out to other cities on other continents. I first thought the story was about the power of a great book, and it still is, though in a manner far darker than I had originally intended. Considering the devastating insight into the nature of human beings contained in the Crown’s pages, one might be forgiven, whether one believes the Bible’s words to be prophetic or merely wise, for seeing this tale as that of a book that foresaw its own fate.

The Crown’s twin mysteries, I came to believe, were connected to each other, and both were connected to the unwillingness I encountered to tell the truth or speak at all about the manuscript’s journeys in the twentieth century. This is a true story, not a neat whodunit, and the tools necessary for a definitive solution to the first mystery,that of the missing pages, would include power of subpoena and a time machine. I understood that certainty would necessarily be elusive. Yet I progressed further than I first thought possible and discovered a considerable amount of surprising information, known to few and never made public that allowed me to sketch the contours of an answer. The solution to the second mystery — how, precisely, the book ended up where it did — is recounted here in full for the first time.

In discussing the pursuit of the true knowledge hidden in the Bible, the great physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides, whom the reader will shortly encounter in twelfth-century Cairo, wrote,

“You should not think that these great secrets are fully and completely known to anyone among us. They are not. But sometimes truth flashes out to us so that we think that it is day, and then matter and habit in their various forms conceal it so that we find ourselves again in an obscure night, almost as we were at first. We are like someone in a very dark night over whom lightning flashes time and time again.”

Maimonides — who used this very codex in preparing his most enduring masterpiece of Jewish law — was referring to matters grander than journalistic inquiry, but I found myself returning to his words as I struggled to piece together what had befallen this book. At first the few fragments of information I was able to assemble did not seem to suggest an intelligible explanation, but slowly my investigation began to bear fruit and the fate of the book was illuminated. While it is beyond my power to restore the missing pieces of the Crown of Aleppo, I found that many of the missing pieces of its story were waiting to be rescued.

This book began as a project driven by my curiosity. But as the facts became more garbled and disappointing, as I became adept at panning for secrets in file folders and began spending much of my time with old men, grasping at memories crumbling like burnt parchment, I discovered another motivation. If the Crown of Aleppo could not be whole, everything had to be done so that its history would be; this was owed to the people who wrote it, read it, swore by it, and guarded it with their lives for a thousand years.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Aleppo Codexby Matti Friedman, published by Algonquin Books, 2012.

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