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Friday, June 22, 2012

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman

I've always been curious about ancient manuscripts, and some of the most ancient include those connected to religion.  When Algonquin Press sent me a copy of The Aleppo Codex:  A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, I was intrigued.

Aleppo is located in Syria, and the Great Synagogue of Aleppo served the Jewish population of Aleppo since the 5th century.  The synagogue housed the Aleppo Codex (or The Crown), the oldest extant copy of the Bible, the most authoritative and the most precise, for over five hundred years.  Written circa 930 C.E., the Aleppo Codex remained in tact for a thousand years, despite being moved, stolen once, and ransomed.  The Jews of Aleppo continued to keep the codex safe for another 500 years.

A pogrom in 1947, however, resulted in the burning of the Great Synagogue, and although the codex was rescued, there were pages missing.  How the codex was saved and eventually carried to Jerusalem, how many pages were missing and when, and what happened to those pages is what Matti Friedman pursues over the course of four years.

Originally, Friedman intended to tell the story of rescue of the codex from the fire and the details of how it eventually made its way to Jerusalem and into the hands of the Israeli authorities rather than back in the possession of the Aleppo community.  He got much more than he bargained for.  At almost every turn he met problems:  by 2008 many of those involved in the original tale were dead, some stories had serious flaws, government officials and others refused access to documents.

His research paid off in unexpected ways, revealing a story of intrigue and deception, solving some of the mysteries of the Crown's recent history, but not all.  Friedman raises the questions of ownership in regard to religious and historical documents, the ethics of appropriation of manuscripts belonging to various sects, the location of the missing codex pages, official neglect of ancient manuscripts, and what can be discovered about a manuscript when undergoing expert preservation.

An engrossing read if you like history or mystery--both are in abundance here.

Nonfiction.  History.  2012.  320 pages.


  1. I have this one but have not read it yet. I am looking forward to it though - ancient manuscripts are fascinating!

  2. Sheila - I really enjoyed this one and learned quite a bit about different Jewish communities, the efforts to establish a Jewish state after the war, the seizure of documents by the Israeli government, and more. I hope you enjoy the book!

  3. I've got this one on my TBRs, too. Am looking forward to it. Glad to know you enjoyed it!

  4. Nancy - It really is a fascinating and informative account of a truly ancient manuscript. Hope you enjoy it!