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The Hebrew-Persian Tombstone Inscriptions from Djam, Afghanistan

     This project focuses on a series of Judaeo-Persian tombstone inscriptions that were discovered at the cemetery on the Kūh-i Kushkak mountain. The cemetery is located on the southern periphery of Djām, site of the famous Minaret of Djām in central Afghanistan, which was built during Ghūrid dynasty (1148-1215 CE). This important medieval Jewish cemetery represents one of the witnesses of historical and multicultural influences along the Silk Road across Asia. Located on the eastern fringes of the spread of Islam, this region has been an important trade post connecting Central Asia, Persia, and Europe from the beginning of the second century BCE, during the Han Dynasty (ca. 206 BCE - 220 CE) in China, until the Mongol invasion (1194-1220 CE). Islamic expansion and the conversion of the local population of the Ghūr province in Central Afghanistan took a long time and it was “the biggest pagan enclave within the borders of Islam” until the end of the tenth century.

The other major force in the thirteenth century was the Mongol invasion (1194-1220 CE) during which the entire area of Central Asia came under Mongol rule. Most of the Hebrew inscriptions in Central Afghanistan dealt with in this article belong to the period of the Iranian Islamic Ghūrid Dynasty in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which at its peak extended to most of present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the northwestern tips of China. The Ghūrid Empire was centered around the major cities of Harāt, Ghazni, and Lahore, but the Jewish cemetery was found near ist early capital of Fīrūzkūh. The tombstone inscriptions discovered in this cemetery provide valuable information and new insights on the historical background of the Jewish communities that existed in the region. Although the focus is not on the linguistic aspects of the epigraphic studies, the Judaeo-Persian inscriptions in Hebrew script dated during the Islamic period provide invaluable evidence on the development of the early New Persian language,  as they are examples of the language spoken by the Jews living within and beyond the borders of historical Persia.

The existence of this Jewish settlement in the remote Muslim region surrounding Djām seems to be enigmatic. They might have settled there due to the development of extensive trade networks in this region. The region of Djām, which was the home of the sultan’ssummer capital, Fīrūzkūh, was a flourishing politico-economical center, which extended from Nishāpur in Eastern Iran in the west, to the Gulf of Bengal in the south, and Sind in Northern-India in the northeast. The abrupt decline of the Ghūrid Empire seems to have been caused by the death of Mu‘izz al-Dīn Muammad b. Sāms’ in 1206 CE, followed by the conquest of Khwārizm Shāh in ca.1215.

Seven years later the Mongol invasion by Ögödei, put a complete end to the whole empire in ca.1222. This region is also well known historically for its flourishing commerce based on iron- and metal processing, and horse breeding191 as well as slave trading in the markets of Herat and Sistan. At the beginning of the tenth century, permanent multi-ethnic settlements of merchants existed in the region like the trading centers in Kabul and Ghazna during the Ghaznavid era. Bosworth mentioned that stable Indian merchant colonies also existed even before the establishment of the ancient Ghūrid capital Firuzkuh in (d. 541 A.H./1146-7 CE). The expatriate communities of merchants and their families from Khwarazm and Transoxania throughout Asia were also known to be operating as trading banks with an established system of letters of credit, which were honored in extensive regions from China to the Volga. The Central Asia cities along the Silk Road were serving as main trade posts throughout the region, connecting the west and east with Afghanistan at the mid-point of these extensive trade routes.

 

Surface A of the tripartite inscription dedicated to Elisa ben Mose Joseph (1198) first published in 1946 - Photo: Courtesy of Werner Herberg
Surface A of the tripartite inscription dedicated to Elisa ben Mose Joseph (1198) first published in 1946 - Photo: Courtesy of Werner Herberg

In various western, Arabic, and Chinese chronicles, we only rarely find evidence for the existence of a Judaeo-Persian speaking population in Central Afghanistan, located at this significant trade post, leading to the Mediterranean World, the Near East, China, and India. Nevertheless, in Tabakāt-i Nāsirī the main source for the Ghūrids, the thirteenth-century historian al-Juzjani (al-Ğūzğānī) refers to a Jewish merchant, a Yahūd (Jew) from Ghūr. According to the source, this Jewish merchant had acquired great experience in the ‘ways of the world and he entertained a friendship with Amīr Banjī, one of the founders of the Ghūrid dynasty.

The friendship started with the incident that took place when Amīr Banjī was travelling to Baghdad to resolve a dispute with his enemy. He met the Jewish merchant and asked him for some advice, which, in the event, turned out to be quite valuable. Amīr Banjī felt grateful to the Jewish merchant and let a number of the “Children of Israel” (‘Banī-Isrā’īl’) settle in his territory. The chronicle gives us some insights into a rationale for the existence of the Jewish settlement in the region although there is no conclusive evidence that these Jewish merchants were related to the speakers of the Judaeo- Persian dialects. There could have been multiple Jewish settlement in Afghanistan or surrounding regions that we have yet not discovered.

Due to the contemporary warfare in Afghanistan, no further investigations at the cemetery could be undertaken since the Minaret of Jām Archaeological Project (MJAP) in 2005. Future fieldwork could shed further light on many of the important questions raised and might reveal the social and ethnic background of the deceased more clearly. How did the Jewish community come to live at Djām? That is still an unsolved mystery, but future archaeological findings in the region would help to document the origin of the Judaeo- Persian speakers in Central Afghanistan. That is another compelling reason to hope for a future peace in Afghanistan and its surrounding regions, as was the case in medieval times when Jewish and other multi-nationals traveled across the world using camels and donkeys without the convenience of modern transportation.

Walter, Mariko N. and James P. Ito-Adler (eds.). The Silk Road: Interwoven History, Vol. 1: Long-distance Trade, Culture, and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge Institutes Press, 2015
Walter, Mariko N. and James P. Ito-Adler (eds.). The Silk Road: Interwoven History, Vol. 1: Long-distance Trade, Culture, and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge Institutes Press, 2015
Judaica. Beiträge zum Verstehen des Judentums
Judaica. Beiträge zum Verstehen des Judentums