'Damascus Crown' Bible manuscripts briefly displayed
By Matti Friedman, AP
October 7, 2011, 8:57 pm TWN
JERUSALEM--Precious Bible manuscripts originating in the Jewish community of Damascus, Syria, were on display for several hours, offering a rare glimpse at a collection that includes books spirited to Israel in clandestine operations before the ancient community disappeared at the end of the 20th century.
The books displayed Wednesday are held at Israel's national library. Because of security and conservation concerns, most of the collection went on display just once before, also for just a few hours, more than a decade ago.
The collection includes 11 volumes. Three, including the oldest and most important book in the collection, were brought out of the library's vaults and displayed during a symposium Wednesday evening.
Ranging from 700 to 1,000 years old and written in the Middle East and Europe, the parchment manuscripts include meticulous Hebrew penmanship and illustrations in ink and gold leaf. Some boast intricate micrography — decorations made up of thousands of tiny Hebrew letters.
None were written in Damascus, but rather came to be held in synagogues in the city over the centuries. They are known collectively as the Damascus Crowns, “crown” being a Hebrew term sometimes used to describe particularly important and venerable biblical manuscripts.
The Jewish community in Syria's capital had been there for more than 2,000 years before its members were driven out by government persecution and mob violence linked to the rise of Arab nationalism and the establishment of Israel in 1948. A second ancient community in the country's business center, Aleppo, met the same fate, as did others across the Arab world.
A trickle of Jewish emigrees managed to escape beginning at the time of Israel's creation, with the help of Israeli agents running smuggling routes through Lebanon and Turkey.
Most of the rest of the community left in the 1990s after Syria's late dictator, Hafez Assad, bowed to international pressure and allowed them out. Most settled in Israel and the U.S. A handful, no more than several dozen, remain in Damascus.
The oldest of the Damascus Crowns was written in the late 10th century A.D. in what is now Israel. Because it shows the influence of two rival schools of textual scholars, it has provided modern researchers with important information on how the Biblical text evolved. It was purchased by a famed British collector of manuscripts, David Solomon Sassoon, in 1914 and taken to Britain. The library purchased it in 1975.