An ancient and priceless book, a murky history of evasions and coverups, an underground of sinister and possibly violent dealers, a former spy who drops tantalizing hints and a wily 84-year-old millionaire who says stuff like, “The problem with this story is that it could damage your health”: Are these the ingredients for a cheesy, improbable historical thriller? Yet “The Aleppo Codex,” Matti Friedman’s account of his attempts to learn the history of one of the world’s most precious books, sports all of these assets, and it’s nonfiction. If reporting this story damaged Friedman’s health, it probably happened when he realized what he’d stumbled into and his reporter’s heart started beating in doubletime.[…]
Friedman became interested in this “lonely treasure and millennium-old traveler” in 2008, when he decided to write an article about it. He imagined the piece would be “an uplifting and uncomplicated account of the rescue of a cultural artifact,” but what he discovered instead was a thicket of conflicting reports, missing records, puzzling omissions, stonewalling officials and obsessed amateur sleuths.
The mysteries surround not the ancient history of the book, but what happened to it between 1947 and the mid-1970s, although even establishing where things got dodgy proved to be a challenge. Friedman relates each piece of the story as he untangled it himself, and part of the pleasure of “The Aleppo Codex” is getting to tag along on the heels of a real-life investigative journalist as he does his detective work. Those years spent writing wire copy have not eroded the author’s eloquence, either, as the book’s headier touches attest: “Down in those streets, the stores now shuttered, the women of the manzul were receiving clients, and the men were submerged in cafe smoke like deep-sea divers, tubes between their lips, inhaling the rose-scented oxygen of water pipes.”