Weekend Bookworm review (Brisbane, Australia)

The Aleppo Codex is one of the books that is a struggle to classify. It is a great thriller, a fascinating piece of history, a captivating human drama and a beautiful study of religion and politics which will appeal to atheists and the apolitical alike. It is the true story the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, written in the 10th century, transported around Jewish communities in the Muslim world, and eventually ending up in Aleppo in modern-day Syria.

The Crown, as it became known, was taken to Aleppo in the 14th century and, as Friedman explains, “it became less a source of knowledge for the improvement of man, as its creators intended, than a holy relic of great value”. When the UN voted for the partition of Palestine, the Arabs rioted and the Great Synagogue of Aleppo was burned. The codex was taken by the mob, the ancient community that guarded it was dispersed, the book eventually arrived in Israel but the core of the great Bible was lost.

Herein lies the twin mystery and the basis for this fantastic story: what happened to the missing pages; and how did the book end up where it did? “This is a true story,” writes Friedman “not a neat whodunit”. There is no definitive answer to the former question – although the search for one is fascinating – but the story of how the ancient Bible ended up in the State of Israel is recounted in a tale of intrigue and betrayal.

With the founding of the state of Israel, the Jews were forced out of Arab lands and, after centuries of veneration – even Maimonides the great medieval thinker, philosopher and doctor studied it in Egypt – the codex was on the move again. The new Jewish state, keen to legitimise its existence based on an ancient Jewish presence in Palestine, was desperate to obtain the sacred scripture. Eventually it did, but to the despair of the Aleppo Jews and apparently with the core of the book, the Torah, the first five books of Moses, missing.

It is the supreme irony, writes Friedman, that “The Hebrew Bible, of which the Aleppo codex was the most perfect copy, was meant to serve humans as a moral compass. Its story is a tragedy of human weakness … It fell victim to the instincts it was created to temper and was devoured by the creatures it was meant to save.”

The Aleppo Codex is a story about the greatest book in human history, the beliefs it inspires and the passions it arouses. It is also, in many ways, like a thinking man’s Da Vinci Code: there are spies and dodgy dealers, there are idealists and traitors, there are victors and there are victims, there are those whose motivation is generosity and those who are motivated by greed. Of course, concludes Friedman, “The hunger for old and beautiful things is not new. Paintings and other works of art are routinely stolen and fenced for large sums. But here the object stolen is not a thing of beauty but a book that condemns theft. The page with the passage Thou shalt not steal was stolen.”

By Rob Minshull, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Brisbane

July 6, 2012

For full review click here.