Travelogue of the Aleppo Codex

The king of ancient Biblical manuscripts journeys through the Near East

The Aleppo Codex has a history that is almost as dramatic as the Biblical events that it recounts. One of the most important ancient Biblical manuscripts, the Aleppo Codex was originally written in Tiberias around 930 A.D. It became the version of the Hebrew Bible that was ultimately considered the most authoritative text in Judaism.

Though the ancient Biblical manuscripts contained among the Dead Sea Scrolls are almost 1,000 years older, the importance of the Aleppo Codex is that it is essentially annotated; It contains vowel markings (nekkudot) in the form of subscripts and superscripts. It contains other markings (te’amim) indicating pitch relationships (neumes or pneumes, in Greek) to guide the cantor in chanting the prescribed Torah or prophetic (haftara) portion. And it contains massive marginal notations (masora) concerning cruxes in the text.

In the anti-Jewish riots that broke out in Aleppo, Syria following the U.N. resolution that created the Israeli state in 1947, this most important of ancient Biblical manuscripts was damaged—portions of it remain missing to this day.

Travelogue of the Aleppo Codex

Travelogue of the Aleppo Codex, one of the most important ancient Biblical manuscripts.

A. Tiberias 930 A.D.
Written in 930 C.E. in the town of Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee, the Aleppo Codex has traveled widely since its creation by the Masoretes, named for the scholarly notations they made in the margins of the text (masora, literally “tradition”).

B. Jerusalem c. 1040 A.D.
The codex was purchased by a wealthy man named Israel Ben Simcha of Basra, who dedicated it to Karaite community of Jerusalem, where the Aleppo Codex was then moved.

C. Fustat 1099
In 1099, the conquering Crusaders seized the manuscript. They did not damage it, however, because they knew they could get a steep ransom price for it. We know of many ancient Biblical manuscripts that were ransomed from the Crusaders at this time. The Aleppo Codex was ransomed, probably by Egyptian Jews, who moved it to Fustat, near Cairo.

D. Aleppo 1400s
By the second half of the 15th century, the codex had somehow made it to Aleppo, Syria—the community that gave the codex its name. We know that in 1375, a descendant of Maimonides, Rabbi David Ben Yehoshua, left Egypt and traveled through Palestine to Syria, taking with him many ancient Biblical manuscripts and finally settling in Damascus and Aleppo—perhaps the Aleppo Codex was among them. It remained in Aleppo for about 600 years.

E. Jerusalem 1957
In 1957, more than ten years after it was nearly destroyed in a riot, remnants of the king of ancient Biblical manuscripts were smuggled out of Syria by way of Turkey and brought to Jerusalem, where they remain today.

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