Aramaic Documents from Ancient Bactria

Aramaic Documents from Ancient Bactria (Fourth Century B.C.E.) From the Khalili Collections

Edited by Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked
(London: The Khalili Family Trust, 2012), all color plates, 294 pp., n.p.

Reviewed by Hershel Shanks

Rarely, if ever, have such drab ancient texts been given such an elegant, sumptuous publication.

The reason is the extraordinary man who owns them. Nasser David Khalili is a wealthy London scholar, renowned especially for his collection of “Arts of the Islamic World (700–2000 [C.E.]).”

The documents published here are scraps of 30 commercial texts on leather and 18 inscribed wooden sticks that served as tallies. The documents come from ancient Bactria, an eastern satrapy of the Persian empire, and date to approximately a thousand years before Muhammed brought Islam to the world—that is, about the fourth century B.C.E. Despite the fact that documents like these had not been previously central to Khalili’s interests, he “pursued every single piece” he could find on the antiquities market. “After years of hard detective work,” he tells us, “I was able to bring together what you now see in this volume.”

The source of his fascination, he explains, was his own personal background. He is a Jew born in Persia, now Iran. The Biblical book of Esther takes place there and was “part and parcel of [his] upbringing.” As there related, Esther was chosen by the Persian monarch Ahasuerus to be his queen, unaware that she was Jewish. When Haman, the king’s prime minister, persuaded the king to issue an edict of extermination of all the Jews, Esther, at the risk of her life, appeared before the king uninvited, in
order to intercede for her people. “If I perish, I perish,” she bravely proclaimed (Esther 4:16).

Khalili recalls as a youngster visiting the tomb of Queen Esther in Hamadan in northwestern Persia. Lithographs in the volume of the imposing tomb and Esther’s sarcophagus (below) make it easily understandable that they would make a lifelong impression on the young Khalili.

The documents published here are in Aramaic. “I will never forget the evocative sounds of spoken Aramaic that I first heard as a child,” Khalili recalls. It was the language of the Persian empire, as well as the Talmud and, he observes, “the language Jesus spoke when addressing his disciples and followers.”

No wonder Khalili wanted these documents, however pedestrian they may seem.

When he acquired them, he retained Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked, two of the most prominent and renowned epigraphists and Semitic scholars in Israel, to decipher, edit and translate them for publication. They completed their work in 2004, and their text was even set in type. For some strange reason, Khalili would not allow it to be published until now. It is clear, however, from the splendid book that emerged in 2012, that the book was prepared under his intimate direction. The publication that has now been released is magnificent, an oversized masterpiece in the art of bookmaking. Khalili himself writes the foreword and fascinating introductory notes. He is also the author of the dedication “to peace, harmony and respect among nations.” In an “afterword” Professor Shaked provides additional notes to the text based on new research and publications in the field since it was first set in type in 2004.

A more detailed description of the texts has already been provided to BAR readers in our May/June 2011 issue, where we complained of Khalili’s refusal to release the Naveh/Shaked text.* Unfortunately, Professor Naveh did not live to see this publication of his work; he died in November 2011.

The lay reader may wonder why these texts are so important. What do they tell us? After all, they are only minor commercial documents. Professor Khalili provides the answer: This book “gives a picture of everyday life in an important Achaemenian province. It affords a glimpse in the manner by which rulers wielded power and how they saw to it that their orders were carried out. When their orders were ignored, we can see how they imposed obedience on their subjects. These documents also show how the rulers could be flexible in certain circumstances and achieved a balance between their demand for adherence to their orders and their willingness to accommodate the needs of their subordinates … It is part of the special attraction of these documents that they manage to convey a great historical narrative although they essentially deal with small mundane affairs, such as the delivery of food rations to officials, the construction of fortifications to guard a city from attacks, and the need of soldiers to get leave from their military duty in order to fight locusts that threatened their crops.”




*Strata: “Collector Withholds Inscriptions,” BAR, May/June 2011.

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