Priceless volume that survived centuries after exile of its persecuted owners finally returns to Galicia

On a summers day in 1476 a scribe called Moses Ibn Zabarah put the finishing touches to an enormous and magnificently illustrated Hebrew Bible commissioned by the son of a wealthy Jewish family from Galicia, north-western Spain.

The blessed Lord grant that he study it, he and his children and his childrens children throughout all generations, he wrote.

The Bible, whose pages teem with dragons, monkeys, peacocks, intricate geometric patterns and a slightly alarmed Jonah entering the whales mouth head first, took 10 months to complete and would have demanded careful study.

But the scribes wish was not to be fulfilled. Sixteen years later Spains Jews who had already endured a century of persecution that led many to convert to Catholicism were ordered to leave the country by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

The expulsion cast the family and their precious Bible into exile. From Spain, the book was taken to Portugal, North Africa, Gibraltar and Scotland before finally ending up in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Today, after 527 peripatetic years, the book is finally coming home albeit temporarily.

Map: Galicia, Spain

The Kennicott Bible, named after Benjamin Kennicott, the scholar and librarian on whose advice the work was bought by Oxford University, has been loaned to the regional government of Galicia and will be on show in Santiago de Compostela from Friday until next April.

It forms the centrepiece of the first of three major exhibitions intended to reflect on Galicias contributions to world culture and history.

The Kennicott is one of the worlds great Bibles and it has a dual value: a technical one because of its spectacular artistry, but also a symbolic one, said Romn Rodrguez, minister for culture and tourism in the regional government.

It shows how, at one time, people of three religions Jews, Muslims and Catholics coexisted in Spain. It also shows that there was a strong cultural and economic Jewish presence in Galicia, but which was forced out as Jews were in the rest of Spain.

Despite the Kennicotts Galician heritage and global renown, Rodrguez said the region had no plans to ask for its permanent return: Its Galician, no matter where it is.

The Kennicott Bible is a showpiece of the Bodleian Librarys collection. Photograph: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

His words will have soothed Csar Merchn-Hamann, curator of Hebraica and Judaica at the Bodleian. Merchn-Hamann describes the Kennicott, illustrated by Joseph Ibn Hayyim, as the jewel in the crown of the collection he oversees.

Its beautiful and unique, he said. Not a lot survived of the whole tradition of manuscript production in the Spanish lands, Christian and Muslim, through the middle ages.

For Merchn-Hamann and his fellow scholars, the Kennicott represents the last great cultural cry of a community that was being slowly but surely squeezed out of existence.

While the casual observer might detect Islamic influences in its painstaking geometric designs, or Christian overtones to its animal illuminations, the Bible itself is the culmination of centuries of Judeo-Spanish tradition.

It just so happens that some of the things that people are very enchanted with, and which seem so creative, are also found on a few manuscripts that have survived from a lot earlier two or three centuries before and which display the same features here and there, said Merchn-Hamann. You realise that, great as the artist of the Kennicott may have been, these cant all be things that he thought of himself.

While the Kennicott miraculously survived centuries of travel and exile and, in doing so, became a metaphor for Spains scattered Jews, it remains a lonely exception. Imagine if, because of some terrible catastrophe, most of English literature was lost, and you had to pick 10 books, or 20, or 50 out of thousands of works, said Merchn-Hamann.

In many cases, the survival of books was completely random and youre in a terrible situation when you know theres something big behind all this but you can only try to reconstruct it. Thats what makes it poignant.

Still, he added, it is hard to imagine a finer surviving example than the Kennicott. The family that commissioned it would have to have been extraordinarily wealthy. Or, as Merchn-Hamann put it: It would be the equivalent of buying a small yacht.

The curator and his colleagues found it hard to let the Bible out of their care for five months but are pleased that it is returning to where it was created. Its like seeing one of your children go, said Merchn-Hamann.

You worry, you fret, but it was so thrilling to see it going back to Spain. Its very good to have it shown there so that people can see what was there at one point and which is there no more.

Heritage and exile

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 saw people resettling in North Africa, the Ottoman empire, Latin America and other parts of Christian Europe. They took with them their own Judeo-Spanish language, known as Ladino, which is still spoken in some communities today.

Traces of Jewish life in Spain are not as obvious as those of the 700-year Moorish occupation which left behind a rich architectural legacy that survives in buildings such as Crdobas mosque-cathedral and the Alhambra in Granada but many towns and cities still have well-preserved Jewish quarters.

Toledo is home to two medieval synagogues, El Trnsito and Santa Mara la Blanca, the latter of which has also served as a church, a barracks, a warehouse and a museum over the course of its 900-year history.

In 2015 the Spanish government passed a law offering citizenship to descendants of expelled Jews to atone for the historical wrong. At the end of the scheme in October this year, more than 132,000 people had applied from Latin America, the US, Israel, Turkey, France, the UK, Serbia and Montenegro, Morocco and Afghanistan.



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