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Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible (audiobook) by Matti Friedman

This story comes to life in the audiobook.

Published by Highbridge in 2012.
Performed by Simon Vance.
Duration: 7 hours, 27 minutes.

"The story of this book...should come as no surprise to any who have read it."

I'm going to be brutally honest here. I picked up this audiobook on a lark. I thought it sounded like it was going to be interesting but I have a little pile of audiobooks and this one was quickly heading to the bottom of the pile because I was having a serious case of buyer's remorse. It looked like a tedious bit of history and I was imagining a dry, boring lecture about an old book. I literally decided to listen to it just to get it out of the pile so I wouldn't have to dread listening to it any longer.

Happily, I was very wrong about this book.

In its roughest outline this is indeed a book about a very old book but it is much more than that. The story of the Aleppo Codex is told by Matti Friedman, an Israeli journalist through a variety of angles. Sometimes it is a mystery. Sometimes it is told as oral history. Sometimes the Codex itself is the prism used to look at Jewish history under colonial European rule or under Muslim rule in Medieval times or to look at the centrality of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Torah (the first five books) to the Jewish people throughout history.

A page from the Aleppo Codex
The Aleppo Codex is the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible that was written by hand. It is not fancy, but it is precise and neat and it was created a thousand years ago. Over the centuries it has traveled here and there, surviving  the sack of Jerusalem in one of the Crusades, re-surfacing in Egypt to be consulted by the famed Jewish scholar Maimonides and eventually working its way to the Jewish community in Aleppo, Syria.  The Aleppo Jews treasured it and locked it away until an anti-Israeli riot broke out in Aleppo in 1947 and the Codex was scattered around the ruins of the synagogue in which it was stored. By the late 1950s the Codex was working its way to Israel and eventually to the Shrine of the Book where it sits on display.

Except, of course, for the fact that is not really there - at least not all of it.  Somehow, about 40% of this ancient manuscript is missing. Friedman starts investigating and finds a lot more questions than answers. People refuse to answer his questions and even threaten him with legal action. Some who have also investigated the mystery have quit in frustration. One may have been murdered to keep the secret.

Friedman peppers his story with interesting people including an old spy, a cantankerous collector, smugglers and refugees. We see the peaceful little world of the Aleppo Jews, the difficult opening days of the state of Israel and ride along with anthropologists fast on the heels of Israeli troops in desperate house to house fighting who are looking for Jewish historical treasures in order to rescue them - even in the middle of a battlefield!

The book was brilliantly read by Simon Vance. His voice lends the whole story an air of gravitas and when combined with Friedman's descriptions created the perfect combination to make a book about a very old book come to life and become a book about betrayal, danger, intrigue, greed, justice, cover-ups and the survival of a nation.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Aleppo Codex.

Reviewed on August 24, 2012.

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