If you liked The Da Vinci Code or The Historian or The Name of the Rose, you might enjoy The Aleppo Codex. The difference is that it is a factual story, and its context is modern Syria and Israel, not medieval Europe.
From the dust jacket: “It’s a tale that involves grizzled secret agents, pious clergymen, shrewd antiquities collectors, and highly placed national figures who, as it turns out would do anything to get their hands on an ancient decaying book.”
The codex in question was created in the tenth century by an expert scribe and a noted rabbi working together. The scribe could write Hebrew like it came out of a laser printer, as the author will later note, while the rabbi then added various marginal notes to the completed pages. Unlike the Torah scrolls used in synagogues, this parchment book was designed to be the most accurate and complete reference edition of the entire Hebrew Bible.
It was looted when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem 170 years later, ransomed by Egyptian Jews, studied by Maimonides, then somehow later transported to the chief synagogue of Aleppo in northern Syria. The codex, now known as the “Crown of Aleppo,” was no longer read but functioned more as a talisman for the Jewish community.
There in November 1947, angered that the United Nations had approved creation of the state of Israel, a Muslim mob attacked Jewish homes and businesses and trashed the synagogue. Most of the Crown’s pages were recovered after the synagogue was vandalized during the riot—but then the story grows murky, foggy, and complicated.
When author Matti Friedman, a Canadian-born reporter working in Jerusalem, becomes intrigued with the story of how (and how much of) the Crown came to be in an Israeli museum, one of his sources tells him, “You’re entering a minefield . . . . There are traps and pitfalls and mirages and cats guarding the cream. Say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and ten other doors will slam shut.”
Trying to write the modern story of the codex, Friedman enters a world where public records disappear, where histories have large gaps, and where passions run high. One murder possibly connected with the Crown causes him to write that it was a “story could have been written by Agatha Christie, if Agatha Christie were an ultra-Orthodox Jew.”
A typical interaction goes like this:
My conversation with Zer followed the usual pattern for exchanges with people in the Aleppo Codex Underground: they would float vague pieces of information to see if I knew more than they did, and I did the same.
It is not the information within the codex that makes it so important, but its enormous significance as tangible Judaica—like a lost emperor’s crown or the Holy Grail, it is important for its associations.
Not coincidentally, another of his collaborators, the grizzled retired Mossad agent referred to on the dust jacket, describes how as bullets were still flying in the Six-Day War of 1967, he and an Israeli colonel traveled to Bethlehem in search of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls believed held by an antiquities dealer there. Eventually the dealer sells it to the government for a high price—but it is an offer that he cannot refuse.
Not only was the new state of Israel seeking to bring back Jews from all over the world, it was determined by any means necessary to bring back texts connected with Jewish history, and in that determination lies the probable explanation of what happened to the Aleppo codex.