8th Century Judaeo-Persian letter from Kaifeng, Henan province, China
This document fragment, from the British Library, and part of the International Dunhuang Project, is one of the oldest items of Jewish history in Britain. It was discovered by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901. A group of his workmen were indulging in some independent ‘treasure-seeking’ after the completion of formal excavations at Dandan-Uiliq, the site of a former Buddhist monastery and Imperial garrison located to the northeast of Khotan between the Khotan and Keriya rivers in what is now the autonomous region of Xinjiang in China. While searching the debris left in the sand outside the broken east wall of an ancient dwelling-house, they came across a document which Stein described:
as it then presented itself, was a lump of thin brownish paper, so closely crumpled up that in the absence of proper appliances I found it quite impossible to attempt its opening and unfolding. Only where one edge of the paper could be partially loosened was I able to make out some characters which manifestly looked like cursive Hebrew.
The document was provisionally dated to the end of the eighth century when the site was abandoned, and this dating was confirmed by an analysis of the paper by Professor J. Wiesner which found that the structure was indistinguishable from the paper of Chinese documents found at Dandan Uiliq, dating from between 781 and 790.
The letter proved to be written in Judaeo-Persian, i.e. Persian written in Hebrew script. However since the beginning and end of each line was missing, there was only a limited amount of contextual information to be deduced (for an edition and translation see Utas, 1968 below). Mention of sheep trading and cloth indicates the document’s commercial nature and a reference to the author having written “more than 20 letters” attests perhaps to a thriving trade. There is also an intriguing request for a harp required for instructing a girl how to play.
Text adapted from this post by Ursula Sims-Williams.
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