The seven lives of the Sarajevo Haggadah

05/11/2020

Did you know that the Sarajevo Haggadah, considered a masterpiece of Jewish medieval art, has survived many close encounters with destruction throughout the centuries?

The Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest Sephardic haggadot in the world, is thought to have originated in Barcelona around 1350. It's not exactly known who commissioned it; however, it could have been a wedding present when two members of the Shoshan and Eleazar families got married. The reason behind this theory is the coats-of-arms of these two families displayed side by side on the same page as the coat-of-arms of the city of Barcelona.

Because haggadot are not considered holy texts but instructional materials, over time they developed into beautiful artworks. The Sarajevo Haggadah, which was created during a period when Jews in the Iberian Peninsula lived a shared existence with Christians and Muslims, shows influences of these two cultures.

This Haggadah consists of 142 leaves of extraordinarily thin, bleached calfskin vellum. The pigments on the pages are made from lapis lazuli, azurite, and malachite. The illuminations are decorated using gold, silver, and copper leaf and the book is divided into three parts. The first consists of 34 pages with a total of 69 illuminated miniatures depicting Biblical events. The second consists of 50 pages with the text that is read during the Passover Seder, written in medieval Sephardic script. The third part includes poetry by the most prominent Jewish poets of the golden era of Hebrew literature (10th-13th century): Yehudah HaLevi, Yitzhak ben Yehudah ibn Ghiyyath HaLevi, Salomon ibn Gabirol, Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, and others (several of the pages are stained with wine, showing that it was used extensively throughout the years). As with most medieval artefacts in Europe, the names of the artist and the scribe are unknown.

The Haggadah must have been taken out of Spain by Jewish refugees after their expulsion in 1492, and it is one of very few religious texts of its kind to survive confiscation and destruction at the time. We know it reappeared next in Venice in the 17th century thanks to a notation from 1609 made on its final page by a Catholic priest, Giovanni Domenico Vistorini, of the Italian Inquisition. Any Hebrew books of the Venetian Jewish community that were not approved by an ecclesiastical censor were destroyed in recurring public burnings. But luckily, Vistorini didn't find anything heretical in the Haggadah. His Latin inscription, Revisto per mi ("Surveyed by me") appears after the last lines of the text. In this way the Haggadah escaped destruction once again.

How or when the book left Venice and came to Sarajevo is a mystery, but it is here where it got its name. We do know that it was sold in 1894 to the National Museum of Sarajevo by a man named Joseph Kohen. Another interesting fact is that, until then, art historians had widely believed that figurative painting was entirely suppressed among medieval Jews because of the biblical ban on representing images. So, the discovery of Sarajevo Haggadah also marked a turning point in the understanding of the evolution of Jewish art.

Because Bosnia was occupied by Austria-Hungary at that time, the Haggadah was sent for evaluation to the empire's capital, Vienna, where it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, and then unfortunately damaged by a conservator. In fact, in its current form, the Sarajevo Haggadah measures 16.5 cm x 22.8 cm, but the real measurements are unknown because the original medieval bindings were ripped off in Vienna, and the pages cropped to fit new, cheaper cardboard covers.

During World War II, the manuscript was hidden from the Nazis by the Museum's chief librarian, an Islamic scholar called Dervis Korkut. In 1942, when Korkut heard that a Nazi commander, General Johann Fortner, had arrived at the museum to speak to its director, he immediately feared for the museum library's greatest treasure. He hid the book in his coat and when asked by Fortner to hand him the Hagaddah, Korkut pretended to have already given it to another Nazi official whose name he didn't know. He then risked his life smuggling the Haggadah out of Sarajevo, and hid it in a countryside mosque until the end of the war, when it was returned to the museum. In an unrelated episode, Dervis Korkut was posthumously awared the title of "Righteous among the nations" by Yad Vashem for having hid and saved the life of a Jewish young girl whose whole family had been killed. And in a reversal of events, half a century later, Korkut's own daughter was then sheltered by Israel in the midst of the Balkan wars as a retribution for his father's actions.

But that's not the end of the story. In 1992 during the Bosnian War, the Haggadah survived a museum break-in and it was discovered on the floor during the police investigation with many other items thieves believed were not valuable. It then survived in an underground bank vault during the Siege of Sarajevo, in which the museum received intensive shelling by Serb forces. To dispel rumors that the Bosnian government had sold the Haggadah in order to buy weapons, the president of the country presented the manuscript at a community Seder in 1995. Afterwards, it was restored through a special campaign financed by the United Nations and the Bosnian Jewish community in 2001.

In 2017, the Sarajevo Haggadah was included in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register because of its aesthetic value and historical significance. Finally, after centuries of vicissitudes, today it is safely kept on permanent display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.