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If we were to pick the brightest gems from the treasure trove of material and intangible heritage kept in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is no way we could leave out the illuminated Jewish codex known around the world as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The haggadah (Hebrew for story, account) is a collection of religious rules and traditions arranged into the order of the Seder observed on Passover, the holiday celebrating the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Haggadot were especially important during the ceremonial family dinner – the Seder, when all household members and guests, book in hand, read or followed the accounts of the journey to freedom and everything else that was connected, in a ceremonial sense, with that well-known Old Testament story. The tradition of reading from a haggadah in the family circle lead to the production of a relatively large number of such books. The Sarajevo Haggadah, because of its aesthetic value and historical significance, is foremost among them.
The Sarajevo Haggadah comprises 142 leaves of parchment, 16.5 cm x 22.8 cm in size, made out of extraordinarily thin, bleached calf skin. The first 34 leaves feature 69 illuminated miniatures showing the Creation of the World, slavery in Egypt, coming out of Egypt under Moses' leadership, and beyond, all the way to the succession of Joshua, son of Nun. The last four miniatures are an exception, in that they are not biblical in character. The next 50 leaves contain the text of the Haggadah, written on both the recto and the verso in Hebrew, in the mediaeval, Spanish-type square script. The last part of the book is a subsequently added poetic/ceremonial appendix containing poems by some of the most famous Hebrew poets from 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.
The discovery of the Sarajevo Haggadah in 1894 piqued the interest of art historians of the day, because the Haggadah is a rare piece of evidence proving that Jews, in spite of a strict scriptural prohibition (You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness, Exodus 20:4), engaged in highly artistic figural representation of humans and animals. Based on stylistic analysis of the illuminations and miniatures contained in its pages, it was determined that the book was made in mediaeval Spain, in the former kingdom of Aragon, most likely in Barcelona, around 1350. It may have been a present for the wedding of members of two prominent families, Shoshan and Elazar, because their coats of arms – a shield with a rosette/rose (shoshan in Hebrew) and a wing (elazar in Hebrew) – are featured on the page showing the coat of arms of the city of Barcelona.
According to a note from the book itself, it changed owners after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, but we do not know the names of the original or the new owner. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the book was in the north of Italy, as confirmed by two short notes on its pages. A note entered in 1609 says that the book does not contain anything directed against the Church, probably the result of a content check by the Roman Inquisition. The circumstances under which it made its way into Bosnia, as well as when that happened, are unknown.
It leaves a reliable trace in history again in 1894, when the National Museum purchased it from the Sarajevan Sephardic family Koen for the sum of 150 crowns. It was then sent to Vienna for analysis, and was returned after a few years of vicissitudes.
In keeping with its destiny, the Sarajevo Haggadah could not find peace even in the museum collection. In the first days following the occupation of Sarajevo by the German forces in 1941, German authorities demanded that Jozo Petrović, the director of the Museum at the time, hand over the famous leather-bound codex. Petrović, aided by the curator Derviš Korkut, took enormous risks, dodged the demand, and arranged for the Haggadah to be stowed somewhere safe. According to reliable accounts, it was hidden in a mosque in one of the Muslim villages on Mt Bjelašnica, where it stayed until the end of World War II. Another attempt to steal it was made in the 1950s; this time, too, the employees of the Museum prevented the theft.
Most recently, and hopefully for the last time, this valuable tome was endangered at the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, when the National Museum found itself on the first line of defence. The museum took heavy shelling then, from which it has still not recovered.
Today, for the first time in its rich, tumultuous history, the Sarajevo Haggadah is accessible to the general public; it is kept in an especially secure space, under strictly defined environmental conditions, and is displayed on special occasions.
These facts about the Sarajevo Haggadah – both those inferred through research and analysis as well as those known to us from the notes on its pages and through traditional stories that have followed this book for decades – make it a priceless resource for studying the cultural history of a nation in century-long pursuit of homeland. The Sarajevo Haggadah is physical proof of the openness of a society in which fear of the Other has never been an incurable disease.
Mirsad Sijarić, DSc
Acting Director of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina