Friday, July 4, 2014

On the Trail of the Sarajevo Haggadah

How an illuminated manuscript inspired me to travel to the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I first learned of the Sarajevo Haggadah when I read the novel, People of the Book, by Australian-born author Geraldine Brooks. The book, inspired by a true story, tells the harrowing journey through the ages of a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript. This colorful holy book was spared destruction during World War Two when it was saved by an Islamic scholar and hidden in a village mosque. Its history goes back even further, to 14th century Spain and Venice.

The novel fascinated me. It was also exciting to learn that one of the characters in the story, a member of the partisans fighting against the Nazis, was based on a true person, the mother of one of the members of the moshav where I live near Jerusalem.

I couldn't stop thinking about Sarajevo, a city famous for its cultural religious diversity.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914 was the "shot heard round the world" that sparked World War I.

Although my wife and I had lived for two years in Bulgaria, and we had traveled extensively in the region, we had never yet visited Bosnia and Herzegovina. We signed up for an organized tour to the Balkans, which included visits to the stunning mountains and nature reserves of Montenegro, and to the seafront walled city of Dubrovnik, in Croatia. I eagerly looked forward to my visit to Sarajevo.

Inside the Sarajevo Synagogue

In addition to being the place where the first world war was launched, Sarajevo suffered heavily in a war that marked the end of the 20th century. During the Balkan conflict in the years 1992-1995, some 60% of the city's buildings were either destroyed or damaged by Serbian bombardment. 11,541 people lost their lives in Sarajevo in that war; a tunnel dug under the city's airport provided a lifeline for much needed supplies.

The Jewish connection to Sarajevo goes back centuries. Strongly involved in commerce and trade, the Jewish community lived freely among the Muslim and Christian population. The Ottomans provided land for a central synagogue, originally built in 1581 and later reconstructed with stone walls in 1831.

In World War Two, the city's Jews were rounded up and sent to the camps. The synagogue became a prison, and then stables for Nazi officers. The building was used as a warehouse until 1966, and then reconstructed. It opened its doors in 1976, only to be closed during the Balkan war years. In 2004, the Sarajevo Synagogue reopened its doors as a synagogue and museum. There are today some 700 Jews in Sarajevo, but only 80 adults constitute the active Jewish community. A total of 1,100 Jews live in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A member of the Sarajevo Jewish community tells of the famed Haggadah.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is the country's most prized treasure. A Haggadah is a narrative of the Exodus read at the Passover Seder service. Sarajevo's 109-page text is unique because it is handwritten on bleached calfskin, and illuminated in copper and gold, with colorful depictions of Biblical scenes.

The manuscript is housed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a building nearly destroyed in the four years of the Balkan war. The Haggadah is protected in a special vault with a bulletproof glass door on the museum's restored second floor. The Haggadah is reportedly the most valuable book in the world; it was insured for $7 million when it was transported to an exhibition in Spain in 1992.

In October, 2012, Bosnia's National Museum closed its doors due to a lack of funding. For years the museum had survived on donations, but they were not enough to keep the institution running. An offer by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to exhibit the Haggadah was rejected due to domestic legal issues.

Replica of the Sarajevo Haggadah

My visit to Saravejo to see the prized manuscript was not in vain. The synagogue displays a copy of the famed Haggadah, and even when viewed behind glass, this replica is strikingly beautiful. The Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus from Israel, but this particular manuscript also demonstrates an ability to survive despite the most horrific odds. It is no wonder that this fascinating book inspired me to visit Sarajevo.

Originally published on The Times of Israel.

Related article:

I Couldn't Believe What I Saw Out My Sarajevo Hotel Window


  1. Fascinating story! But I'm confused. Is the manuscript still in Bosnia's national museum, despite the fact that the museum is closed? Is there no UN resource for protecting it in an accessible location? Is there a commercially available publication of the manuscript and illustrations? Anyway, it's amazing what small encounters (especially with books) can motivate those of us with unrelenting curiosity to travel and explore.

    1. The original is still in the national museum, and quite safe there. I corresponded with someone on the staff of the Bosnia Historical Museum as I wrote this article. Here is a website that produces official, exclusive copies of the manuscript:

    2. Maybe I as a citizen of Sarajevo (who randomly stumbled across this article) can help you understand the status of Haggadah.
      The museum is closed because our govt won't fund it. Why? Its hard to get funds for any state institution on a state level because its got to get a YES from all three people's representatives Bosniak, Croat and Serb, and they dont get along very well. So, bc of that the museum is closed. There are many many extremely valuable artifacts at the museum, Haggadah being just one of them. Keeping them closed would put a pressure on the govt to finally solve this problem with the museum but they play deaf. Not letting any of the artifacts getting displayed is a museum's way of saying: pay for it. If anyone was to take all the precious things from the museum to some place else, museum would have nothing to hold on to.
      But they are safe at the museum. People and workers are well aware of its value. Haggadah has two amazing stories of how it survived ww2 and the last war in 1992. Here is how professor at Sarajevo Uni risked his life to save Haggadah in 1992
      The story from the WW2 is even more amazing. Crazy.

      Also, its not entirely impossible to get access to see Haggadah. Some organized Jewish groups of tourists find a way to get in unofficially. Many people still show sensitivity towards Jewish visitors wanting to see something so very important from their history, so they just let them in. I work as a tour guide so I often get to be among privileged few :) but yeah

      Greetings from Sarajevo

    3. Thank you so much for your comment! I find your knowledge of this subject as a citizen of Sarajevo and tour guide fascinating. It really is a shame that the museum is closed, but thankfully the Haggadah is safe.

  2. Oh, I heard about this museum and it being closed with everything still inside. I was glad to hear though that it is kept secure. It would be such a shame to lose important historical artifacts such as this book, which I'm learning about for the first time from you. I do hope the museum can obtain the necessary funds in the future to re-open so we can appreciate some of the country's treasures for ourselves.

    1. Thanks for commenting Jessica! I also hope the museum will get the funding to re-open its doors very soon. I look forward to seeing the real Sarajevo Haggadah some day!

  3. Thank you so much for visiting my book blog a few months ago about the Hagaddah. I will be adding a link with your story. Thanks again for visiting.

  4. Many thanks for that knowledgeable information a wonderful manuscript of such importance, good luck in your quest to see the original.

  5. Great story abouy a great city. It is a shame the Haggada is not accessible to the public. It needs to be seen and enjoyed, not be hidden away.