At the beginning of March 2022, I was privileged to be part of a private guided viewing of the Sarajevo Haggadah, at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Haggadah is one of the principal treasures of the museum and is kept behind a glass door, in a sealed display case, within a climatically controlled environment. The public can only view it between noon and 1 pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the first Saturday of each month.
Haggadah is Hebrew for story or account. It is a collection of prayers read during the Jewish celebration of Passover, commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery and their Exodus from Egypt. It is not actually considered a religious text, but more of an instruction and celebration. It would be read during Sedar, the ceremonial family dinner.
A large number of books were produced but the Sarajevo Haggadah is special because it is one of only a handful with beautiful illustrations. It is also complete, despite its fascinating history.
The Haggadah comprises 142 leaves of thin, bleached calf vellum and is divided into three parts. The first shows coloured images of The Creation (unusual in a Haggadah), slavery in Egypt, Moses leading the people out of Egypt and beyond. The second section is the Haggadah text read during Passover, in a medieval Sephardic script, and the third is a collection of poems from famous Hebrew Poets during the 10th to 13th centuries.
One illustration shows the coat of arms of Barcelona at the top, and it is thought that the Haggadah was made in or around Barcelona, in the former Kingdom of Aragon, in medieval Spain, in around 1350.
The same illustration shows two coats of arms at the bottom. A shield with a red rose, representing the Shosha family, and a shield with a wing, for the Elazar family. Some believe the Haggadah was commissioned for a wedding of two members of these prominent families.
Although the Haggadah is complete, the original medieval bindings were removed by an Austro-Hungarian government official, in the 1890’s, and replaced with a cheaper cardboard binding. The pages may also have been cropped.
There are various notes in the book which indicate its journey up until 1894 when it surfaced in Sarajevo. It changed ownership after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and was in northern Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It may have survived the Roman Inquisition as a note entered in 1609 states that it did not contain anything directed against the Roman Catholic church.
In 1894 the National Museum purchased the Haggadah from the Koens. a Sarajevo Jewish family, for 150 crowns.
Our guide told us that most of the romantic stories about the Haggadah during the twentieth century are false. It is true that in the Second World War, as soon as the Nazis took Sarajevo an officer arrived at the Museum door demanding the book. The museum director, Jozo Petrovic, lied and told the officer he’d given it to a colleague who had come fifteen minutes earlier.
Our guide dismissed the story that it was hidden by museum librarian, Dervis Korkut, in a countryside mosque on Mt Bjelosnica, but rather that it was placed in the museum vaults.
In the 1992 Siege of Sarajevo, the National Museum fronted the infamous Sniper Alley and its location next to the front line meant it suffered heavy shelling. The Haggadah survived and can still be viewed today.
I was born and raised in Yorkshire, UK, and never expected to travel the world. But I fell for an Army Officer, and I’ve followed him from Northern Ireland, up to the Scottish Highlands, across to Africa and the Kenyan Savannah, and back to the British Cotswolds. We now live in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Southern Europe.
Unlike most authors, I didn’t have the urge to write as I was growing up but moving around is not ideal for holding down a steady job. So I’ve taken the experiences of living in different places to write vivid and evocative cozy mystery books with determined female amateur sleuths.
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