In 1946, the French philologist André Dupont-Sommer published the first Jewish tombstone inscription from Firozkoh in Afghanistan. Dated between the 11th and 13th centuries, when the city was destroyed by the invading Mongols, the tombstone inscriptions follow a standard pattern. Chiselled into the rock with unadorned lines and no decoration, they mention the name of the deceased, the date, conventional tributes such as ‘blessed in the Garden of Eden’ and ‘God fearing’, and an appropriate biblical quote.
For all their simplicity, until recently these epitaphs were one of the few sources for Jewish history in medieval Afghanistan. Scholars studied the mixed Hebrew and Persian names, the aesthetics and, most importantly, the language. Like Jewish communities throughout today’s Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and western China, Jews in Firozkoh spoke and wrote Judeo-Persian, a Jewish language, like Yiddish, that is intelligible to standard Persian speakers but incorporates Hebrew vocabulary and is written in the Hebrew script.
The graves offer a tantalising glimpse into a largely unknown Jewish community. They raise many questions. How did Jews live on the eastern boundaries of the Islamic world? What did they do? Where did they come from? The short epitaphs, along with a few other inscriptions and scattered references in histories and literary sources, could only tell so much.