People of the Book

Sarajevo Haggadah

(page from the Sarajevo Haggadah found here)

From Wikipedia, where you can also read the fascinating history of this beautiful book:

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript that contains the illustrated traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. The Haggadah is presently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible from creation through the death of Moses. Its pages are stained with wine, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders. It is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world. In 1991 it was appraised at US$700 million.

From the fascinating history of this beautiful book, Geraldine Brooks has created a fictionalized story that traces the book back to its origins in Barcelona, to modern day Sarajevo. In her riveting novel, People of the Book, Brooks starts with Hanna Heath, an Australian rare books expert who is hired by the U.N. to inspect and restore the Haggadah, which has been hidden in a bank vault during the Bosnian war.

While inspecting the book, Hanna finds several mysteries, pointing to the history of the book.  She discovers an insect wing, salt crystals, wine stains, and a single white hair, as well as noticing that the book has been rebound and is missing its original clasps.  Hanna sets out to learn the possible sources of these discoveries, so that she can include them in the write up for the National Museum.  Interspersed with Hanna’s search for clues are chapters that reveal the true sources of these mysteries.  We learn why the haggadah left Spain to begin with, where it was hidden from the Nazi’s during World War II, as well as how and why it was created to begin with, in a time when it was considered a sin to create images of God’s creations.

I found the history behind the haggadah compelling, and I enjoyed the fictional characters and stories that Brooks invented to follow it through its journey.  Hanna’s personal story, her relationship with her parents, as well as her relationship with the Muslim librarian who risked his life to rescue the hagaddah, was well told as well, and brought the book and its story into present day.  I really enjoyed Brooks’ earlier works, March, and The Year of Wonders, so I suspected that I would enjoy People of the Book as well.  I was not disappointed.