History, Religion, Reviews.

Convivencia is a state of mind

Geraldine Brook's historical novel, People of the Book, tells the fascinating and uplifting story of how people of different faiths created and protected a Jewish book of worship known as the Sarajevo Haggadah for over five hundred years, a period marked by much religious conflict.

The author traces the haphazard journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah from its creation at the end of the Iberian Convivencia era, through the Spanish Inquisition, expulsion from Spain, incarceration in the Geto of Venice, assimilation in Vienna, Nazi looters in Sarajevo, Serb aggression in the breakup of Yugoslavia, and to its current resting place in a Sarajevo museum.

La Convivencia, or the Coexistence, refers to a time in Spanish history when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative harmony under Muslim and sharia rule. The Convivencia came to a crashing halt in 1492, when the Castilians under Ferdinand and Isabella ended the long Reconquista and re-established Christian control of those lands, previously conquered by Muslim jihad in the 8th century CE. The Christian re-conquerors insisted that all non-Christians, mostly Muslims and Jews, convert to Christianity on pain of exile or death. Some chose exile, but many chose to convert, some of whom continued to secretly worship as Muslim or Jews, the Conversos (or the Hebrew, anusim, the forced), who were then hounded by the infamous Spanish Inquisition as false believers.

The Haggadah (the telling, in Hebrew) is a Jewish worship text used as an aid to order the Passover Seder ritual. (note 1) The Sarajevo Haggadah is prized for its unusual and beautiful illuminations, unusual because Haggadah’s of this time were usually not illustrated, because orthodox Jewish tradition holds to a similar prohibition of illustrations of religious activities, particularly of God, found also among fundamentalist Muslims.

All three Abrahamic religions use the phrase People of the Book, or something very similar, but they each ascribe different meaning to the phrase reflecting their order of birth. The Jews have used the term (Am HaSefer) to refer specifically and only to the Jewish people and to the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud. Amongst Christians, the phrase People of the Book has also been used to refer to themselves and the Jews, the book referring otherwise to the Bible, whose Old Testament includes the Torah and other Jewish texts. Islam uses the term People of the Book, Ahl-Al-Kitab, to refer primarily to the Jews and Christians and their sacred texts, sacred also to the Muslims, but only up to the point of the appearance of Mohammed and his sacred text, the Koran, which represents to the Muslim the extension, correction and completion of these earlier sacred texts of this shared God of Abraham. Much of the Koran promotes tolerance towards the People of the Book, and allows them some autonomy in societies that follow their sharia laws because all three faiths recognize the God of Abraham as the one and only God. This is in marked contrast to the dominant historical view of Jews and Muslims by Christians as intolerable heretics, in particular the persistent view of Jews as Christ-killers.


From the Sarajevo Haggadah. Top: Moses and the Burning Bush. Bottom: Aaron's staff swallows the magicians. PD-US.


It would seem no accident that the spirit of convivencia was more alive under Muslim rather than Christian rule. That is not to say that Christians and Jews had equal rights under Muslim rule, as they did not, but most historians describe life of non-Muslims under various caliphates, including La Convivencia, and the Ottoman empire as being generally better than life for Muslims and Jews living in areas of Christian rule. A few historians dispute that and have detailed the difficulties of non-Muslim life under Muslim rule, and have suggested that the Convivencia was more concept than actuality. What is certainly true is that Christians have been much less tolerant than Muslims towards Jews prior to the 20th century, and that Christians and Muslims have historically killed each other in droves, taking territory and asserting suzerainty or complete dominance in the names of their respective religions, which necessarily moderates the interpretation of later times of peace and toleration.

All the more surprising then, that to create and protect the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish book of worship, not just Jews, but Muslims and Christians often risked their standing or their lives: These people are the author’s very people of the book. Brooks describes the book’s creation in Muslim Spain by Muslim and Christian artisans, its departure from Spain after the Reconquista into exile in the Venice Geto (the first of many Jewish ghetto’s in Christian Europe), where it was saved by a Catholic censor in 1609; one of the pages of the Sarajevo Haggadah bears the imprimatur of this censor, a priest under the employ of the Inquisition, who approved it as acceptable, saving it from the purifying bonfires fueled by heretical books to which many Haggadahs like it were otherwise consigned. The story moves to the book’s rebinding in deeply anti-Semitic 19th century fin-de-siecle Vienna, where Jews were paradoxically highly assimilated, and then to its place in a Sephardic exile community in Sarajevo during World War II. Sarajevo before World War II was a small island of convivencia, a relatively enlightened community where you could find a church, synagogue and mosque on the same block, now being torn apart by fascist invasion, where Muslim museum curators risked their lives to hide the Haggadah from the looting Nazis. The book was saved once again by Muslim museum curators in Sarajevo while the city was being dismembered by Serbs during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s.

It is superb historical fiction, bringing alive through carefully chosen characters and situations what life might have been like for Jews, Muslims, and Christians going forward from the Reconquista, each experiencing both tolerant and harsh times living in each other’s presence. Brooks illuminates the lingering effects of history long past on modern life, and shows the complex interplay between fate and choice, between those who felt and acted in the spirit of convivencia, even after its political demise and often at some risk to themselves, and those who followed the rules of society and religion that were often in opposition to the idyll of peaceful co-existence, or who succumbed to threats of violence, to the more ordinary play of fear and greed, of dominance and submission. In defense of this beautiful illuminated text some followed the call in the Koran to co-exist with all who worship the same God of Abraham, a call echoed in the teachings of universal love and acceptance that can be found in the books of each religion, side by side with the more narrow constructs of tribal rejection of the other.

A gift from my parents and my sister Ruth, for Christmas 2013.



1. Passover Seder is the fulfilling of the Torah commandment in Exodus to tell the children how the Lord liberated the Jews from Egypt, done annually on the day of the Passover, the day that God killed all of the first-born in Egypt except those who marked their homes with God’s sign, and who’s homes and first-born were ‘passed over’ by the angel of death and spared; this was the last of the plagues visited upon Egypt by God to force the Pharoah’s liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage.

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