A Brief Historical Meditation for the Days of Awe

On Yom Kippur, Jews around the world will read in the Unetanah tokef:

Our origin is dust,

and dust is our end.

Each of us is a shattered urn,

grass that must wither,

a flower that will face,

a shadow moving on,

a cloud passing by,

a particle of dust floating on the wind,

a dream soon forgotten. (trans. from Gates of Prayer)

Our lives are transitory, our impact ephemeral. But sometimes that which is forgotten finds new life.

In the 1950s, an expedition of Oxford archaeologists photographed several inscriptions at Tang-i Azao, a “desolate gorge in the midst of the mountains of western Afghanistan” (W.B. Henning). Written in Hebrew characters, the inscriptions turned out to be in Judeo-Persian. The message? Quite simple:

[…] the son of Abraham (coming) from Koban who incised this inscription in 1064 [752/3 C.E.], hoping in God. May he be his helper.

All along the passes of the Karakorum highway you can find the equivalent of what the unnamed son of Abraham, as well as Zachary son of Smi’il and Samuel son of Ramis, left at the Tang-i Azao: medieval graffiti in Chinese, Tibetan, Sogdian, Karoshthi, Brahmi, and other scripts. Carved into the rock by travelers along the trade routes we call the Silk Road, they left their marks not expecting them to serve any higher purpose than “Kilroy was here.” But the inscriptions of the Karakorum highway have turned out to be a great repository of ancient linguistics: more than 5,000 inscriptions and drawings have been discovered so far.

When he scratched his name into a rock wall in 752/3 C.E., Zachary son of Smi’il had no great expectations for his words. All he was doing was “hoping in God. May He be his helper.” Still, sometimes it turns out that not everything is dust, not everything a dream soon forgotten.

(Translations of the inscriptions from W.B. Henning’s article in the 1957 BSOAS; more on Judeo-Persian at Enyclopaedia Iranica here; h/t to Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History [a really great book] for introducing me to the story of the Tang-i Azao inscriptions).

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