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Biblical Archaeology Review 47:1, Spring 2021

Epistles: A Thousand Words: Sanaa Pentateuch

Biblical Archaeology Review

With ornate decorations, the Sanaa Pentateuch is an illustrated Hebrew manuscript from Sanaa, Yemen, and dates to 1469. It contains the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This carpet page (decorative page) from the Sanaa Pentateuch illustrates figural, floral, and geometric patterns, including ten fish. Along with other elements on the page, the fish are examples of Hebrew micrography—the practice of creating images with miniature words instead of lines. These micrographic elements are crafted with text from the Book of Psalms.

Illuminated biblical manuscripts became popular in the medieval period, with the earliest extant Hebrew copies dating to the ninth century. As manuscript illumination became a specialized trade, often one scribe would write the text, and another would illustrate it. Sometimes Christian artists were commissioned to illustrate Jewish manuscripts.

In the Islamic world, copies of the Quran were similarly illustrated. Since figural depictions were considered taboo in Islam, scribes found other ways to beautify their pages, namely geometric designs and ornamental calligraphy.

The decorative elements of the Sanaa Pentateuch suggest some Islamic influence—while still being distinctly Jewish. Benaiah ben Saadia ben Zekhariah ben Marga, a talented scribe, both wrote and illustrated the manuscript—at the commission of Abraham ben Yosef al-Israili. Although Benaiah didn’t sign this manuscript, his style is recognizable from other works that he did sign.

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