University professor channels ‘Indiana Jones’ to reunite two halves of historic religious scroll

A University of Kansas professor may not have put on a fedora or outrun a giant boulder after setting off a booby-trap while searching for a lost relic, but Paul Mirecki did have quite an adventure trying to literally piece together two halves of a religious scroll dating back to 1750.

The university has within its vast collection the second half of a historic scroll that is a copy of the Jewish Torah.

In 1965, former alumnus Alpha Owens bequeathed the incomplete scroll to her alma mater upon her death. She purchased it during her travels in France from a market or bookstore that did not know what they had. The location of the first half of the scroll has been a mystery ever since, which is how Mirecki took up the case.

“The significance of the scroll is not only its content but the history of the scroll itself,” Mirecki said. “That’s the story. It’s like an Agatha Christie mystery.”

Image via University of Kansas

And Mirecki certainly loves a good story, which is why he usually works on projects that are far more ancient.

“I’m usually dealing with ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt,” he said. “This is actually the most modern thing I’ve ever worked on.”

But he became obsessed with it, nonetheless, because it not only presented a challenge and demanded answers to many questions, studying these kinds of historical documents is what he loves to do.

“I just get off on studying ancient documents that were previously unknown,” he says.

The first question, of course, is ‘Where is the first half of the scroll?’

Also, who split them in half and why?

Mirecki took up the challenge and made a call to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem in an effort to find some leads.

And he did, basically channeling Indiana Jones’ alter-ego Professor Henry Jones Jr. the whole way.

After two years of collaboration, Mirecki found himself in France at the Château de Chantilly, where he learned that the scroll was ripped in two during warfare and is a stolen antiquity from a Jewish synagogue in Algeria during the 19th century after France invaded the country. And the reason why the a scroll would be split in half is because the thieves wanted to make twice as much money.

According to the University of Kansas:

In 1840, the scroll was intact and residing at a synagogue in the Algerian city of Medea. The Ottoman Empire controlled Algeria at the time. Then France invaded. Meanwhile, a local populace of Muslim extremists launched a pogrom against the Jewish community. Arab religious and military leader Abd-el-Kader intervened in hopes of preventing bloodshed, evacuating members of the Jewish community. But he couldn’t protect their property.

As synagogues were looted, the item was taken. (This was likely done by people who didn’t even speak Hebrew and merely hoped to sell it. By ripping it, they had “two scrolls” and could double their profits.)

Enter Henri d’Orléans, the Duke of Au­­male. The son of the last king of France and governor-general during the French invasion of Algeria, the duke lived in Chateau Chantilly.

And it didn’t take long for Mirecki to conclude that the two halves matched. Even the damage from insects and water were equal on both parts.

“It looks identical to the one we have at KU,” he explained. “They aged the same way. It’s the same scribe’s handwriting. So all these things match up to where the scroll was torn in half, right down the middle seam. Leviticus 8:24a ends at the bottom of their scroll. And then the top of our scroll begins with Leviticus 8:24b. I’ve been able to determine that it was ripped in two, then rolled up equally from both sides.”

Paul Mirecki via YouTube

It also turns out the Henri d’Orléans took the scroll himself during the invasion.

“I found a quotation from him in his diary,” Mirecki said. “He says in reference to the scroll, “I took it with my own hands from Medea’s synagogue in May 1840 when the town had been left to Muslims, and the Jews taken by Abd-el-Kader.””

But the mystery of who ripped the scroll in half remains unknown. If d’Orléans kept the first half all those years until his death when he donated it to the Institut de France, he could not have been the culprit who severed it. He would have wanted to keep the scroll intact for his collection.

Mirecki, however, does have information on who penned the scroll in the first place.

“It’s an adult male who comes home from a day of work, has dinner with the family, then goes into a study and does this for four hours,” he said. “So it’s going to take two to three years, depending on how much time he spends on it every day and every week.”

And that makes dating the scroll more difficult, though not impossible.

“It’s difficult to date something like this because scribes tend to write in an old-fashioned style,” he said. “They don’t write the way they write their wife a personal letter; they write in a classic, medieval style, so his handwriting is not easily datable.”

Given the difficulty, Mirecki has to do a lot of research and traveling to solve these kinds of mysteries.

“This type of research typically involves going into museums and looking for things in their unstudied inventories that they don’t know they have, and the whole process of cleaning, repairing, translating and then publishing,” he said.

Thanks to him, this history has been recovered and the scroll is whole again.

Featured Images: University of Kansas and Torah scroll via Wikimedia Commons

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