It is unlikely that British Jewry would be familiar with the name Lailashi, even though it has the obvious connotation of the Hebrew word laila for ‘night, dark’. It is even more unlikely they would be aware that this obscure place, in the remote foothills of the Caucasian mountains, holds one of the tantalising mysteries of Jewish History, and biblical scholarship.
Lailashi was the largest Jewish settlement in the Western part of Georgia. It is situated at an elevation of 887m in the Kvemo Svaneti region. According to the National Census of 2014, the village has a population of 262, of which 99 percent of people are Georgians. However, the Friendship Obelisk, erected in the village in 2013, testifies that this place was once a famous trading community where Georgians, Jews, Armenians, and Greeks peacefully lived together – the perfect testimony of an interfaith community.
Once vibrant, but now abandoned, the Lailashi synagogue stands as a lonely witness to that glorious history. This derelict building, which was recently given new life thanks to some Georgian-Jewish benefactors, is the nucleus of one of the most tantalising and valuable discoveries in biblical scholarship and Jewish history.
Mythical Lailashi, with its astounding views, recently gained immense popularity with foreign tourists who wish to capture their visit to the ‘Land of Golden Fleece’ by proudly posing at the Lailashi Pool, the water reservoir of azure spring water.
The Lailashi village is also linked with archaeological discoveries of great value. The chance finding of 13 Bronze axes, dated to 9th-8th century BCE, suggests the existence of a settlement here since the Bronze Age. These unique artefacts are now housed in the World-famous Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg. The Lailashi trend of ‘chance findings’ of undiscovered treasures continued in the 20th century, as we shall see.
In medievel times, Lailashi functioned as the keeper of the Georgian treasury. During the invasions of various enemies, sacred ecclesiastical artefacts and valuable objects were removed from churches and monasteries. They were brought up and stored in Lailashi because of its naturally fortified location.
The Georgian Chronicler notes a particular characteristic of Lailashi – the hospitality and generosity of its people. For example, when the Georgian poet Akaki Tsereteli visited the village (as documented in a film from 1912) the inhabitants presented him with a decorated silver walking stick.
However, despite an impressive history and unique artefacts from the Bronze age to Mediaeval times, Lailashi sealed its reputation in world history by a rather modern, and unexpected discovery during the turbulent times of the Communist regime.
The provenance of the Lailashi Codex, an old Hebrew manuscript of the Chumash (Pentateuch), and its journey to Georgia, is as mysterious as its authorship and its ownership.
According to the legend, the Codex was brought to Georgia on an Angels’ wings. The villagers saw a floating book in an unnamed river, and they rescued it from the stream. This unique Codex was said to have miracle working powers. It became an object of worship for both Jews and Georgians. An oil on canvas painting by D. Gvelesiani depicts the miraculous arrival of the Hebrew Chumash in Georgia.
According to oral tradition, the Codex was kept by local noble families. It had also changed hands between several clans.
How this priceless Codex was ‘found’ in a small, unprotected community synagogue during the unfortunate times of the Soviet reign, is unclear. At that time of history, any religious worship or
possession of sacred objects was a crime. The Codex, which was known to the locals by the name of ‘Svan Bible’ was seized by the Communist authorities, and was brought to Tbilisi. Originally, it was kept in the Georgian Museum of Jewish History, but the Museum was closed in 1951 during the anti-Semite movement in the Soviet Union. Thousands of items from its funds: historical and art rarities, archives, archaeological and ethnographic artefacts, and manuscripts were redistributed among other museums and depositories. In 1957, the Lailashi manuscript emerged in the possession of the Kekelidze Institute of Manuscripts of the Georgian Academy of Sciences. After several re-organisations and institutional name-changes, the Codex found itself under the roof of the National Centre of Manuscripts, where it has lived since 2006. So, the long journey of the Lailashi Codex, originating from an unknown location, ends in Tbilisi National Centre of Manuscripts, which keeps its most prized possession under tight security.
According to Professor Buba Kudava, the ex-director of the Centre, the Lailashi Codex attracted the attention of the criminal world during his directorship. The first foiled attempt to remove the manuscript from the Centre was made in 1970. Later criminals tried to get their hands on the Codex during the Georgia-Abkhazia war in 1992. They attempted to bribe a guard with 50 000 USD, during civil unrest when lawlessness and military groups reigned over the country. Considering that a monthly wage of the Lailashi Codex keeper, at that time, was about 1 USD, it was a great temptation, which the guardians of the Lailashi Codex withstood heroically.
What makes the Lailashi Codex unique among its counterparts is that this treasure of biblical scholarship is entirely understudied. The only one scholarly article about it appeared in 1968 in the Journal of Eastern Philology (აღმოსავლური ფილოლოგია). According to the late Professor Giorgi Tsereteli, the manuscript belongs to the X century, but the Codex has never been studied by the Hebrew palaeographers, or any expert for that matter. Therefore, it is impossible to ascertain the validity of this claim without further research.
The Lailashi Codex is written on parchment and weighs about 22 pounds. The biblical text is written in three columns and 23 lines. It is accompanied with colourful geometrical decorative figures, micrography and Masoretic comments. Supposedly, it was written by different people and at different locations: in Palestine, Egypt, and Persia.
The Codex consists of 169 folios with the dimensions of 45×39 centimetres. The first three chapters of Genesis and the last three chapters of Deuteronomy, what would have been the most lavishly decorated pages, are missing. The text starts with the word ‘the man’ from the last verse of the 3rd chapter of Bereshit (Gen. 3:24) and ends with the word ‘His inheritance’ from the Song of Moses known as Haazinu (Deut. 32:9). From the point of view of the writing of the consonantal text the Lailashi Codex is one of the best among the manuscripts known up to the present day.
Not long ago, the Lailashi Codex found itself at the centre of a public controversy. In 2004 the Georgian government re-established the once abolished David Baazov Museum of History of the Jews of Georgia and Georgian-Jewish Relations. The return of materials belonging to the museum was stipulated by order No.654 of the President of Georgia in 2004. In fact, some of the earlier artefacts were restored to the Museum, but its most prized possession – the Lailashi Codex – remains outside the reach of its original owner.
So, the unexplored Lailashi Codex, the crowning beauty of Georgian Jewry, continues to keep its best kept secret from biblical scholarship, and the rest of the world.