Abraham, Ashu and the Genizah

What a strange name for a story, would be the first thought in a reader’s mind. A Malayali seeing this would balk, because he can imagine the complex undertaking straightway. I thought for a long time if I should make this a dry & factual article and decided against it, after all, others have done that already to this story, so I decided to focus more on the individuals in the story. Well, this story, my friends, will take you back to the Malabar between 1130 and 1150 and into the lives of an unlikely couple, Abraham Yiju and Ashu Nair.

Most people would not like to dwell too much on the environment and conditions around life in those days, but prosperous life and honest trade did exist at that time. It was a time before the Portuguese onslaught, a time of the powerful Zamorins, a time when many traders and expatriates from Europe lived on the shores of the Malabar. Syrian Jews lived in Cochin, Arabic Jews were all around, like our man Yiju, and the Bombay ports had Iraqi Jews and wealthy Parsees. The Malabar trade otherwise termed as the Karimi trade was in full swing.

This story deals with a Tunisian Jewish trader Abraham Ben Yiju, while he was based in Mangalore. The girl was a Nair called Ashu, though history books call her Ashu. I can, as a Malayali, be reasonably sure that Ashu was more an endearment and that Asha (means ‘wish’) was her real name. The story is set in Tulunad, near Mangalore.

It was an excellent book by Stewart Gordon called ‘When Asia Was the world’ that tipped me to this particular story. As you read about Yiju’s travails in the book you can see that this story had a deep impact on that author. However the strict historian Gordon did not in my mind do justice to a possible story within the story, which would have been about the relationship. He covered the historic trade angles and connections and so I decided to check out the background. It then turned out to be a story that had once fascinated the writer Amitav Ghosh to obsessively study Arabic & Hebrew and research the various characters at Oxford. Amitav Ghosh then penned his findings in an essay titled the ‘The Slave of MS.H.6’ (later featured in his book ‘The Imam and the Indian’) many years ago followed by a semi fictional historic work titled ‘In an Antique land” which I finished reading some months ago. This fascinating book deals with his own research and life in Egypt and touching on the story of Yiju, written in a style that is unique…Do read it if you can…

But first, a few words on how the story came out into the open after some 800 years. As we all know, Indians, especially South Indians, even with some knowledge of a better known (in those times, at least among the literary Brahmin classes) language Sanskrit, never bothered to properly document and record what happened around them, at least between the 8th to 18th centuries. Even the Granthavari’s written for local kings, related mainly to accounts and temple matters, not and observation of life around them. That work was left to the few mystified Western travelers, officials and traders who unfortunately exaggerated or twisted facts most of the time.

The main protagonist of this story, Abraham (Ibrahim) Peraya Ben Yiju wrote and received a number of (some 40-80 letters) letters to his trading partners in Egypt and Aden and these were stuffed by his daughter, after Yiju’s death, into what were known as Geniza’s located at a particular Synagogue (Ben Ezra synagogue in Fostat)at Cairo for eventual disposal (A Geniza or Genizah is an enclosed area within a synagogue where all papers containing the name of God are deposited for eventual burial). Fortunately they were not destroyed and the fascinating collection of 250,000 paper fragments have been collected and are still being sorted and studied by eminent historians since the turn of the 20th century. In the many thousands of documents it was relatively easy to track Yiju’s story by his fine & unique calligraphic handwriting.

So we go to the times (1130-1132) of the roaring spice trade, to the port (referred to by the Arabic word – Bandar, to Manjarur) of Mangalore where Jewish Abraham bin Perahya Ben Yiju started up the local office of master trader Madmun’s business after fleeing Cairo following (apparently) a blood feud. Yiju was a merchant from the Tunisian town of Al Mahdiyya, and was well known for his wealth and calligraphy skills. Working as a scribe with legal issues, he wrote and collected poetry, in addition to conducting trade of Iron, brass items, silk, pottery, betel nuts and various spices. Mangalore in Tulunad, at that time was prosperous and full or Arab traders, both Islamic and Jewish. The Tulu regions were populated with a number of Banias, Chetiars, Bunts and of course Nair’s, as the local people and suppliers of spices and other items for trade. Yiju himself was assisted by a Sesu chetty, a Nambiar and a Nair (Ashu’s brother, perhaps), in business dealings as was typical in Malabar. Walking around in fine clothes, he was a dapper businessman, charming the local populace, who by the way, and in Yiju’s own opinion, were mostly naked but for a ‘bandage’ round their loins (the Malabari dhothi), men & women alike.

During his 17 plus years in Mangalore (It was as explained previously, known as Manjrur), he continued his prosperous relationship with the Aden based chief trader Madmun Ibn Bandar, the most powerful of them all. (Aden was the principal trading post for Malabar and it is in Aden that Cain and Abel are supposedly buried!). Trade then was based very much on trust as communication was slow and in the form of letters carried in ships, some lost. These were the letters that eventually landed up in the Geniza. As they were letters of business communications, the personal life was only obliquely evident. It also transpires that Yiju started a brass works in addition to trade offices, where they repaired old brass lamps, locks and fixtures.

It was around Oct 17th 1132, that Yiju met Ashu and his next actions were perplexing and annoying to the other Jewish traders, to say the least. He promptly freed her (Goitein’s impressions) for she was some kind of a ‘wasifa’ servant or slave (instead of making her his consort, he drew a deed of manumission with Ashu) and lived with her the entire two decades he was in Mangalore, begetting children, one named Surur and a daughter Sitt Al Dar (another son died early). His personal demands to his trading partners at Aden included Kohl, silk carpets, jewelry and other expensive items for Ashu. Yiju’s life moved on smoothly till 1149.

Ashu, was a Nair woman from Cannanore or some other part of North Kerala like Balipatanam, and considered to be a beauty (SD Goitein). Here again there is confusion. While some historian’s say that Ashu was renamed Berakhah, Stewart & Ghosh believed Barakah was the name of Yiju’s sister in Tunisia. There are hints in the letters that a monetary debt to Ashu’s brother may have forced the marriage, but the union nevertheless proved to be a happy one. Ghosh also believes that Yiju was at times irritated by the special Nair family ties and the strong relations Ashu had with her matrilineal family

Herein lay more confusion. Yiju had a choice of a number of Jewish women in Cochin and other trading ports, why did he choose Hindu Ashu and remain with her? Was it because Cochin Jewish women were of Syrian origin? More likely, he fell in love with Ashu. It is unlikely that a person lived with a woman for 11 years and had three children by her if they did not love each other. Ghosh himself concludes thus – If I hesitate to call it love, it is only because the documents offer no certain proof.

Abraham Yiju left Mangalore with his children in 1149 when the Norman Conquest resulted in chaos around Tunisia and his siblings in Tunisia were in mortal danger. He was also determined to find a proper suitor for his daughter, planning to marry her off to any eligible son of his brothers. Ashu, sadly, remained in Mangalore (Stewart however believes she went to Egypt).

Yiju’s son Surur died a few years later, aged 20, but his daughter Sitt al dar survived and Yiju himself moved to Yemen. Later Yiju went back to Egypt to marry her off in style. His attempts to find a proper Jewish suitor from his own family turned out to be an arduous task as her mother (as we know now) was not a pure Jew. Kenneth Seeskin in his book ‘The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides’ confirms that Yiju did have legal problems (probably because the children were termed ‘black’ Jews – Judeus Pretos)with his marriage to Ashu and that the learned Moses Mamonide’s helped solve many of them after they got back to Egypt. Finally, after a lot of turmoil and search, Yiju decided to get her married to his elder brother’s son Perahya though he was not too happy with the boy’s stature and tried to delay the marriage further. The marriage finally took place after his death (this somehow conflicts Ghosh’s view that the marriage took place when Yiju was alive), on Aug 11th, 1156.

Curiously the boy Parahya did make a good name for himself in the Egyptian Jewish community and became a judge. Here again the story takes an interesting turn. Perahya wanted to return to Sicily but Yiju’s daughter (you can divine Ashu’s strong Nair character here!!) refused to accompany him and so Perahya settled down in Alexandria. To settle this dispute a case was lodged and the wife won the suit (Shulamit Reif – Cambridge Genizah collections).

Thus finally, Ashu’s daughter’s final action of thrusting all her father’s letters into the Geniza, instead of destroying it, made us all the richer, providing us with a detailed view of life in Aden, Egypt and Malabar of the 12th century….

And what happened to Ben Yiju after Sitt Al Daar’s marriage? Nobody knows for sure. Ghosh (as well as Stewart) believes that he could have returned to Ashu in Mangalore for the one reason that there exists no death certificate in the Egyptian Jewish records of that period.

Well, the story does not end there. A group researching how the gene mtDNA-haplogroup D landed up in European Jews, opine that such a group could have come to Europe via Ashu or her daughter who came with Yiju!! But that is yet another topic.

Footnotes –You can (I believe) see the deed of manumission (Deed of freeing from authority or slavery) between Ben Yiju and Ashu at the Institute of the Peoples of Asia at Leningrad. No other ‘marriage’ certificate has remained intact for so long a time, in history.

My belief was that this deed was made by Yiju for the only purpose of making the Yiju offspring legal in their Jewish community back home and ensuring legal succession (Yiju was a wealthy man). I am not sure about Nair slaves (consider also that Ashu was not thrown out of home or lost caste- as she had a fruitful relationship with her family all the time) at that time or that Ashu would have wanted such a manumission document. Ghosh in his book the ‘Imam and the Indian’ Page 220 concurs with this since the event was celebrated with fanfare, the document (like today’s wedding card!)was more a public announcement of the betrothal and legality than an act of manumission.

The deed starts with the usual proclamations supporting the lord (Quoted from SD Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society – Vol 2, Community) (The translation is by Goitein though I believe that the words Mangalore and Tunisia did not exist in 1132)

In the city of Mangalore, the royal city which is situated on the great sea and which is under the jurisdiction of our Lord Daniel, the great prince, the head of the great Diaspora, of all Israel, the son of our Lord Hisday, the great prince……

Some of my notes are fertile speculation as Yiju did not quite explain his personal relationship with Ashu and novelist Amitav Ghosh was the first to really tie them up (after historian SD Goitein’s discovery), but nevertheless, it is based on a small amount of documented fact. Ghosh’s research was actually to identify a slave called Bomma, a Hindu associate of Yiju, otherwise known in history to scholars as the mystic slave MS H.6, referred to in the Geniza fragments.

Point to ponder

In Hebrew, Nair means candle. So how would Yiju have written Nair to signify Ashu’s caste? Yiju btw may have meant Yago which in North Africa & Spain signified Jacob.

Seeskin states on page 53 of ‘The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides’ that Ashu was renamed ‘Berakah’ daughter of Abraham. Now did he mean Sitt Al Daar the daughter or Ashu?

Most documents I referred to mention Yiju’s brass workshop located at Manjarur. History buff’s like CKR feel the factory could have been at Naduvarambu (near Muziris). It could very well have been so though the Genizah documents have still not shed much light on this aspect.

How Padma Sri Award winner Amitav Ghosh researched the story
SD Goitein – The man who started it all with the transcripts
A window into Jewish Medieval life
relevant books

The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection
The Jews in Sicily book 1, 383-1300, by Shlomo Simonsohn

Picture – Actual fragment of Ben Yiju’s writing from the Penn Arts and Sciences website, thanks

Cross Posted in Historic Alleys

Edit - Asha has been replaced with Ashu - Asha is a relatively new term, so I will stick to what the records show


kallu said...

Maddy, Fascinating and hats off to the amount of research you do. Its mind boggling..
But, next time you are fascinated by a possible story .. just lets us have the story as it could have been first.
Then you can add all the footnotes and possible ..it might have been because..back up documentary.
This way, the story is getting diluted by all the '..proves ...'.
Let the story teller rip.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

I hope to get my hands on this book soon. thank you for this interesting review.

Maddy said...

Thanks Kallu - Point noted
Hi Nanditha - long time no hear & welcome back. Hope your move worked out well

P.N. Subramanian said...

I have to thank my stars to have landed on your blog.Earlier I had known about Yiju of Mangalore during the 12th century and I skipped it as my interests were about the earliet jews in India. It made an interesting reading. I need to check all your earlier posts as well and this may take some time. Thank you so much.
By the way Nadavarambu is still the place producing the bulk of brass items.

Maddy said...

Thanks PNS - While Maddy's Ramblings covers all kinds of areas, my other blog 'Historic alleys' is only about South Indian History.

may I suggest that you click on the yellow icon under the photo or use this link


Happy Kitten said...

Great read as usual...

in the end it great to know that this world is interconnected in many ways.. and this connection did start centuries ago and not just in the recent times.

Yet we are quick to lock ourselves up in our self made world.

yasho said...


This is great reading, and I am waiting to read this book... but would the name Asha have been used as far as 12the cent? I have been told about a woman called Seela, as opposed to our modern Sheela who wrote a great sanskrit shloka...she was actually seelabhattarika... Ashu is prob an abrreviation of something that was more in vogue at the time.

Unknown said...

tats a kool find.... Any more stories frm the Geniza??

Maddy said...

Thanks HK

Yasho - you are right. In retrospect and after discussing with others, I can conclude that Asha a name with Sanskrit and probably vedic origins did not exist in Nair circles in those days.

Back to square one with Ashu, but I have another idea will explore it in a post on Ashu soon.

Thanks rahul - the Yiju story comes from some 70 fragments. there are 250,000 fragments in all. So one can imagine that there is more out there

clash said...

Hi Maddy,

incredibly interesting as usual.

I read Amitav Ghosh's work a couple of years back and it is one of my favorite books ever. i just love indulging in stories which have a history thread underlying.

Great to know that you took things further ahead and this is an incredibly researched piece.

May more writings on this line follow!


Sunil Kesari said...

Sir can you give link regarding mt DNA haplogroup D appeared work)

Maddy said...

That was written so long ago, I have to check the links and find out. will revert, thanks

Sunil Kesari said...

sir can you please give your contact number need to talk to you

Maddy said...

Pls mail your question- calling is not feasible

Sunil Kesari said...

Sir can you give at least one reference which is showing mt DNA haplogroup D4 landed in Europe. in fact scientifically proven mt DNA haplogroup available in Malabar region of India i have that entire source sir.. but where did you get information regarding appearance of this DNA haplogroup D in Europe. can you please suggest reference will trace sir

any have iam very happy regarding your diversified interest sir

Maddy said...

I checked the article and the forum link i had provided- it still works and what you can possibly do is join the forum and interact with the poster discussing mtdna in sicily.
Check both pages of this topic at the forum