Chronicle of Ahimaaz, The Arab invasions of Southern Italy

The Chronicle of Ahimaaz is an epic genealogical work composed in Southern Italy in 1054 by Ahimaaz ben Paltiel.  Although it  intended merely to glorify his own immediate ancestors, this work gives much important information in regard to the history of the early Jewish settlements in such towns as Oria, Bari, Otranto, Gaeta, Benevente, Capua, Amalfi, and Pavia in southern Italy, covering the period 850-1054.  The selection given below describes events in the second half of the ninth century, when Arabs invaded parts of Calabria and Apulia.

About this time the Arabians began to invade the land with their armies, to overrun the borders of the kingdom of the uncircumcised. the country of idolators; they carried destruction into Calabria, threw their cities into confusion, devastated their provinces, razed their walls of defence.  They advanced into Apulia; there they grew in power, attacked the inhabitants in force, shattered their strength and captured many cities, and destroyed and plundered.

In those days there was in Bari, Saudan, the chieftain of the Arabians at the time, who held sway over the entire country.  He sent messengers to the famous city of Oria, to make a treaty of peace with its inhabitants, promising not to deliver their land to destruction, only to exact tribute of them.  But this was just a ruse, by which he planned to fall upon the city suddenly and overthrow it, and lay it waste.

The governor of Bari sent Rabbi Shephatiah to him, to hear his proposal, to receive his pledge, the document bearing his seal, that the negotiations might be properly completed with his official mark.  Saudan, the commander, received him with honor, spoke to him cordially, and lavished attentions upon him in the presence of all the princes that had assembled to welcome him; and he detained him until it was almost Sabbath.  He did it purposely; for he could not return to his city on the Sabbath.  He would not let him go, so that he might not inform his master of the enemy’s plans.  When Rabbi Shephatiah became aware of his ruse, he exclaimed, “Give me permission to go, for thou hast deceived me with thy cunning.”  But Saudan answered, “Whither wilt thou go at this hour, the Sabbath is about to begin.”  Again he said to him, “Let me go, my lord, do not be concerned about me.”  So he permitted him to leave, and he went.  And when he set out, invoking the help of the Almighty, trusting in the Name of the Creator, and confident that God would aid him, he wrote some letters on the horse’s hoof, so that his journey might be quickly made; he rapidly repeated the Ineffable Name and the ground miraculously yielded before him.

And when he reached the outskirts of the city, he called to the people on every hand, “Come forth in haste; flee from the outer city, for Saudan, the commander of the Arabians, with all his forces, is coming to take our possessions, to kill, to rob and plunder.”  And as he drew near the governor of the city went out to meet him; Rabbi Shephatiah told him of what had happened to him, and they took counsel about the matter.  So he arrived in th city before nightfall; he washed and bathed, and welcomed the Sabbath as was fitting, with rejoicing, with food and drink, with study of the Law, robed and adorned in festive garments, partaking of all its delights and at ease among them.

And Saudan and all his host, arrogant and insolent, came by forced marches to attack them.  He found the country deserted to the very gates of the city; and on the Sabbath, at the time of the afternoon prayer, having found no satisfaction, he asked for Rabbi Shephatiah, saying, “Give me the man who violated his law, and profaned his Sabbath; their laws ordains that he be put to death.”  And Rabbi Shephatiah answered fearlessly, by the power of his God that was in him, “Why dost thou speak thus?  There is no truth in thy words.  My witness is in heaven, and all the people of my city can testify that I arrived while it was day; while the sun was up I returned and went to the bath; I washed and bathed and returned to my house, and welcomed the Sabbath with proper sanctification, in obedience to the command of my King and my Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, my God.”

This text was first published in The Chronicle of Ahimaaz, translated by Marcus Salzman (New York, 1924)

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