Jerusalem and Ankara may have restored diplomatic relations in 2016, but the long-awaited thaw won’t see the return anytime soon of one of the most important ancient Hebrew inscriptions, found in Jerusalem and currently held in Istanbul, Israeli officials say.
The Siloam Inscription, a 2,700-year-old ancient Hebrew text that provides concrete historical support for a Biblical event, is one of three ancient Jewish inscriptions unearthed in the Holy Land currently owned by the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
Despite an emphatic speech in October proclaiming the Siloam inscription’s significance to Jerusalem and the Jewish people, and the newly restored diplomatic relations with Turkey, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken no steps to secure the artifact’s repatriation, his office confirmed to The Times of Israel.
The ancient Hebrew text was discovered in 1880 in a tunnel hewn into a limestone hillside outside the Old City sometime in the late 8th century BCE.
The text details the construction of the tunnel, which brought water from the Pool of Siloam to the City of David, below the southern edge of the Temple Mount. It echoes the Biblical account of the tunnel’s construction under King Hezekiah.
Shortly after the inscription was discovered, it was whisked away by Ottoman authorities to Constantinople — the 1874 Ottoman Law on Antiquities stipulated that all artifacts excavated in the empire were state property. The Gezer calendar found in 1908 — a 10th century BCE inscription describing the agricultural cycle, believed to be one of the oldest Hebrew texts — and the Temple Warning inscription found in 1871, which stood on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, also wound up in Istanbul.
The three finds are touted as being some of the museum’s highlights but are often not on public display. And although Turkey has launched a fierce campaign in recent years to secure the repatriation of antiquities it claims were looted from the Ottoman Empire, Ankara refuses to return unambiguously Jewish heritage artifacts to Israel.
Israel and Turkey formally ended five years of frosty bilateral ties last month with the instatement of Ambassador Eitan Naeh in Ankara. Two months earlier, at the opening of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s new headquarters in Jerusalem in October, Netanyahu took the podium before dignitaries, prospective donors and the press in a nationally televised speech.
Speaking soon after UNESCO had passed a resolution ignoring Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem, he recalled that in September 1998, during his first tenure as premier, he asked then-Turkish prime minister Mesut Yılmaz for the Siloam inscription, offering the Turkish leader a chance “to go into our museums and choose all the finds from the Ottoman period that you want” in exchange for its return to Jerusalem.
The Siloam inscription lends proof and validity to the biblical account and Jewish connection to Jerusalem, Netanyahu argued, which may have been why Yılmaz refused.
The six-line inscription in paleo-Hebrew found etched into the wall of the tunnel describes the excavators, working from opposite ends, calling to one another near the completion of the project, as recounted in the Biblical accounts in the books of Kings and Chronicles.
“… this is the story of the tunnel … the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to (cut?) … the voice of a man … called to his counterpart, (for) there was [a crack?] in the rock, on the right … and on the day of the tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and flowed water from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits. and (100?)
cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters …” — From the Siloam inscription
“Is there better proof, more conclusive, etched in stone… to the ancient connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem, to the city of David, and the Temple Mount?” the premier asked. “Of course there isn’t.”
Visitors to the Siloam Tunnel, where the inscription was discovered, see a duplicate of the inscription that was reinserted into the hole out of which the text was chiseled.
“Maybe one day, the Siloam inscription — the original, not a duplicate — will make its way here,” Netanyahu said.
Previous requests for the return of the artifact have been rejected by the Turkish government, which insisted it was sovereign Ottoman property and therefore belongs to Ankara.
Then-president Shimon Peres asked then-Turkish president Abdullah Gül in 2007 to at least loan Israel the tablet so it could go on public display for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations. Although Gül answered in the affirmative, the Turks never delivered due to diplomatic tensions over Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s armed takeover.
Despite Netanyahu’s argument asserting the unparalleled significance of the inscription, Israel has made no overtures to secure its return or that of the other two ancient inscriptions held at the Istanbul museum.
Israeli diplomats in Turkey and Jerusalem said there were no communications with the Turkish government on that point, and a Netanyahu spokesman said there were no current efforts to pursue the repatriation of the inscriptions.
A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that while Israel has repeatedly expressed interest in the repatriation of the Siloam inscription, the issue is not currently on the agenda.
“We would like to discuss it with the Turkish side,” spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said. “Israel has expressed a lot of interest in getting the inscription back on many different occasions, but we will certainly need to put it back on the agenda with the Turks. But we are not there yet.”
Neither Turkish Foreign Ministry officials nor Istanbul Archaeology Museum officials responded to inquiries for comment about the matter.