Culture Minister Miri Regev used an impromptu trip to southern Turkey for a basketball game to offer a different kind of trade: Two elephants for an ancient inscription from Jerusalem, currently housed in a Turkish museum, that is considered one of the most important ancient Hebrew inscriptions in existence.
Regev was heard making the offer in a video posted online of an informal Hebrew-Turkish-English chat with Gaziantep mayor Fatma Sahin Wednesday. Regev was in Turkey to accompany the Ironi Nahariya basketball team for a Europe Cup game, after Turkish authorities insisted that a minister be present in order for the team to bring its own armed guards.
In the video, which was posted by Channel 10 reporter Akiva Novick, Sahin, a politician from the ruling AKP party, speaks of her zoo’s elephant problem: it has just one, and it wants more.
“We’re willing to work for it,” the mayor quips.
Regev is heard telling her aides and translators, “We’ll make a deal. We’ll give them the elephants, and they’ll give us the inscription of Hezekiah.”
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Regev was referring to the so-called Siloam Inscription, a 2,700-year-old ancient Hebrew text that provides concrete historical support for the Biblical account of the construction of a tunnel which brought water from the Pool of Siloam to the City of David, below the southern edge of the Temple Mount, during the reign of King Hezekiah.
The video does not show how Sahin responds to the offer, but previous requests for the inscription have been rebuffed by the Turkish government, which insists it is 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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said he offered in 1998 to trade Turkish antiquities in Israeli museums for the inscription, but was turned down.
The Siloam inscription is the most prominent evidence for the biblical account of Hezekiah’s tunnel-building, and a significant finding with respect to the Jewish connection to Jerusalem generally.
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.
It reads: “… 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 …”
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.
The inscription is one of three ancient Jewish inscriptions unearthed in the Holy Land currently owned by the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. It was discovered in 1880 in a tunnel hewn into a limestone hillside outside the Old City sometime in the late 8th century BCE.
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.
Jerusalem and Ankara restored diplomatic relations in 2016 after years of deteriorating ties, but the long-awaited thaw has not changed the fate of the inscription.
Israel has made no fresh formal overtures to secure its return or that of the other two ancient inscriptions held at the Istanbul museum since the thaw.
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 in January 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.”
Regev (Likud), who is also sports minister, was in Gaziantep to allow the Nahariya team to bring armed guards, after the Shin Bet initially balked at allowing the team to travel to the restive city near the Syrian border.
Permission was eventually given for the team to charter a plane straight to Gaziantep, not spend any extra time there, and bring armed guards.
But Turkish authorities said armed guards could only be brought to accompany a minister of other high state official, so Regev agreed to join the trip.
Gaziantep, in southeastern Turkey, has been the scene of several attacks attributed to Islamic State and Kurdish rebels.
Police in the city earlier this month detained four suspected members of the Islamic State group and seized explosives and weapons intended for a “sensational” attack, Turkish news agency Dogan reported.
The Shin Bet had cited “exceptional” security circumstances in initially nixing the trip.
The Sports Ministry, however, appealed the decision, following which Netanyahu decided to allow the team to travel, a Shin Bet spokesman said.
The spokesman said the threat level had not changed but that the agency would provide the delegation security in coordination with local forces.
Ironi Nahariya lost the match 80-65 but won on aggregate 161-155 to advance to the quarterfinals.
Raoul Wootliff and AFP contributed to this story.