Israel says ancient baptismal font, stolen 20 years ago, retrieved in West Bank
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Israel says ancient baptismal font, stolen 20 years ago, retrieved in West Bank

Authorities say rock-hewn Byzantine item from 5th century CE was pilfered from ruined church at Tel Tekoa in 2000, while Palestinians says it is Israel that is the thief

A 5th century CE stone baptismal font that was taken by antiquities thieves from Tel Teqoa and then recovered by Israeli authorities in the West Bank twenty years later, July 20, 2002. (COGAT Spokesperson's Office)
A 5th century CE stone baptismal font that was taken by antiquities thieves from Tel Teqoa and then recovered by Israeli authorities in the West Bank twenty years later, July 20, 2002. (COGAT Spokesperson's Office)

Israeli authorities on Monday said they had retrieved a rare ancient baptismal font in the West Bank that was stolen from an archaeological site near Bethlehem some twenty years ago, while Palestinian officials said the Israeli operation was itself an act of theft.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, said in a statement Monday that the rock-hewn basin had been pilfered by antiquities thieves from the Tel Tekoa archaeological site in the area of the West Bank city.

“This is an important and exciting moment,” said Hananya Hizmi, head of the Archaeological Unit at the Civil Administration, the Defense Ministry body that governs the West Bank. “We have succeeded in returning a unique archaeological relic after years of searching.”

In a predawn operation, and escorted by IDF troops, the unit retrieved the item which dates back to the 5th century CE, during the Byzantine period.

The statement did not say exactly where the font was found or where it was taken after being recovered. A security source told The Times of Israel that the recovery operation began “as soon as the object was found.”

Palestinian media reported the font was taken from the town of Tuqu’, southeast of Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Hizmi described the font as “a cultural and historical treasure” and said the Civil Administration’s “heavy investment of effort and resources in the search over recent years for this item has borne fruit.”

A 5th century CE stone baptismal font that was taken by antiquities thieves from Tel Teqoa and then recovered by Israeli authorities in the West Bank 20 years later, July 20, 2002. (COGAT Spokesperson’s Office)

Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement that “Israel’s theft of a baptismal font dating back to the Byzantine era from Bethlehem overnight is an abominable act of thuggery and cultural appropriation.”

The font, made of reddish limestone, is 1.5 meters high and octagonal in shape with a cross and garland decoration. It is believed to have served worshipers at an ancient church at the Tel Teqoa site, and was mentioned by 19th-century archaeologists who visited the site.

According to the Palestinian Wafa news agency, it weights about eight tons. Video captured by one of its photojournalists showed the font on the back of a flatbed truck as it was being removed from Tuqu’ by Israeli authorities.

(جرن معمودية ) يقدر عمره ١٦٠٠ عام قامت قوات الاحتلال بسرقته الليلة من بلدة تقوع في محافظة بيت لحم…

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Oday Daibes‎‏ ב- יום שני, 20 ביולי 2020

The piece was stolen from the church site by thieves in 2000 using a “huge” forklift truck, Wafa reported. In 2002 the Tuqu’ municipality found the font and it was then placed near the mayor’s house until a local museum could be constructed, the report said.

According to the report, the basin is one of only three of its kind. Another was recently found in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, while the last is located in a church in Bayt Jibrin, also in the West Bank.

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