Turkey has agreed to return to Israel an ancient inscription from Jerusalem, currently housed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, an Israeli official told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site. It is considered one of the most important ancient Hebrew inscriptions in existence.
The gesture comes amid warming ties between Israel and Turkey and was discussed during the landmark visit of President Isaac Herzog to Ankara earlier this week, said a senior official in the Israeli entourage.
Israel has long sought the return of 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 official said Israel has offered to send Turkey a valuable historical and religiously significant item currently housed in an Israeli museum, most likely an ancient candelabra from the days of Ottoman rule.
There was no immediate confirmation from Turkey.
The archeological gesture of goodwill was not raised during talks between Herzog and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but was ironed out by senior officials on both sides.
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. The construction of the tunnel is recounted in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles.
The inscription reads: “… this is the story of the tunnel, while [the hewers lifted] their axes toward their counterparts, and while three cubits more were to (be hewn?), was heard the voice of a man calling to his counterpart, (for) there was [a crack?] in the rock, on the right and on the left. And on the day of [the final barrier’s] piercing, the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and water flowed from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits and 100 cubits was the height of the rock, over the head of the stonecutters …”
Israel has tried several times in recent years to secure the return of the inscription, most recently in 2017 when then-culture minister Miri Regev offered to trade it for two elephants for a Turkish zoo. The offer was rebuffed.
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.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said he offered in 1998 to trade Turkish antiquities in Israeli museums for the inscription but was turned down.
Turkey has long insisted that the inscription is sovereign Ottoman property and therefore belongs to Ankara. The Ottoman Empire ruled Jerusalem and much of the Middle East from about 1516 to 1917, when it was ousted by British forces during World War I.
As such, a shift in Ankara’s stance on the inscription would provide a strong signal that the countries are heading to warmer ties.
Herzog met Erdogan on Wednesday afternoon, shortly after landing in Ankara for a landmark 24-hour visit.
In remarks to the media, Erdogan said he believed that “this historic visit will be a turning point in relations between Turkey and Israel. Strengthening relations with the State of Israel has great value for our country.”
Herzog’s trip marks the highest-level visit by an Israeli official since former prime minister Ehud Olmert made the trip in 2008, and is seen as an important step toward rekindling the two countries’ long-floundering relationship.
Turkey and Israel once were close allies, but the relationship frayed under Erdogan, who is an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Israel also has been angered by Erdogan’s embrace of Hamas, the terror group that controls the Gaza Strip and is committed to Israel’s destruction.
The countries withdrew their respective ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for Palestinians that broke an Israeli blockade. The incident resulted in the deaths of 10 Turkish activists.
Relations improved and then broke down again in 2018 when Turkey, angered by the US moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, once more recalled its ambassador, prompting Israel to respond in kind. The two countries have not restored their ambassadors.