Three 1,500-year-old “magic” incantation bowls and hundreds of other rare artifacts — some dating to the biblical period — were seized from an apartment in an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood under suspicion of illegal antiquities trade, according to an Israel Antiquities Authority press release Monday.
Trading in stolen artifacts is a criminal offense, for which the statutory penalty is up to three years in prison.
During a joint search of a Ramat Shlomo home, the IAA’s theft prevention unit in cooperation with Jerusalem district police recovered hundreds of antique coins, glassware and weaponry, said the IAA. Documents found at the Jerusalem home brought the investigators to a central Israel auction house where further suspected illegal antiquities were seized.
Additional rare finds discovered in the Jerusalem home include rare and valuable ivory furniture inlays that were common in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE and have been uncovered at sites including Tel Megiddo and in Samaria. According to the press release, the IAA believes the artifacts were illegally excavated in Samaria or northern Israel.
The three “magic” bowls were created in the 5th-7th centuries in present-day Iraq. They are among some 3,000 that have been discovered to date, which were used by Jews and non-Jews alike during this era.
Tel Aviv University Prof. Matthew Morgenstern, an expert in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Classical Mandaic who has photographed hundreds of incantation bowls and has published academic articles on them extensively, told The Times of Israel that such bowls were written in several Babylonian Aramaic dialects and placed protectively around the house for its protection, upside down to trap the demons or evil entities. Some even have “addresses” on the back telling the owner where to put them, he said.
“The Jewish bowls draw heavily on Jewish tradition, cite verses, and even contain the earliest written attestations we have for Jewish texts like the Mishnah or benedictions,” said Morgenstern.
Dr. Ohad Abudraham, a Tel Aviv University postdoctoral researcher in Mandaic (a dialect of Aramaic), looked at the images of the three seized bowls and offered some preliminary impressions to The Times of Israel. The bowls were all written in Aramaic, but used quotes from the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew.
Abudraham explained that the bowls were written by a professional “magician” who likely sat in the local marketplace. The magicians used formulaic texts that were then adapted to the needs of the individual client. While clients were named on the bowls, the magicians were not, but it is now clear, said Abudraham, that the majority were likely Jewish. Some two-thirds of all recovered bowls were written by Jews, but Christians and pagans also inscribed spells on bowls in their own Aramaic dialects.
One of the bowls seized in the Jerusalem raid is written in the name of Joshua ben (son of) Perachiah, who appears in the Mishna, in Avot. The incantation follows the language of a get, or writ of divorce. However, instead of a man divorcing his wife, the client is divorcing and exorcizing his home of several named groups of destructive demons.
According to Abudraham, the bowl’s exorcism text is written in a parallel to the common formula used on a marriage-ending get. It instructs demons of all sorts — including “those who appear in the day and in nightmares” — to leave the premises. The bowl also includes names of well-known angels Gabriel and Michael, leading Abudraham to conclude that it was written for Jewish clients.
A second bowl also mentions the names of angels, including Michael, Raphael, and a large additional group of named angels, all ending with the divine moniker “el.” It also includes a Hebrew quote from Psalms 121:7, “The Lord will guard you from all evil” (Adonai yishmorcha mikol ra).
The third bowl depicts a female demon with long, wild hair and tied hands at the center, surrounded by a circle. It is a very common motif, said Abudraham, who added that usually the demon’s feet are also tied. He identified the name of the client on the bowl, Achai Bar Marganita (literally “My brother, the son of Pearl”), which were common names for both Jews and non-Jews of the era.
Interestingly, said Abudraham, clients’ names were written referencing their mothers in order for the spirit realm to be 100% sure for whom their protection was ordered.
According to Amir Ganor, head of the Antiquities Authority’s Robbery Prevention Unit, “In 2003, following the war in Iraq, thousands of stolen ‘incantation bowls’ began to enter international trade markets.”
According to the IAA press release, the investigators discovered pottery restoration chemicals on the premises and the suspect likely repaired the bowls and restored them ahead of a potential sale at auction.
“Antiquities belong to all of us. They are our heritage. Unauthorized antiquities dealers encourage looters to go out and destroy ancient sites in search of finds for sale on the antiquities market. In the name of greed, they plunder antiquity sites, removing the finds from their historical context, thus obscuring parts of human history,” says Eli Eskosido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“Every find can add a little bit to our knowledge about Jewish life in Babylonia in the 5th-7th centuries, for which firsthand evidence is scant,” said Morgenstern.