Jordanian authorities are demanding that Israel return what they describe as ancient artifacts that could rival the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, saying they were smuggled out of the country and are now in the possession of a Beduin farmer in the Galilee.

The artifacts in question are a group of around 70 metal books, or codices, each with between five and 15 leaves about the size of a credit card and bound by rings made of lead. Authorities in Amman believe a Jordanian Beduin found the codices in northern Jordan at some point between 2005 and 2007, and later gave them to another Beduin to smuggle into Israel.

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Hassan Saeda, a resident of a Beduin village in northern Israel, maintains that the codices are an heirloom that have been in his family for generations. Phone messages to the Saeda home went unanswered Thursday.

Israeli archeological sources have dismissed the importance of the find, noting that Saeda had appeared “every few years” trying to sell the codices, which they characterized as forgeries.

But Jordanian authorities have attributed far greater significance to the artifacts.

“They will really match, and perhaps be more significant, than the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Ziad al-Saad, director of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, told the BBC. He added that they could be “the most important discovery in the history of archeology.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority declined comment.

David Elkington, a British expert on religious archeology, told the BBC the books could be “the major discovery of Christian history.” Elkington and colleagues announced the find last week and said they hoped to have the books moved to a Jordanian museum.

Authorities in Jordan said they would “exert all efforts at every level” to have the artifacts returned to their country.

“It’s a breathtaking thought that we have held these objects that might have been held by the early saints of the Church,” Elkington said.

Material evidence of early Christian communities in the Holy Land is virtually nonexistent.

The codices contain messages in Hebrew and ancient Greek, all written in as-yet undeciphered code.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that carbon dating showed a piece of leather found with the books to be just under 2,000 years old, placing it in the same time period in which Jesus is believed to have lived. An examination of the metal slabs showed them to be very old as well, the Telegraph reported.

Philip Davies, an Old Testament expert at Sheffield University, told the BBC the books contained images of Jerusalem that were distinctive of early Christian tradition.

“As soon as I saw that, I was dumbstruck. That struck me as so obviously a Christian image,” Davies said. “There is a cross in the foreground, and behind it is what has to be the tomb [of Jesus], a small building with an opening, and behind that the walls of the city. There are walls depicted on other pages of these books, too, and they almost certainly refer to Jerusalem.”

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