Hershel Shanks mug 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Israel made peace with Egypt, some of the most intriguing archeological
artifacts ever discovered disappeared. Now they’ve apparently
As part of the 1979 peace agreement, Israel turned over to
Egypt materials that had been excavated in the Sinai, among them the finds from
Kuntillet Ajrud, a remote desert way station in northern Sinai that had been
excavated in the mid- 1970s by Tel Aviv University archeologist Ze’ev
Located at the intersection of ancient desert tracks, Kuntillet
Ajrud was both a caravanserai and a kind of spiritual center. Among the finds
was a 400-pound stone bowl with an inscription on the rim in paleo- Hebrew
letters (the kind used before the Babylonian destruction of Solomon’s Temple)
that read “(Belonging) to Ovadiah, son of Adnah, may he be blessed by
Yahweh, spelled with four Hebrew letters (YHWH), known in
scholarly literature as the tetragrammaton, is the personal name of the Hebrew
Even more intriguing were two large storage vessels over three feet
high called pithoi (singular pithos) bearing inscriptions and crude, faint
figural drawings. One of the inscriptions refers to “Yahweh of Samaria and his
Some scholars contend that this refers to the consort of
Yahweh. Others argue that asherah is simply a tree that served as a symbol of
Yahweh. A drawing on the pithos of a woman playing a lyre may be Yahweh’s
consort, some say.
Another inscription refers to “Yahweh of Teman and his
Asherah.” Others refer to Ba’al, and the more generic term for God, El.
Apparently the eighth century BCE site attracted travelers from several
religious traditions. One pithos pictures five men with raised arms,
supposedly in supplication to some unidentified deity.
ALL THIS was
surrendered to Egypt as part of the peace agreement. The extraordinary finds
were never heard from again. They were certainly not seen in Egypt. Rumor had it
that they simply remained in the boxes in which they had been delivered; there
was no interest there.
In January I was in Egypt and interviewed Zahi
Hawass, then the director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. I asked
him if he knew what happened to the Kuntillet Ajrud artifacts. He said he
didn’t, but would find out. This was 10 days before protests erupted in Tahrir
Square, so I never heard from him. After being elevated to minister of
antiquities before Hosni Mubarak left as head of state, Hawass subsequently
On February 3, before leaving his post, Hawass reported that
the archeological stores at Qantara on the eastern side of the Suez Canal had
been looted. Naturally, I wondered if this included the finds from
Kuntillet Ajrud. The good news was that 288 objects had been returned. Were the
finds from Kuntillet Ajrud looted? Were they recovered? No one knew.
on March 3, the Egyptian press reported that 30 truckloads of antiquities had
been moved for safekeeping from the Qantara storage facilities to the Egyptian
Museum in Cairo. Included were “Sinai artifacts that were retrieved from
Israel following the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.”
So we now
know where they are. Whether they will ever be exhibited in Egypt is
another question. (Wouldn’t it be nice if they were lent for exhibition to an
Israeli museum?) And what steps, if any, are being taken to conserve these
fragile, faint and delicate drawings and inscriptions?
In any event, my question
to Hawass has been answered. In our interview, however, Hawass threw a jab back
at me: He doesn’t remember seeing any scholarly excavation report on the
Kuntillet Ajrud finds. It had never appeared, as we both knew. I
subsequently inquired about this of Joseph Aviram, president of the Israel
Exploration Society. He told me that the publication of the inscriptions had
recently been reassigned to two leading epigraphers, Shmuel Ahituv and Esther
Eshel. They have completed their work and await only the contribution of
excavator Ze’ev Meshel.
Aviram hopes to have the publication out this
year. But, still, that’s 35 years after the excavation. Hawass had a
The writer is the founding editor of
Biblical Archaeology Review,
the world’s largest-circulation magazine devoted to biblical archeology.