Famous Siloam Inscription shows the complexity of repatriation of antiquities

A 2,700-year-old inscription was discovered in Jerusalem, a testament to the fragile circumstances of antiques.

 Photo of a replica of the Siloam inscription, March 8, 2010.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Photo of a replica of the Siloam inscription, March 8, 2010.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Some 2,700 years ago, during the time of King Hezekiah of Judah, two groups of diggers working from opposite directions hewed out a tunnel from stone which would carry water from the Gihon Spring outside of Jerusalem to the Pool of Siloam inside the city, providing the people of the city with water.

The feat of this great achievement is related in the Bible in 2 Chronicles 32:20: “This same Hezekiah also stopped the upper spring of the waters of Gihon, and brought them straight down on the west side of the city of David. And Hezekiah prospered in all his works.”

In 701 BCE Assyrian Sennacherib attempted in what today would be called psychological warfare to take Jerusalem and besieged the city, but in the end failed to capture it when, according to the Bible, an angel sent by God smote all the leaders and captains of his forces. Other sources say it was a plague that swept through the military camp.

Thousands of years later, in 1880, two boys found the inscription left by the laborers a few meters from the southern exit to the tunnel. They reported the find to their teacher, a German scholar, architect and Protestant missionary and soon-to-be archaeologist named Conrad Schick who lived in Jerusalem and he investigated the site.

Fortunately, he made a copy of the inscription before vandals chiseled out the inscription, breaking it into several pieces which were sold to antiquities dealers. Under the urging of British and German researchers, the Ottoman authorities who then ruled over the area tracked down the thieves and recovered the broken inscription, and brought it to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

 The Pergamon Altar in the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, 2007.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons) The Pergamon Altar in the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, 2007. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The unbroken copy remained in Jerusalem and is today displayed at the Israel Museum.

The inscription is considered by most archaeologists as the most important find ever made in Israel.

 “The inscription is no doubt a very important cultural heritage find of Jewish history which tells of a very important event. It is the most important inscription from the Iron Age,” said Bar Ilan archaeology professor Aren Maeir. “It is very dramatic and depicts well-known events described both in the Bible and in Assyrian text. We don’t have many inscriptions from that time and it is a very long inscription.”

“It is important in several aspects,” agreed Ronny Reich, Haifa University archaeology professor emeritus. “From an archaeological point of view, it gives a date to the tunnel…(which can be determined by) the shape of letters as compared to other inscriptions.”

Israel has attempted several times to have the inscription returned. This week the Turkish press quoted Turkish diplomatic sources denying earlier reports in the Israeli press that discussions were underway for the return of the inscription to Israel following a meeting between Israeli President ISaac Herzog and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

According to the Turkish report, Ankara has said that inscription was found in territory belonging to the  Ottoman Empire at the time and which is “currently part of Palestinian territories” and so the return to Israel was out of the question.

Written in ancient Hebrew script, the Siloam Inscription commemorates the completion of the tunnel, but does not mention the name of a king nor a date, and would never have been seen by people of the time as the tunnel was meant only as a conduit for water, though today tourists walk through what has come to be called Hezekiah’s tunnel.

There is a debate as to how long it took to build the tunnel and whether the tunnel was built in preparation for an imminent attack and possible protracted siege by Sennacherib. Early Biblical scholars were eager to date the tunnel to Hezekiah’s biblical tunnel, said Reich, so calculated it to have taken a few months to make, but most scholars today believe it would have taken years to build.

Many scholars believe Hezekiah had the tunnel built while strengthening the defense of Jerusalem in preparation for the inevitable Assyrian military assault following his leadership role in a rebellion against the Assyrian Empire.

However, Reich said, it would be illogical to believe that a king in Judea would have known that the Assyrian king was aiming a military campaign against his kingdom in advance and so had the tunnel built.  The Assyrians could have as easily been preparing an attack on the Phoenicians, Egyptians, or on Transjordan, he said.

“The Assyrian kings went every year on a military campaign to bring manpower to build their huge cities. That was the reason for expulsions of peoples: for manpower. The Assyrians proper were busy in military campaigns so…they needed captives to build their cities,” said Reich, who has participated in numerous excavations in Jerusalem including what is known as the City of David, where the inscription was found, and which is today located in the East Jerusalem Palestinian village of Silwan. “So how could they know in Jerusalem that Sennacherib was aiming at Jerusalem before he crossed 20 kilometers from the border? In my opinion, it took several years to build the tunnel and it couldn’t have been in preparation for the attack.”

What is known for sure, though, thanks to the inscription left by the diggers after they completed their monumental feat, is how the two groups met along the last few meters of the 533-meter-long tunnel:

“… 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 …”

The inscription was one among many antiquities taken back to Istanbul by the Ottomans when they ruled the area before losing control to the British following World War I, said Maeir, including the Gezer Calendar which was found in Gezer and served as a calendar for various agricultural activities throughout the year. Finds from his own excavation site of Tel Essafi, Gat of the Philistines, and Megiddo also found their way back to Istanbul during the Ottoman rule, he said.

“According to international rule a country that subjugates another is not allowed to remove antiquities or objects of cultural heritage,” he said. “But if this was fully followed through with most of the big museums in London, Paris, and Berlin would have all their antiquities taken back.”

The most famous request for repatriation of antiquities has come from Greece which has demanded the British Museum return a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures from the Parthenon known as the Elgin Marbles which were taken during Ottoman rule—the British say legally while the Greeks say they were stolen.

“There is a very strong case for repatriation but the claims can go both ways,” Maeir said, noting the Pergamon Museum in Berlin has among its collection of classic antiquities the monumental 2nd century BC Altar of Zeus which was shipped to Germany in its entirety from Pergamon, Turkey in  1910. “(Turkey) could probably demand them to return it. The Turks are both those who can claim antiquities were taken from them and claims can be made against them.”

He noted that European and Western countries have begun to crack down on antiquities repatriation, but more so on private collectors such as Jewish American philanthropist and collector Michael Steinhardt and Norwegian businessman and collector Martin Schøyen, rather than on museums.

In order to avoid repatriation, museums point to the precarious political situations in places such as Baghdad, Beirut, and Damascus as reasons not to jeopardize world heritage artifacts by returning them, he said.

“This is not true for Athens and Turkey but still we are not seeing these things going back so quickly there,” he said. “Officially the colonial age is over, but in reality, it is far from over--just look at the news these last weeks.”

Reich noted that closer to home, when talking about the repatriation of antiquities Palestinians have laid claim on the Dead Sea Scrolls as they were discovered in the contested area of the Judean Desert in the West Bank which they consider to be theirs. In addition, said Maeir, the Siloam inscription itself was found in an area of East Jerusalem which is also contested by Palestinians.

“This scientific enterprise is not a simple issue as all,” he said. “But all of that said, I think it would be very nice if (the inscription) comes to Israel, and if it does come to Israel I very much hope this won’t be misused for nationalist reasons as all too often happens with archaeological finds.”

Still, said Reich, he is thankful to the Turks for the “real effort” the Ottoman authorities made to track down the inscription after it was stolen, jailed the thieves, and took the inscription to the most important museum in the capital of the empire of the time, Istanbul.

“We didn’t exist in those days,” said Reich. “It has been there (in Istanbul) since then, so I thank the Turks for the safekeeping of the find which is more important than spectacular.”