The Siloam Inscription is the most famous, most significant and most precious ancient Hebrew inscription ever discovered. Carved in elegant paleo-Hebrew letters, the kind used by the Israelites before the Babylonian Exile, it was found in 1880 carved in the rock wall of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, beneath the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem known as the City of David. Soon thereafter vandals chiseled the carefully prepared surface out of the rock, breaking the inscription into several pieces. The pieces were then sold to an antiquities dealer, from whom the Ottoman authorities recovered them, ultimately taking them to Istanbul. The inscription is now in a display case in a part of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum not generally open to the public, so it is rarely seen today.
The Siloam Inscription should be returned to Jerusalem.
There is ample precedent for the return of this great cultural treasure to its original home—especially since there is no question where it came from, to 059whose culture it belongs or that it was removed from an immovable monument. Moreover, for the Turks it has little, if any, significance. Nor is it particularly beautiful—unless you appreciate the finer points of ancient paleo-Hebrew lettering. Turkey will be especially understanding of such a request because she herself is seeking—and obtaining—the return of cultural treasures from her own plundered past.
Hezekiah’s Tunnel, from which the Siloam Inscription was taken, is described in the Bible itself (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:30). This tunnel probably enabled Hezekiah to successfully withstand Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.a The inscription commemorates the completion of the digging of the tunnel.
At that time, Sennacherib was the ruler of the greatest power on earth—Assyria. Assyria had already destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. Judah, the southern kingdom, was plainly in her path.
The Assyrian attack on Jerusalem was no surprise to Hezekiah. He clearly saw it coming. According to Sennacherib’s own records, the Assyrians conquered 46 Judahite cities before attacking Jerusalem. Jerusalem was well protected, however, so Sennacherib decided to subdue the city by siege. Sennacherib was very explicit: Before besieging the city, he sent messengers to Jerusalem, who told the people, as the Bible records it, “Hezekiah is misleading you into risking death by famine and thirst when he tells you the Lord your God will save you” (2 Chronicles 32:11). Sennacherib’s threat to Jerusalem was not the force of arms, but death by famine and thirst.
Hezekiah no doubt prepared for the siege by laying up vast stores of food, but water presented a more difficult problem: The city’s water supply, the Gihon Spring, lay outside the city walls, near the floor of the Kidron Valley. Hezekiah solved this problem by building a fantastic tunnel under the city from the spring to a pool—the Siloam Pool—on the other side of town. A pile of rocks easily concealed the spring from the enemy’s eyes.
Hezekiah’s Tunnel—through 1,750 feet of rock, nearly a third of a mile long—is a remarkable engineering achievement. Two teams of diggers started from either end and, following a sinuous path, somehow managed to meet in the middle. To this day, we are not sure how they did it. But the fact remains that—as the Bible tells us—“Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the City of David” (2 Chronicles 32:30).
Hezekiah’s Tunnel was such an important achievement that at the close of the account of his reign in the Book of Kings, we are told:
“The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah, his exploits and how he made the [Siloam] Pool and the conduit and brought water into the city are re corded in the Book of Chronicles of the Kings of Judah” (2 Kings 20:20).
In the event, Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem was unsuccessful. In his account, Sennacherib says he made Hezekiah “a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage,” but Sennacherib makes no claim to having conquered the city. According to the Bible, in a single night the Lord slew 185,000 Assyrians encamped outside the city (2 Kings 19:35) and Sennacherib then withdrew. In any case, it is clear that Hezekiah’s Tunnel played a major role in the successful defense of the city.
In 1838 Hezekiah’s Tunnel was rediscovered by the American explorer and Bible scholar Edward Robinson, who, with his friend Eli Smith, managed to crawl through the largely silted-up water tunnel.
Then in 1880 some boys swimming in the tunnel near the Siloam Pool discovered the now-famous inscription that is in the collection of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
The inscription commemorates the completion of the tunnel and reads:
“This is the story of the boring through. While [the tunnelers lifted] the pick-axe each toward his fellow and while 3 cubits [remained yet] to be bored [through, there was heard] the voice of a man calling his fellow—for there was a split [or overlap] in the rock on the right hand and on [the left hand]. When the tunnel was driven through, the tunnelers hewed the rock, each man toward his fellow, pick-axe against pick-axe. And the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1200 cubits. The height of the rock above the head of the tunnelers was a hundred cubits.”
Whether the Siloam Inscription should be returned to Jerusalem is not an isolated question. It must be considered as part of a much larger movement aimed at restoring cultural treasures to their place of origin. All over the world, countries are requesting, and even demanding, the return of antiquities that were taken from them when they were colonies or otherwise in no position to resist. Indeed, among 060the most prominent countries seeking the return of its own antiquities is Turkey.
As the distinguished British scholar Magnus Magnusson has recently stated,
“The climate of opinion is now changing to one of greater willingness to consider, at least, the possibility of return of certain objects. Men of great distinction and renown in the world of scholarship, like the late lamented Professor Glyn Daniel, for many years editor of Antiquity, have expressed themselves as being firmly on the side of restitution of some of the objects in Western museums to their place of origin.”1
Although a case can be made that Israel is legally entitled to the return of the Siloam Inscription, we would not rely on legal grounds. Instead, we would rest on Israel’s moral entitlement and urge Turkey to return the Siloam Inscription even without a formal request as a spontaneous gesture of good will.
According to a recent text, legal title to certain limited cultural objects does not pass when removed from the country of origin. Among these limited cultural objects are (1) historic records of a nation and (2) objects torn from immovable property.2 The Siloam Inscription clearly fits both these categories. In such cases, the country of origin is regarded as having a superior title or the alleged foreign owner has a title regarded as voidable. “The principle of the physical return of [such] cultural property is becoming, through increasing state and institutional practice, a custom of international law.”3
But we would prefer to press the moral aspects of these factors. Archaeologists know how rarely they discover something so directly related to a historic event described in the Bible as the Siloam Inscription. It would be hard to imagine—short of the Tablets of the Law themselves—an artifact of greater importance in Israel’s history. The highest category of artifacts that should be resumed are described as “objects linked directly with persons of major historical and cultural importance [here, Hezekiah], or with crucial historical events [here, Sennacherib’s unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem].”4
Conversely, the Siloam Inscription means little to the Turks, so little that they have not even displayed it in a public area of the museum. Nor, as noted earlier, is it a thing of great beauty. It is important only because of what it says. And what it says is important to Israel, not to Turkey.
Other factors that have been considered in these cases is whether scholarship would be impeded by the transfer. It is true that this inscription is extremely important in the history of the development of the Hebrew script. Like pottery styles, the shape and stance of letters develop over time. Paleographically, the Siloam Inscription is extremely important because it can be securely dated not simply relatively in a series, but absolutely to a particular date—701 B.C.E. This gives scholars a fixed point to which other inscriptions can be related.
The transfer of the Siloam Inscription to Jerusalem would present no problem to scholars. It has already been intensely studied. Exact replicas are widely available. The original would continue to be available to scholars, including Turkish scholars, in Jerusalem. Moreover, Israel is clearly in a position to house, display, study and protect the artifact—other factors considered in these cases.
In 1983 the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for “increased efforts to achieve the return of cultural property to the country of origin.”5 Turkey was among the 123 countries who voted in favor of the resolution. The world community increasingly recognizes that “cultural property is most important to the people who created it or for whom it was created or whose particular identity and history it is bound up with.”6
In recent years, negotiated, and even volunteered, return of cultural property has become more and more common:
In 1974 the Newark Museum, New Jersey, resumed a fifth-century A.D. mosaic to Syria.
In 1979 Yale University’s Babylonian Collection returned a cuneiform tablet to Syria.
In 1980 Iraq obtained a long-term loan of fragments of Babylonian law codes from the Louvre.
In 1982 the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and Harvard’s Semitic Museum returned 584 cuneiform tablets to Iraq.
In other cases, France returned objects to Laos, Belgium to Zaire, Great Britain to Uganda, the Netherlands to Indonesia, the United States to Mexico. In some cases the objects were clearly shown to have been illicitly removed from the country of origin, but in other cases, not.
Turkey, too, has been seeking the return of its cultural property. It has filed a suit to obtain the return of the so-called Croesus Gold, or Lydian Treasure, from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Turkey is also negotiating with the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, D.C., for the return of the Sion Treasure, ecclesiastical Byzantine silver from the Monastery of St. Nicholas of Myra. Turkey has also obtained the return of objects from a Swiss collector and from the Cleveland Museum on the ground that they had been stolen. Turkey has even gone so far as to deny permits to American archaeologists because of the extent to which U.S. buyers are purchasing Anatolian antiquities.
In the art and archaeology world, one of the best-known cases is Denmark’s return to Iceland of two historic medieval manuscripts. One contains a collection of Icelandic sagas and royal histories. The other consists of mythological and heroic lays (short lyric poems) composed in Iceland. An Icelander described the scene in 1971 when a Danish frigate with the manuscripts arrived in Reykjavik.7 Over 15,000 Icelanders crammed the quay. Elsewhere on the island, all was still. No one moved in the streets. Stores and schools were closed. The whole nation watched on television or listened on the radio as the two manuscripts were transferred to the back seat of a waiting police car. Dignitaries, including the Danish Minister of Education and the Prime Minister of Iceland, made speeches. Then, the car moved slowly from the quay to the university as thousands cheered; it was like a royal wedding.
It is not difficult to imagine a similar scene in Jerusalem when Turkey graciously returns the Siloam Inscription to its country of origin.
The Siloam Inscription is the most famous, most significant and most precious ancient Hebrew inscription ever discovered. Carved in elegant paleo-Hebrew letters, the kind used by the Israelites before the Babylonian Exile, it was found in 1880 carved in the rock wall of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, beneath the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem known as the City of David. Soon thereafter vandals chiseled the carefully prepared surface out of the rock, breaking the inscription into several pieces. The pieces were then sold to an antiquities dealer, from whom the Ottoman authorities recovered them, ultimately taking them to Istanbul. The inscription […]