Wednesday, September 5, 2007

JERUSALEM — An ancient inscription memorializing Jer- usalem’s salvation from Assyrian invaders 2,700 years ago is to be returned to the Holy Land from Turkey for study and public display.

Israel has been trying for about 20 years to recover the artifact, which marks one of the most important turning points in Hebrew history.

Assyrian forces under King Sennacherib controlled most of the Middle East in the early eighth century B.C. and were about to march on Jerusalem, where a defiant King Hezekiah ruled.

Anticipating a prolonged siege, Hezekiah ordered the construction of a tunnel connecting the city to the Gihon Spring outside its walls, ensuring a source of drinking water. The water collected inside the Judean capital at the Pool of Siloam, where centuries later Jesus is said in the Gospel of John to have cured a man who had been blind since birth.

An inscription inside the tunnel described the dramatic moment when stonecutters working from either end converged in the middle.

In 1880, a Jewish boy discovered the so-called Hezekiah Inscription, also known as the Siloam Inscription, engraved in ancient Hebrew letters in the tunnel’s limestone wall.

“A segment of the tunnel wall’s surface had been flattened and smoothed so that the inscription could be carved into the limestone,” said Gabriel Barkay, a senior archaeology lecturer at the Bar-Ilan University.

Mr. Barkay said Conrad Schick, a German national who had been living in Jerusalem since 1846, publicized the find. He made a papier-mache likeness known as a gypsum plate copy and photographed the inscription.

The date of the inscription was determined on the basis of its contents and historical context.

A Greek antiquities dealer tried to remove it from the tunnel wall, but succeeded only in breaking it into several pieces.

Ottoman Turkish authorities who ruled Palestine at the time appropriated the inscription and shipped it to Istanbul — formerly Constantinople — for safekeeping. The artifact has been kept since then in the Museum of the Ancient East near the Topkapi Palace.

Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek made the first attempt to retrieve the inscription for contemporary Israel two decades ago. Last month, Mayor Uri Lupolianski asked for it again at a meeting with Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan. The ambassador said it would be returned in accordance with international law as a loan rather than a restitution.

A member of the Turkish Embassy’s staff in Tel Aviv said the inscription could be deposited in Jerusalem “on a long-term basis” if some kind of reciprocity was made. Otherwise, it may stay at the Israel Museum for as little as three months.

Mr. Barkay suggested that the diplomat was hoping for a loan of items dating from the Ottoman Empire’s 400-year-long rule over Palestine. Most of this material is stored in Israel’s state archive, he said.

The inscription’s text is dramatic and vivid. According to one translation, it states: “While the excavators were still lifting up their picks, each toward his fellow, and while there were yet three cubits to excavate, there was heard the voice of one calling to another, for there was a crevice in the rock, on the right hand. And on the day they completed the boring, the stonecutters struck pick against pick, one against the other, and the water flowed from the spring to the pool.”

The tunnel through solid rock — 1,750 feet long, 15 feet high and 29 feet wide — took four years to cut, Mr. Barkay said.

He said the Hezekiah Inscription “is corroborated perfectly” by Sennacherib’s written account of his campaign to subjugate Judea and conquer Jerusalem.

Several original copies of Sennacherib’s cuneiform text are displayed at the British Museum in London, the Museum of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. His text contains a colorful comment about his dealings with King Hezekiah.

“Fear of my greatness terrified Hezekiah,” it states. “He sent to me tribute: 30 talents of silver, precious stones, ivory and all sorts of gifts including women from his palace.”

By then, Sennacherib had subjugated 46 other Judean cities and compelled them to pay him tribute. He said he “enclosed Hezekiah in his capital of Judea like a bird in a cage.”

His father and predecessor, Sargon II, conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and expelled the 10 tribes that inhabited it. One of the underlying causes of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judea, Mr. Barkay said, was Hezekiah’s formation of an anti-Assyrian coalition that included Egypt.

The prophet Isaiah opposed this policy vigorously and eloquently, speaking against tenuous alliances with unpredictable neighbors.

His condemnation is expressed in Isaiah 31:1: “Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help; and stay on horses, and trust in chariots, because [they are] many; and in horsemen, because they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the Lord!”

The Bible says the king then prayed to God that Jerusalem be spared from Assyrian attack. Sennacherib withdrew his forces shortly afterward.

Hezekiah’s water-diversion project is cited in the Old Testament’s II Chronicles 32:30: “It was Hezekiah who stopped up the spring of water of upper Gihon leading it downward west of the City of David,” Jerusalem’s ancient core.

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