The Paleo-Hebrew Alphabet and the Siloam Inscription


The Siloam inscription. / Photo by deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

The inscription hence records the construction of the tunnel in ancient Jerusalem.


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Introduction

The Siloam inscription or Shiloah inscripti, known as KAI 189, is a Hebrew inscription found in the Siloam tunnel which brings water from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, located in the City of David in East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shiloah or Silwan. The inscription records the construction of the tunnel, which has been dated to the 8th century BCE on the basis of the writing style.[1] It is the only known ancient inscription from ancient Israel and Judah which commemorates a public construction work, despite such inscriptions being commonplace in Egyptian and Mesopotamian archaeology.[1]

It is among the oldest extant records of its kind written in Hebrew using the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet,[2][3][4] a regional variant of the Phoenician alphabet. The inscription is held by the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

Discovery and Removal

The Siloam tunnel was discovered in 1838 by Edward Robinson.[5] Despite the tunnel being examined extensively during the 19th century by Robinson, Charles Wilson, and Charles Warren, they all missed discovering the inscription, probably due to the accumulated mineral deposits making it barely noticeable.

In 1880 a 16-year-old pupil of Conrad Schick, head of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews’ institute for vocational training, found the inscription when exploring the tunnel. It was cut in the rock on the eastern side, about 19 feet into the tunnel from Siloam Pool. Schick explained in his initial publication Phoenician Inscription in the Pool of Siloam:[6]

…one of my pupils, when climbing down the southern side of [the aqueduct], stumbled over the broken bits of rock and fell into the water. On rising to the surface, he discovered some marks like letters on the wall of rock. I set off with the necessary things to examine his discovery.

The pupil was later identified as Jacob Eliahu (later Spafford, following his subsequent adoption by Horatio Spafford).[7] Seventy years later, in 1950, Eliahu’s foster sister, Bertha Spafford Vester, wrote of the discovery story, which took place a year prior to her arrival in the city:[8]

Jacob was above the average in intellect, with the oriental aptitude for languages. He spoke five fluently, with a partial knowledge of several others. He was interested in archaeology, and the year before we came to Jerusalem he discovered the Siloam Inscription… His imagination was fired by learning about the subterranean tunnel in the Ophal Hill that had been excavated by King Hezekiah to bring water inside the threatened city… It is supposed to be haunted by a dragon or genie… Nevertheless, Jacob determined to explore the tunnel… Jacob, feeling his way, suddenly was conscious that the chisel marks had changed and were now going from left to right. He realized he must be in the exact place where the King’s workmen had met under the city. Carefully he felt all around the walls, and was certain that his fingers detected an inscription chiseled in the stone.

Copy of the inscription in its original location inside Hezekiah’s Tunnel, 2010. / Photo by Tamar Hayardeni, Wikimedia Commons

In July 1890 a resident of Jerusalem had the inscription removed from the wall of the tunnel; during this work the inscription cracked into six to seven pieces and several letters were injured at the breakpoints.[9][10][11][12]

The Ottoman government in Jerusalem, led by the Mutasarrif of Jerusalem, Ibrahim Hakki Pasha, did not become aware of what had happened until the end of the year, when they were alerted by the director Turkish Museum in Istanbul. Under Ottoman law, the government was the owner of all ancient monuments found within the empire, so they launched a search for the inscription. During 1891, both the real and a forged copy were given to Ibrahim Hakki Pasha; the Mutasarrif put the inscription on display in the Jerusalem Serāj, where it was viewed by large crowds. The inscription was subsequently sent to Istanbul.[13]

Casts of the inscription in situ had been made by Hermann Guthe in 1881; one was held by the Schneller Orphanage, the second broke during the transport to Germany and a third was held by the Deutscher Verein zur Erforschung Palästinas.[14]

Biblical References

The ancient city of Jerusalem, being on a mountain, was naturally defensible from almost all sides but its major source of fresh water, the Gihon spring, was on the side of the cliff overlooking the Kidron valley. The Bible records that King Hezekiah, fearful that the Assyrians would lay siege to the city, blocked the spring’s water outside the city and diverted it through a channel into the Pool of Siloam.

  • 2 Kings 20, 20: “And the rest of the events of Hezekiah and all his mighty deeds, and how he made the conduit and the pool, and he brought the water into the city, they are written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah.”
  • 2 Chronicles 32, 3–4: “And he took counsel with his officers and his mighty men to stop up the waters of the fountains that were outside the city, and they assisted him. And a large multitude gathered and stopped up all the fountains and the stream that flowed in the midst of the land, saying, “Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?””

Translation

Copy of the inscription with English translation. / Image from the Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

As the inscription was unreadable at first due to the deposits, Professor Archibald Sayce was the first to make a tentative reading, and later the text was cleaned with an acid solution making the reading more legible. The inscription contains 6 lines, of which the first is damaged. The words are separated by dots. Only the word zada on the third line is of doubtful translation—perhaps a crack or a weak part.

The passage reads:

… the tunnel … and this is the story of the tunnel while …the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to (cut?) … the voice of a man …called to his counterpart, (for) there was ZADA in the rock, on the right … and on the day of thetunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and flowedwater from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits. and (100?)cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters …

The inscription hence records the construction of the tunnel; according to the text the work began at both ends simultaneously and proceeded until the stonecutters met in the middle. However, this idealised account does not quite reflect the reality of the tunnel; where the two sides meet is an abrupt right angled join, and the centres do not line up. It has been theorized that Hezekiah’s engineers depended on acoustic sounding to guide the tunnelers and this is supported by the explicit use of this technique as described in the Siloam Inscription. The frequently ignored final sentence of this inscription provides further evidence: “And the height of the rock above the heads of the laborers was 100 cubits.” This indicates that the engineers were well aware of the distance to the surface above the tunnel at various points in its progression.[15]

While traditionally identified as a commemorative inscription, one archaeologist has suggested that it may be a votive offering inscription.[16]

Repatriation Efforts

The inscription and display case at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum in 2014. / Photo by oncenawhile, Wikimedia Commons

The inscription is on exhibition at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, one of three ancient inscriptions from the region held by the museum (the other two being the Gezer calendar and the Temple Warning inscription).[17] A replica is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.[18]

Turkey has launched an aggressive campaign to repatriate Ottoman-era artifacts it claims were looted by imperial powers. It has also refused Israel’s request to repatriate the Siloam inscription (and other artifacts unearthed in Ottoman Palestine and transferred to Turkey).[19] Scholars have commented that the inscription has little, if any, significance to Turkey, and as evidence point to the fact that it was not on display in a public gallery in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.[20][21] Hershel Shanks, founder of the Biblical Archaeology Review, has written that Turkey should be amenable to a repatriation of the Siloam inscription, given its own repatriation efforts, [22][23] and other scholars have questioned whether Turkey can demand that its objects be returned, when its own museums refuse to return artifacts taken from previous colonies.[24]

In September 1998, Benjamin Netanyahu asked then-Turkish prime minister Mesut Yılmaz to return the inscription, an in return offered Turkey “to go into [Israel’s] museums and choose all the finds from the Ottoman period that you want”. His offer was rejected.[25]

In 2007, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski met with Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, Namık Tan, and requested that the tablet be returned to Jerusalem as a “goodwill gesture”.[26] Turkey rejected the request, stating that the Siloam inscription was Imperial Ottoman property, and thus the cultural property of the Turkish Republic. President Abdullah Gul said that Turkey would arrange for the inscription to be shown in Jerusalem for a short period, but Turkey never followed though on this, as tensions between the two countries escalated as a result of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip [27][28]

In 2017, Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev made another offer for the inscription, perhaps jokingly suggesting Israel could provide two elephants for the Gaziantep Zoo in exchange for the inscription. [29]

Appendix

Endnotes

  1. Lemche 1998, p. 47; quote: “A good case can be made on the basis of the paleography to date the inscription in the Iron Age. The inscription itself, on the other hand, does not tell us this. It is only a secondary source, which in this case may be right but which can also be wrong, because nobody can really say on the basis of this anonymous inscription whether it was Hezekiah or some other Judean king from the eighth or seventh century who constructed the tunnel. As it stands, it is the only clear example of an inscription from either Israel or Judah commemorating a public construction work. As such it is a poor companion to similar inscriptions not least from Egypt and Mesopotamia.”
  2. “Siloam Inscription”Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906.
  3. “THE ANCIENT HEBREW INSCRIPTION OF SILOAM”. 1888.
  4. Rendsburg, Gary; Schniedewind, William (2010). “The Siloam Tunnel Inscription: Historical and Linguistic Perspectives”Israel Exploration Journal. Retrieved 2015-05-02.
  5. Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible [1990] 484
  6. Internet Archive
  7. Jerusalem. The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore, page 42, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011,
  8. Vester, Bertha Spafford (1950). Our Jerusalem: an American family in the Holy city, 1881-1949. Doubleday. pp. 90–91.
  9. Guthe, H. (1890). Das Schicksal der Siloah-Inschrift. Zeitschrift Des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins (1878-1945), 13, 286-288. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27928587 “Im Juli des Jahres 1890 hat ein angesehener Einwohner Jerusalems die Siloah-Inschrift durch einige Fellachen von Silwān aus der Wand des Felsentunnels… Bei dieser Arbeit ist der Stein leider in sechs bis sieben Stücke zersprungen, von denen eines grossen Umfang hat, fünf bis sechs dagegen kleineren Umfangs sind. Es ist wohl die ganze beschriebene Fläche herausgemeisselt worden, auch der Theil links vor der grossen, aus den Abbildungen ersichtlichen Spalte; jedoch sind mehrere Buchstaben an den Bruchstellen verletzt worden, wenn auch nicht wesentlich, wie man mir schreibt.”
  10. Queries and Comments: Who Chiseled Out the Siloam Inscription? BAR 10:05, Sep-Oct 1984
  11. The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) states: “The inscription was broken in an attempt made to steal it; but the fragments are now in the museum at Constantinople; and from casts that have been taken, copies of which are in Paris, London, and Berlin, it has been possible to gain an exact idea of its arrangement and to decipher it almost entirely.”
  12. Lawson Stone, What Goes Around: The Siloam Tunnel Inscription, 20 August 2014, accessed 6 April 2018
  13. Guthe, H. (1890). Das Schicksal der Siloah-Inschrift. Zeitschrift Des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins (1878-1945), 13, 286-288. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27928587 “Die türkische Regierung in Jerusalem merkte nichts von dem, was vorgegangen war. Anfang Oktober scheint dort die Sache überhaupt noch wenig bekannt gewesen zu sein. Gege Ende des Jahres wurde aber die Lokalregierung durch den Direktor des türkischen Museums in Konstantinopel auf das Verschwinden des Inschriftsteines aus dem Kanal aufmerksam gemacht. Nach türkischem Gesetz ist nämlich die Regierung Eigenthümerin aller innerhalb des Reiches gefundenen alten Denkmäler. Die 1880 entdeckte Siloah-Inschrift war daher gesetzlich Eigenthum der Regierung, und diese in ihrem vollen Rechte, wenn sie auf die Entwender der Inschrift fahndete… Neuerdings haben jedoch die Untersuchungen der türkischen Regierung zum Ziele geführt. Sowohl der echte als auch der gefälschte Stein ist dem Mutesarrif von Jerusalem, Ibrahim Haddschī Pascha, übergeben worden. Viele Reisende haben beide Steine im Serāj in Augenschein genommen, bis des allzugrossen Zudrangs wegen die Erlaubniss dazu versagt wurde. Nach den letzten Nachrichten waren die Steine bereits in eine Kiste verpackt, um nach Konstantinopel gesandt zu werden. Die Schuld wird auf einen Fellachen aus Silwān geschoben; er soll mit einem halben Jahr Zuchthaus bestraft werden.”
  14. Guthe, H. (1890). Das Schicksal der Siloah-Inschrift. Zeitschrift Des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins (1878-1945), 13, 286-288. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27928587 “Es ist sehr zu bedauern, dass das alte Denkmal durch ein so rohes, ungeschicktes Verfahren zerstört forden ist. Die sorgfältigen Gypsabgüsse, die ich 1881 habe anfertigen lassen, haben dadurch einen höheren Werth erhalten, da sie jetzt allein ein getreues und vollständiges Bild der Inschrift vor ihrer Zerst?rung darbieten. Von den beiden ersten, die ich vor der Reinigung der Inschrift anfertigen Hess, befindet sich einer im Besitz des Herrn Schneller (Syrisches Waisenhaus) in Jerusalem; der zweite ist während des Transportes nach Deutschland zerbrochen. Ein dritter, der ebenso wie jene die ganze geglättete Fläche der Felswand, auch den nicht mit Schriftzeichen versehenen Theil derselben darstellt und nach der Reinigimg der Inschrift ange fertigt wurde, ist Eigenthum des Deutschen Vereins zur Erforschung Palästinas und wird gegenwärtig auf der hiesigen Universitätsbibliothek aufbewahrt.”
  15. Sound Proof
  16. R.I. Altman, “Some Notes on Inscriptional Genres and the Siloam Tunnel Inscription,” Antiguo Oriente 5, 2007, pp.35–88.
  17. Please Return the Siloam Inscription to Jerusalem
  18. The Siloam inscription (replica) | The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
  19. Despite detente, ancient Hebrew text ‘proving’ Jewish ties to Jerusalem set to stay in Istanbul
  20. First Person: Should Israel Return the Tablets of the Law to Egypt?
  21. Despite detente, ancient Hebrew text ‘proving’ Jewish ties to Jerusalem set to stay in Istanbul
  22. Please Return the Siloam Inscription to Jerusalem
  23. First Person: Should Israel Return the Tablets of the Law to Egypt?
  24. Pasts Returned: Archaeological Heritage Repatriation Policy in Turkey and the Plans for a Future Nation
  25. Despite detente, ancient Hebrew text ‘proving’ Jewish ties to Jerusalem set to stay in Istanbul
  26. “J’lem mayor turns Turkey on tablet”The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. Retrieved 2020-04-21.
  27. Despite detente, ancient Hebrew text ‘proving’ Jewish ties to Jerusalem set to stay in Istanbul
  28. Peres, Gül’den tablet istedi
  29. Minister offers Turkish mayor elephants for ancient Hebrew inscription

Bibliography

  • Conder, C.R. (1882), “The Siloam Tunnel”, Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, pp. 122–31.
  • Guthe, H. (1890), “Das Schicksal der Siloah-Inschrift” ZDPV
  • Lemche, Niels Peter (1998). The Israelites in History and Tradition. Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Puech, E. (1974), “L’inscription du tunnel de Siloie”, RB 81, pp. 196–214
  • Sayce, A. (1881), “The Inscription at the Pool of Siloam,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 13.2 (April 1881): 69–73 (editio princeps)
  • Sayce, A. (1881), “The Ancient Hebrew Inscription Discovered at the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 13.3 (July 1881): 141–154.
  • Sayce, A.; Conder, C.R.; Taylor, Isaac; Beswick, Samuel & Sulley, H. (1881), “The Ancient Hebrew Inscription Discovered at the Pool of Siloam,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 13.4 (Oct. 1881): 282–297.
  • Sayce, A.H. (1888). Records of the Past (New Series)1. London: S. Bagster and sons. pp. 168–175. OCLC 490361528.
  • Schick, C., “Phoenician Inscription in the Pool of Siloam“, Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, 1880, pp. 238–39.
  • Waterman, H.B. (1882), The Siloam InscriptionThe Hebrew Student, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Jun., 1882), pp. 52–53, Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Originally published by Wikipedia, 02.19.2005, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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