An Israeli minister on an official trip to Turkey tried to strike an unusual bargain with a Turkish official: two Sabra elephants for the return of a priceless Israeli artifact dating back to Biblical times that has been languishing in a Turkish museum for almost 150 years.

Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, was in Gaziantep accompanying an Israeli basketball team for their match against a Turkish team. The day after the game, Regev had an informal meeting with the mayor of the city, Fatma Sahin. During the conversation, Sahin mentioned that the city’s zoo was suffering from a pachyderm problem: they only had one elephant and wanted more.

The Turkish mayor said jokingly, “We’re willing to work for it.”

A native Israeli used to bargaining in the open-air shuk, Regev jumped on the opportunity. Via a translator, she said to Sahin, “We’ll make a deal. We’ll give them two elephants, and they’ll give us the inscription of Hezekiah.”

Though Regev’s comment may have sounded like light-hearted banter, the Israeli government’s interest in the inscription is serious. The inscription of Hezekiah records the construction of the tunnel of the Shiloah spring that runs under the Temple Mount and essentially confirms the Biblical account of the project.

Now the rest of the acts of Chizkiyahu, and all his might, and how he made the pool, and the conduit, and brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Yehuda? II Kings 20:20

Written in Paleo-Hebrew in the 8th century BCE, it is one of the oldest extant records of its kind. Discovered by an Arab youth in 1880, it was taken by the British Consul to the Ottoman capital and has been on permanent exhibit in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum since.

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The inscription has been translated as follows:

… 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 the tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and flowed water from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits. and (100?) cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters …

The inscription’s significance is undeniable: it confirms the Biblical account of a Jewish king constructing the existent water system in Jerusalem. The construction of the conduit was an important factor in safeguarding the mountaintop city’s only source of water against an imminent attack by the Babylonian King Sennacherib. It was a remarkable feat of engineering for its time, requiring four years to complete. Two teams dug through solid stone from opposite ends, finally meeting in the middle.

It is not known how Sahin responded, but previous requests by the Israeli government were rebuffed. In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to trade Turkish antiquities in Israeli museums for the precious Hebrew inscription, but his offer was rejected.

Another request in 2007 by former President Shimon Peres to borrow the inscription for a short period was initially accepted by the Turkish president Abdullah Gül, but the loan never materialized.

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.”Turkey rejected the request. President Abdullah Gul said that Turkey would arrange for the inscription to be shown in Jerusalem for a short period, but this has yet to happen.

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Source: Israel in the News