As U.N. Ignores Jewish Ties to Holy Site, Israel Produces Ancient Evidence

By Isabel Kershner

A papyrus fragment dating back to the seventh century B.C. is the earliest known nonbiblical source to mention Jerusalem in the Hebrew language.
A papyrus fragment dating back to the seventh century B.C. is the earliest known nonbiblical source to mention Jerusalem in the Hebrew language.

JERUSALEM — The timing was surely good for Israel, whether or not it was coincidental.

As UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, approved a resolution on Wednesday that ignored a Jewish connection to an ancient, hotly contested holy site in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority produced a rare papyrus fragment from the seventh century B.C., written in ancient Hebrew, that mentions Jerusalem by name.

Archaeologists interpreted the two lines of text on the papyrus as a concise shipping document reading, “From the king’s maidservant, from Na’arat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.”

The antiquities authority, an independent government body, said it was the earliest known source aside from the Bible to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew, and added in a statement that the other place mentioned, Na’arat, appeared in the biblical book of Joshua (16:7). The authority noted that Jerusalem was the capital of the Kingdom of Judah at the time, known as the First Temple period.

In an Indiana Jones-like twist, the unusually preserved fragment had been plundered from a cave in the Judean Desert by a band of antiquities robbers, the antiquities authority said. It was retrieved several years ago by what the authority described as “a complex operation.”

The authority’s spokeswoman, Yoli Shwartz, denied that the publicizing of the fragment at a news conference here had anything to do with Israel’s diplomatic campaign against Unesco, calling the timing “completely coincidental.”

The unveiling of the document had long been planned around an annual archaeology conference scheduled for Thursday at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where preliminary research findings were to be presented, Ms. Shwartz said.

Israeli politicians nonetheless seized the opportunity to underline what they have called the “absurdity” of recent Unesco resolutions condemning Israeli actions in and around the East Jerusalem holy site revered by Muslims as Al Aqsa Mosque, or the Noble Sanctuary, and by Jews as the Temple Mount, the location of their two ancient temples. The Unesco resolutions have referred to the site solely in its Muslim context.

U.N. Ignores Jewish Ties to Holy Site
Many Israelis are angry at Unesco for a resolution that mentioned a holy site in East Jerusalem only in a Muslim context.

“The discovery of the papyrus on which the name of our capital, Jerusalem, is written is further tangible evidence that Jerusalem was and will remain the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture and sports, said in a statement.

“The Temple Mount, the very heart of Jerusalem and Israel, will remain the holiest place for the Jewish people, even if Unesco ratifies the false and unfortunate decision another 10 times,” she said.

Ms. Regev was responding to the approval by Unesco’s World Heritage Committee on Wednesday of a resolution on the status of conservation of Jerusalem’s Old City. As in other recent resolutions, Unesco referred to the holy site only by its Arabic name.

Israel and its allies accused Unesco of denying Judaism’s deep historical ties to the site. The United States denounced the resolution as “inflammatory.”

After the committee’s vote in Paris, Unesco’s third in two weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was summoning Israel’s ambassador to Unesco home for consultations.

Mr. Netanyahu said of the papyrus fragment, “Here is a letter from the past to Unesco.”

“It is from over 2,700 years ago — Jerusalem,” he added. “In neither Arabic, Aramaic, Greek nor Latin — in Hebrew.”

Israel’s latest battle with Unesco began on Oct. 13, when the organization’s executive board approved a contentious resolution concerning Old City sites that had been promoted by Arab nations, with Palestinian encouragement. Versions of the resolution have been confirmed twice since, although some foreign officials, including Unesco’s director general, Irina Bokova, have condemned it.

In a statement on Oct. 14, Ms. Bokova said: “The heritage of Jerusalem is indivisible, and each of its communities has a right to the explicit recognition of their history and relationship with the city. To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site and runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the Unesco World Heritage List.”

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