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September 7, 2022 3:21 pm

Note to Ishmael: ‘Extremely Rare’ First Temple Period Papyrus Finds Its Way Back From Montana to Israel

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Ishmael Papyrus, a rare document from the First Temple period. Photograph: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

An extremely rare papyrus fragment from the First Temple-period written in ancient Hebrew script has been repatriated from Montana to Israel thanks to a joint intelligence operation, the Israel Antiquities Authority disclosed on Wednesday.

The document dates back to the late seventh or early sixth century B.C.E. The repatriated letter fragment is composed of four torn lines that begin with the words “To Ishmael send…,” indicating that it contained a message or instructions to someone with that name.

“First Temple-period documents written on organic materials—such as this papyrus—have scarcely survived,” said Joe Uziel, Director of Israel Antiquities Authority’s Judean Desert scrolls unit. “Whilst we have thousands of scroll fragments dating from the Second Temple period, we have only three documents, including this newly found one, from the First Temple period. Each new document sheds further light on the literacy and the administration of the First Temple period.”

The name Ishmael, which first appears in the Bible as the name of the son of Abraham and Hagar, was a common name in the Biblical period which means “God will hear,” according to Ben-Gurion University Professor Shmuel Ahituv.

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The Ishmael papyrus was only discovered after Ahituv found an image of a rare and, until then unknown, document from the First Temple period.

The image kicked off a joint campaign together with the Israel Antiquities Authority’s theft prevention unit to locate the whereabouts of the original “To Ishmael” papyrus.

Their search led to a man living in Montana, who explained that he inherited the papyrus from his mother who received it from Joseph Sa‘ad, curator of the Rockefeller Museum, and Halil Iskander Kandu, a well-known antiquities dealer from Bethlehem when she visited Jerusalem in 1965. Coming back home to the US, she hung the framed scroll fragment on the wall.

To convince the Montana resident – who remains anonymous – to bring back the fragile letter fragment so it could be best preserved in climate-controlled conditions, the Israel Antiquities Authority invited the man to visit the IAA’s Judean Desert scroll conservation laboratory in Jerusalem.

Following the visit, the owner was persuaded that the facilities would offer the best conditions to conserve and research the rare artifact and decided to donate it to the State of Israel.

“Returning this document to Israel is part of ongoing efforts undertaken by the Antiquities theft Prevention Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of the State of Israel, a heritage that belongs to all its citizens, playing a role in the story of the historical heritage of the country and its inhabitants over the centuries,” said Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s theft prevention unit.

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