An ancient stone has been returned to Jerusalem 12 years after it was stolen by a tour guide from an archaeological excavation in the Old City of Jerusalem, and then taken to America by a tourist who received it as a "gift."
The stone, weighing 21 kilograms (46.3 lb) was taken from an Israel Antiquities Authority excavation conducted in 1997 south of the Temple Mount.
Several weeks ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority received an unexpected email from a priest in New York State: "I am requesting forgiveness for a member of my congregation. The fellow confessed to me that twelve years ago he took a stone from Jerusalem and his conscience has bothered him ever since. I wish to return the stone to Israel and hope that you will forgive the man for his transgression."
According to Yuval Baruch, the IAA Jerusalem District archaeologist, the stone is a fragment of a marble column that was discovered during the excavation of one of the Umayyad buildings located south of the Temple Mount, similar to others that were found and that are on display in the archaeological garden in the Davidson Center. "These are four very large structures that extended over an area of approximately 200 dunams, which were probably the official palace complex of the Umayyad caliphs around 1,200 years ago," said Baruch, who directed the excavation from which the fragment was taken.
When the stone arrived in Jerusalem in a special wooden crate, IAA staff members also found a note inside from the erstwhile owner.
"I came to Israel on an organized trip," he wrote. "As a student of archaeology, I was very excited when we visited an excavation south of the Temple Mount. I asked how I can purchase a stone from the excavation because I wanted a souvenir with which to pray for Jerusalem and was told it was not possible. On the last day of the trip our Israeli tour guide approached me and took the stone fragment from inside his coat. 'Take it,' he said. 'It's a present from me.' I asked him how he obtained the stone and he replied, 'It's okay' don't worry.' I was very happy and took the stone with me on my flight back to New York. Only later did I realize that he probably took the stone from the excavation without permission. For the past twelve years since then, rather than remind me of the prayer for Jerusalem, I am reminded of the mistake I made when I removed the stone from its proper place in Israel. I am asking for your forgiveness."
It was decided not to institute any legal action against the person who took the stone to America, said Shay Bar Tura, deputy director of the IAA Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery.
“Because of the unique case of sincerity and the fact that the item was ultimately returned, we decided not to take any legal steps against the people who were involved in the incident," he said in a statement.
"In the coming days the stone will be turned over to the State’s Treasures after which it will be returned to the archaeological garden from whence it was taken."
Any activity conducted at an antiquity site requires permission from the IAA, and taking archaeological artifacts from antiquities sites is considered a severe criminal offense, punishable by law and jail time.