Israeli Experts Find Biblical Inscriptions in Arabic While Restoring Tel Aviv Templer Colony

19th-century writing uncovered during restoration work on a small stone house in Tel Aviv's German colony compound.

The last thing the two restoration artists expected was to find inscriptions in Arabic, almost 150 years old, on the walls of the small stone house in Tel Aviv's German colony.

Carefully removing the layers from the interior walls with sharp knives, the artists have been searching for inscriptions and drawings from the second half of the 19th century made by masons from the Temple Society, the German Protestant sect that built the colony.

"We've been scraping the walls here for a few days," says Ben Buchenbacher, pointing at the stone pillars behind him. Built in 1872, the pillars are adorned with German inscriptions, which was to be expected, but also with Arabic ones. "We didn't expect to find something so special," he says.

The inscriptions are religious in nature, consisting of verses from the Old and New Testaments. An Arabic one says, "For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3). Another reads, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom" (Psalms 111:10 ). Other inscriptions speak about the "Kingdom of Allah."

The inscriptions in German include "Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy" (Revelation 1:3), and, "Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33).

The building was the first community center in the German colony of Sarona, founded by the Templers in 1871 on a hill overlooking the sea north of Jaffa. Researchers believe the marble for the pillars was brought from Egypt, first by boat to Jaffa Port and then on camels to the colony.

"The Templers studied Arabic and taught it in their classrooms. They spoke Arabic quite a lot with their Arab neighbors and laborers," says Prof. Yossi Ben Artzi of the University of Haifa's department of Land of Israel studies.

Dr. Yair Wallach, who studied historic inscriptions and signposts in the Land of Israel, says, "The Arabs who worked in Sarona's fields probably couldn't read - few of them were literate - and perhaps the Templers decided to write in the native Arabic tongue, perhaps due to the ties with Christian Arabs in the area."

Shay Farkash, an international restoration expert coordinating the art restoration work in the compound, has another suggestion. Perhaps this was "the Templers' attempt to curry favor with the Ottoman ruler who permitted them to settle in Sarona," he says. "The inscriptions are an important discovery and contribute to our knowledge of the Templers' early years here," he adds. "They testify to the essence of their religion and explain their character and message."

'Suffused with history'

Despite the colony's historic value, restoration and renovation work on the houses there began only in recent years. The Templers, who supported the Nazis in World War II, were deported from Palestine to Australia at the end of the war and the colony became a British military headquarters. Later it served as an Israeli military camp and housed the new state's ministries.

Sarona's history is interwoven with that of Israel - the Israel Defense Forces' Givati Brigade was established in it and the fledgling Israeli air force's airplanes were serviced in its cellars. Until 2005, the building in which the inscriptions were recently discovered served as a post office branch, which was then relocated to a nearby site to enable construction work in the Kirya area. Originally the building also had a clock tower and bells, which found their way to the home of former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, a collector of archaeological and historic artifacts.

Farkash found decorative wall paintings from a later Templer period in other buildings in the colony. He traced some of the Templers' descendants, most of whom live in Australia, and a few months ago they came to Tel Aviv to see the new findings. "They were very excited to hear of the discovery and uploaded photos of the verses we found on their Internet sites," he says.

The colony's 37 restored buildings will be at the heart of the renewed compound due to reopen next year, combining residential apartments, offices, commercial and entertainment areas and cultural institutions. "This area is suffused with history. We're preserving the historic stories in all the buildings," says Ziv Shchori, CEO of the Sarona company carrying out the construction work. "The Templers used to be tradesmen, so we're returning the compound to its original purpose," he says.