For three decades, General Moshe Dayan, the most revered Israeli military leader, looted archaeological sites in Israel and in territories conquered by the Israeli army. "He robbed antiquities wherever he could reach," says Uri Avneri, a former magazine editor and radical member of the Knesset, who for years campaigned against Gen Dayan's activities.
By the time he died, his reputation tarnished by setbacks in the 1973 war with Egypt and Syria, the archaeological depredations of Israel's most famous general were notorious. He frequently dispatched military units to locate and retrieve objects for his collection. On his death in 1981, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem paid $1m (pounds 620,000) for 1,000 objects owned by Gen Dayan, though critics argued that most were illegally acquired.
"It wasn't easy for archaeologists to stand up to him," says one Israeli ancient historian. Trudi Dottan, an archaeologist who knew Gen Dayan, says he had great intuition about where to dig, but also an all-consuming "lust for finding antiquities".
Uri Avneri says Gen Dayan grew up poor and was always eager for money: "He would go to an Arab dealer in Bethlehem, but the man would not dare to turn him down or charge him the real price for an object. It was close to expropriation."
Talay Arnon, curator of the Dayan collection at the Israel Museum, says pieces of ancient jewellery Gen Dayan is known to have once owned were not among the objects the museum bought: "What we got was mostly pots and jars."
The reason Gen Dayan was able to get away with this for so long was that after Israel's victories in 1956 and 1967 he was a national hero.
Mr Avneri says that not only did archaeologists not support him against Gen Dayan, but "I have never known such hatred towards me because of my campaign, not just in the Knesset but from people in the streets."
An Israeli journalist, Shush Mula, working for the Jeru-salem weekly, Kolha'ir, has now discovered photographs, taken by an Israeli military helicopter pilot, which for the first time show one incident of archaeological theft actually taking place just after the Israeli army, whose chief of staff was Gen Dayan, captured Sinai in 1956.
Uri Yarom, the pilot, has vivid memories of what happened, because he believes his life was put in danger by the venture, which had no military justification.
No sooner had the fighting finished during the Suez war of 1956 than Gen Dayan took his family to southern Sinai to visit Sarabit al-Khadim, a mountaintop which is the site of an ancient Egyptian sanctuary of the XII Dynasty, dedicated to the Goddess Hathor, often represented as a cow- headed wo-man. Beside her temple are stelae, or stone pillars, covered with hieroglyphs and carvings. On 27 November, only three weeks after the Israelis captured southern Sinai, Uri Yarom was sent to bring three of the stelae to Israel, where they ended up in the courtyard of Gen Dayan's house.
"We were told the mission was of national importance," Mr Yarom told Shush Mula. From the beginning they faced difficulties. Thick mist over Sinai made it difficult for them to reach Abu Rudeis, the airbase nearest to Sarabit al-Khadim. "We flew over the ground, seeing nothing but clouds," Mr Yarom said. "The maps we had in our hands were of no value."
At Abu Rudeis they found somebody had stolen the extra supplies of gasoline on which they were counting. As they waited there was a sandstorm and Mr Yarom was frightened that sand would get into the helicopter's engine. He tried to protect it with canvas cut from old beach umbrellas.
The next day, the helicopter found Sarabit al-Khadim after two failed attempts. The photographs show Mr Yarom standing with three other soldiers in front of a 10ft-high stele with others in the background.
Another photograph shows the AS-55 helicopter in the air with the stela hanging beneath it. It weighed half a tonne. "It was lack of responsibility not to tell us the weight," says Mr Yarom. Back in Tel Aviv a driver loading one of three stones onto a truck for carriage to Gen Dayan's house was surprised by its weight and dropped it, cracking the 3,500-year-old carving.
The travels of the carvings from the temple of Hathor were not over. In 1979, Gen Dayan was a member of the right-wing government of Menachim Begin as Foreign Minister. His reputation had never quite recovered from the initial success of the surprise attack made by Egypt and Syria in 1973.
At Camp David Israel agreed openly to return Sinai to Egypt and, less publicly, to return the carvings from Sinai which had been sitting in the courtyard of Gen Dayan's house."The main difficulty was to persuade Dayan to give them back," said one of those involved.
Two years later Gen Dayan died. His health had been damaged by falling into an archaeological excavation. There was criticism of the purchase of his collection by the Israel Museum for such a large sum since under Israeli law the objects should have automatically belonged to the state. Certain items were missing.
Talay Arnon, curator of the Dayan collection, says the museum has 35 unique pottery coffins from 1,400 BC found in the Gaza strip acquired by Gen Dayan, but there is "no sign of the jewellery found in some of them."
By contrast, the loot takenfrom Sarabit al-Khadim is back where it came from, none the worse for its sojourn in Israel, except that a large crack now runs down the face of a stele portraying the Goddess Hathor.
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