The missing Menorah

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On this day in AD 70 the siege of Jerusalem ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, son of Vespasian, at the head of a Roman army.

According to the historian Josephus the Menorah of the temple was taken as spoils of war and brought back to Rome.  It was carried in the Triumphal Procession of Vespasian and Titus and is recorded on the Arch of Titus.

Using the spoils taken from Jerusalem Vespasian constructed the Templum Pacis, the temple of peace in the Forum of Vespasian.  The Menorah was stored in the temple for hundreds of years until the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 AD.

The Vandals brought the Menorah back with them to their capital in Carthage, in the Roman African province, modern day Tunisia.

One hundred years later the Vandals had become soft from living on the fat of the land.  Their armies were no longer the terror of the western Mediterranean.  Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire sent his favourite general, Belisarius, to retake Africa for Rome.  In 533 AD Belisarius defeated the armies of King Gelimer and his brothers.

According to the historian Procopius the Menorah was found amongst the treasures of the Vandals and was taken to Constantinople.  It was displayed in the Ovation given by Justinian to his victorious general.  Gelimer was prostrated before the Emperor, and was allowed to live out his life on a Roman estate.

According to Procopius Justinian gave the Menorah back to the Jews in Jerusalem.  On the one hand it is hard to believe that such an ardent Christian emperor would have given this treasure to people he regarded as little short of heretics.  On the other hand he may have looked at the fate of the Second Temple, Rome and Carthage and wondered if he really wanted to keep the Menorah in his capital.

Whatever the truth this is the end of the tale for the Menorah.  It is never seen again.  Some say it is hidden in the Vatican City and the Vandals never found it.  Others say it was looted from Jerusalem when the Persians sacked the city in 614 AD.  Some think it was in a ship that sank in the Tibur when the Vandals were leaving Rome and that it lies at the bottom of the sea outside Ostia.  Others think it was still in Jerusalem during the Crusades and was taken by the Knights Templar.  Whatever the truth it is a tempting theme for a “Da Vinci Code” style adventure, or a new quest for Indiana Jones.

Psalm III : by Allen Ginsberg
To God: to illuminate all men. Beginning with Skid Road.
Let Occidental and Washington be transformed into a higher place, the plaza of eternity.
Illuminate the welders in shipyards with the brilliance of their torches.
Let the crane operator lift up his arm for joy.
Let elevators creak and speak, ascending and descending in awe.
Let the mercy of the flower’s direction beckon in the eye.
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness — to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness — to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
Let Puget Sound be a blast of light.
I feed on your Name like a cockroach on a crumb — this cockroach is holy.

 

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Damnatio memoriae

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Emperor Domitian was assassinated on this day in the year 96 CE at the age of 44.  He reigned for 15 years, the longest imperial reign since Augustus and Tiberius, the first two Roman Emperors.

Domitian was condemned on his death to be forgotten by the Senate who hated him deeply.  They passed a sentence of damnatio memoriae upon him, in an attempt to condemn him to oblivion.  Their punishment largely worked.  The writers of the day such as Suetonius, Tacitus and Pliny the younger recorded that he was an evil, cruel and paranoid tyrant.  Until the modern era he was lumped in with the bad boys of the early empire such as Caligula and Nero.

Third and final ruler of the Flavian dynasty, who gave us the Coliseum and famously destroyed the Jewish Temple.  Vespasian, his father, survived a close association with the emperor Nero when many of his compatriots lost their heads.  After the fall of Nero he emerged as the winner in the year of the four emperors.  Domitian, aged 17 was in Rome when hostilities broke out and was placed under house arrest by Vitellius, the runner up for Emperor of the year.

Vespasian ruled for ten years and died aged 69 from an illness that inflicted him with diarrhea.  He was the first emperor to be succeed by his natural son, Titus.  Since Titus was young, fit, healthy and already a renowned military commander it is thought that Domitian was not groomed for the top job.  But Titus ruled for only two years before he too succumbed to a fever leaving his younger brother as Emperor.

Modern analysis of his reign, and by scouring sources not aligned to the Senate, paint a picture of a highly organized and autocratic ruler who was unsubtle in managing the pride of the senators.  He was loved and revered by the public and by the common soldiery but hated by the Senate and the officers of the patrician class.  He did not indulge in the usual game of according the Senate nominal authority and they hated him for it.  His lack of training in this balancing act was his ultimate undoing, and he was assassinated by officials in his court, stabbed in the groin and a further seven times in the struggle that ensued.  Domitian killed one of his assailants.

Domitian was further pilloried in the press in claims by the writer Eusebius in the 4th century that he persecuted Christians and Jews.  Christians put him in the naughty emperor box along with Nero and Diocletian and painted graphic portrayals of him feeding martyrs to the lions.  In fact the Flavians were highly tolerant of Eastern religions and the claims by Eusebius are possibly founded on lies that originate in the senatorial curse.

The atmosphere is clear for a reevaluation and a cleanup of the tarnished reputation of an Emperor who achieved much good in his reign and came to a sad and sorry end.

 

 

Seizing the advantage

Vespasian

Dec 20th 69 AD Vespasian entered Rome as Emperor.  When I look at his face I see a jocular and human person, not an emperor on an ivory tower.  A plain man, with a face engraved with the worries and cares of normal life.  The blunt face of a plain man, a soldier, a man of the people.

In truth he was a brilliant military commander.  He had a track record of military success in Britain under Claudius, followed by the subjugation of Judea.

After Emperor Nero committed suicide followed the “Year of the Four Emperors” as one candidate after the other vied for control of Rome.  Galba was defeated by Otho who was ousted by Vitellius.  Vitellius held Rome with the cream of the Roman legions from the Gallic and German frontiers.

This is when Vespasian demonstrated his keen mind for politics and economics.  Instead of marching on Rome he moved on Egypt.  This was the breadbasket of the Roman world, providing the grain supply that kept ordinary Romans fed and happy.

With the food supply in his control he was able to broker alliances with the former supporters of Otho.  He added the Syrian legions to those he controlled in Judea.  He then assembled favourable religious omens, prophesies and portents to support his claim before moving on Vitellius.

Vespasian was also a marketing genius.  He understood the power of branding, placing the name on the world famous “Flavian Amphitheater” which is today better known as the Colosseum.

The name “Colosseum” actually referred to a giant bronze statue which stood in front of the Amphitheater.  Originally a statue of Emperor Nero, and modeled on the “Colossus of Rhodes” one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  The Colossus of Rome was almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty.  Over time it was re-purposed to represent other emperors, and to represent the Greek Sun God Helios.

 

 

 

The Temple Mount

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I have always been interested in the history of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Why is there a mosque sitting on the site most sacred to the Jewish religion?

The Al Aqsa mosque sits upon a rocky outcropping at the centre of the temple mount.  This is alleged to be the rock where Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his son by Jehovah.  When he demonstrated his obedience God stayed his hand, so the dogma goes.

I have my own ideas on this.  I believe that Abraham was an intelligent Rabbi and spiritual leader of his people.  He figured out that you did not have to kill people to worship God.  For me the lesson here is “Don’t kill children, you can substitute them with a Goat or a Lamb, or a Dove, or a Fatted Calf.”

Abraham is important because he is a father to three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  All three lay claim to his legacy.

The rock on the temple mount became the central focus of the Jewish religion.  At some time around 832 BCE Solomon is held to have constructed the First Temple.  However there is no archaeological record for this construction.  This temple was allegedly destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar after the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 BCE.  The Jews were clearly a problem for the Babylonians who felt it necessary to exile the leadership to their capital where they could monitor them.

In 538 BCE Cyrus the Great allowed the Jewish leaders to return to the city of Jerusalem.  They immediately set about re-establishing the temple, but not without opposition from others in the area.  Some form of Jewish Temple existed on Mount Zion until the Hellenistic Period.

Following the conquest of the east by Alexander the Great, and the division of his empire, Judea became a pressure point between the Ptolemaic Egyptian lands and the Seleucid lands.  In 167 BCE Antiochus III drove out the Egyptians under Ptolemy V.  The Seleucids clearly saw the Jews as loyal to the Ptolemies and set about reducing their power base.  The temple was looted, services were stopped and the buildings were dedicated to Zeus.  Judaism was effectively outlawed.

In 160 BCE following the revolt of the Maccabees the Temple site was again back in Jewish hands and was cleansed and re-dedicated.

Between 20 and 18 BCE the temple was totally rebuilt by Herod the Great, a client king of the Roman Empire.  This is the Temple where the Christian Jesus is alleged to have overturned the tables of the moneychangers.

The temple was the centre of Sadducee control of Judaism.  Jesus was from a Pharisee sect and did not hold that worship needed to be tied to a particular pile of stones.  The money changing incident was a demonstration of belief by Jesus.  Abraham said “don’t kill children – kill animals instead” and Jesus said “don’t kill animals – the simple act of breaking your daily bread can be worship of God”.

This is not a message designed to sit well with the Sadducees, who made a profit on every sacrificial animal sold on the temple mount, and who also made a fortune on the Currency Exchange market when the rural hicks found that their silver was no good in the temple.  They had to buy “Temple Silver” to purchase their sacrifice.  No wonder the Sadducees had a problem with Jesus!  He was threatening their entire economic foundation.

Ignoring the economics and religious dogma, the Jews were not comfortable citizens of the Roman Empire, and rose up in rebellion (notice a pattern here?).  The “Great Revolt” lasted from 66-70 CE.

The Roman Emperor Vespasian sent in his son Titus, who besieged Rome in 70 CE, punished the population and burned the temple to the ground.  The destruction of the temple removed the power base from the sects that were centralised there.  In this power vacuum the new “Christian“  religion was able to prosper.

The subsequent Bar-Kokhba revolt in 132-136 CE sealed the fate of the Temple Jews, who were massacred by Hadrian’s troops in large numbers.   It also firmly established the distance between Judaism and Christianity.  Following the revolt both Sects were barred from Jerusalem.

By this time the Christians had already established Golgotha as their primary site of worship.  There is no doubt that the Jews would have had issues with Christian worship on the Temple Mount, despite their common link to Abraham.

The Christians therefore opted to venerate the site of Christ’s death and the associated tomb.  When Hadrian expelled the Jews and Christians from the city he had a temple dedicated to Venus constructed on the Christian site, presumably to remove their power base.

From here we roll forward to the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Golgotha.  In 325/326 CE Constantine the Great began construction of two interlinked churches over the tomb and the peak the hill of Calvary.  This firmly established the Christian centre of Jerusalem as separate to the Jewish site.

Under Byzantine rule the Jews and Samaritans faced increasing persecution which led to a number of Jewish and Samaritan revolts.  The final revolt occurred when the Jews sided with the invading Sassanid Empire against the Byzantines.  In 602 CE under Sassanid occupation the Jews re-established control over Jerusalem for a short time, but the Sassanids ended up siding with the majority Christian population by 617.

The Jews then played the other side of the coin and supported the reconquest of Jerusalem by the Byzantines under Heraclius in 630 CE.  There were attempts by the Jews to re-establish a temple on Mount Zion during the Sassanid occupation and during the subsequent Byzantine re-occupation, but they were torn down and the site was left as a ruin.  It seems no ruler wanted to see the rise of a new Jewish power base.

So it was when Umar led the victorious Islamic armies into Jerusalem in 638 CE.  By agreement with the Christian Bishop his entry was a peaceful one.  Umar was invited to pray at the Holy Sepulchre.  He declined on the basis that Muslims might subsequently claim it as a Mosque, and invalidate his promise to protect Christian interests.  Instead he had the Temple mount cleared, and constructed a wooden mosque on the site.

Umar found a prime piece of real estate in Jerusalem, at the heart of the city, good location, nice views and absent of a formal place of worship.  So he took it over.

Subsequently the Ummah defined the site as “The Furthest Mosque” (al-Masjid al Aqsa), revealed to Muhammed on his mystical night journey undertaken in 621 CE.  This cemented the al-Aqsa Mosque  as the third holiest site in the Islamic world.

Over the years Caliphs improved the mosque.  It was destroyed by an earthquake in 746 and rebuilt.  It was destroyed by another earthquake in 1033 (a religious Jew might take this as a sign).  The current mosque largely dates from the 1035 reconstruction.

Under Crusader rule of Jerusalem from 1099 to 1187 the Al Aqsa was used as a palace.  It was restored as a mosque by Saladin and has remained as such to the present day.

During the six day war in 1967 when the Israeli forces gained control of the old city of Jerusalem they secured Jewish access to the Western Wall.  There were suggestions from some hawks that only a few sticks of dynamite stood between the Jews and their ancient site of worship.  But cooler heads prevailed on that day.