ARCHEOLOGY

A treasure goes home

ERIC SILVER September 12 1988
ARCHEOLOGY

A treasure goes home

ERIC SILVER September 12 1988

A treasure goes home

ARCHEOLOGY

After a mysterious journey from Israel to Switzerland and back, the only known relic of King Solomon’s Temple, built almost 3,000 years ago, went on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem last week. The eighth-century-BC treasure is a tiny ivory object carved in the shape of a

pomegranate, and historians say that it may once have been part of a priest’s sceptre. Written on the ivory in ancient Hebrew script is an inscription, “Belonging to the Temple of the Lord, holy to the priests.” It is the oldest known example of a Hebrew inscription invoking the name of God.

According to Michal Dayagi-Mendels, the museum’s curator of biblical archeology, scholars are now convinced that the object came from Solomon’s Temple. “With so many top experts authenticating it,” he said, “there are no longer grounds for doubt.”

The piece, 1.68 inches high and 0.83 inches in diameter, was first identified by André Lemaire, a French authority on biblical inscriptions, who found it in an Arab merchant’s shop in Jerusalem in July, 1979, and photographed it. Lemaire later showed the photographs to two other world authorities, who supported his conviction that it came from the ancient temple. Museum officials say that in the meantime, an unidentified purchaser smuggled the object out of Israel in defiance of that country’s strict laws protecting ancient objects.

Then, in 1985, the owner—acting through an intermediary—offered to sell the artifact to the museum. An anonymous donor agreed to supply the $681,890 needed to buy the object. But before making the purchase, museum officials sent leading Israeli archeologist Nachman Avigad to Switzerland to examine the ivory. He said that he was convinced of its authenticity. Speculating on why no previous objects from the temple have ever been found, DayagiMendels suggested that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon looted the temple before burning it in around 589 BC.

The pomegranate, an ancient symbol of fertility, was a favorite motif in Solomon’s Temple. Indeed, according to the first Book of Kings, two pillars known as Boaz and Yachin were each adorned with 200 of them. The object was carved from a single piece of ivory and consists of a central ball and a thin neck that expands into what were originally six petals. Two of the petals and part of one side have been broken off.

Under Israel’s Antiquities Law, all archeological finds have to be reported to the education ministry, which is empowered to keep relics of special value. It is also illegal to export antiquities without a permit. And if the vendor was an Israeli citizen, his Swiss bank account would also violate exchangecontrol regulations that bar Israelis from holding money abroad. But those technicalities were of little concern to museum officials, who say that the national treasure is finally back where it belongs. Said Dayagi-Mendels: “If you were to see a tiny object like this displayed in Los Angeles, or Toronto or Paris, it wouldn’t have any special meaning. Once it is at home in Jerusalem, it regains its real importance.” After surviving for 30 centuries, the tiny object now provides a tangible link to Judaism’s ancient roots.

— ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem