Treasures of the Temple of Solomon.

Loot from the Temple on Titus’ column in Rome

The Temple of Solomon is one of the most fantastical stories in the Bible. Solomon, the greatest and wisest king of Israel, is moved to build a temple to the one, true God on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. The Temple, as described in Ezekiel, was a colossal building fit to be the house of the living God. Within the Temple was the Holy of Holies, a space forbidden to all except the High Priest, who, once a year would enter the chamber and say the name of the Lord, a name forbidden to all others. The site which the Temple occupied is still revered by the Jews today, the Western Wall being the only place they have access to. The Temple Mount itself has long since become the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque.

The history of the Temple Mount is, in itself, a fascinating history. Briefly the original Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, a date still commemorated in the Jewish calender as Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of Av, the 11th month of the Jewish calender). The Temple was rebuilt in in 538-521 BC when Cyrus the Great, king of Persia freed the Jews from Babylonian oppression and gave them permission to resettle in Jerusalem. This Temple survived through countless border changes as Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and, following his death, the subsequent wars between the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt. It wasnt until the Great Jewish Revolt in 66-73 AD that the Second Temple finally succumbed to the incessant warfare and was destroyed by the future Roman Emperor Titus, son of Emperor Vespasian. From here on in the Temple Mount would be a place revered and mourned by the Jews right into the modern era. It became customary for Jews, upon approaching the Holy City, to rent their garments at the sight of the fallen Temple Mount.

Following the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity the Temple Mount was used as a garbage dump to further spite the Jews for their perceived role in the crucifixion. It wasn’t until the Muslim conquest in the 7th century that the Temple Mount would retain some of its former glory. The Caliph Abd Al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock in 691 over the sight believed by the Muslims to be the sight of Mohammed’s ascension into Heaven on his Night Journey. Abd Al-Malik also enlarged the small mosque (built a few years earlier by Caliph Umar) into what is now the Al Aqsa mosque. So it would remain until the Crusaders took the city in 1100. The Crusaders, believing the Dome of the Rock to be the Temple of Solomon named the site Templum Domini (The Temple of the Lord) and turned the Temple Mount into the headquarters of the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ, hence their more common name: The Knights Templar. The Muslims, under Saladin, managed to retake Jerusalem and returned it to its previous Islamic function although Al Aqsa still has a number of Crusader arches and architecture. This has remained the state of the Temple Mount into the present day despite some extremist Jews wanting to build the Third Temple to hasten Judgement Day, the Israeli government has recognised its importance to the Muslim world and allowed it to remain an exclusive place of Muslim worship.

If we go back to the Great Jewish Revolt in 66-71 AD. Jerusalem has fallen to the Roman legions under Titus. Titus gives the city over to his troops for several days of looting. Titus, himself, goes to the Temple to find trophies for his subsequent Triumph in Rome. The Roman tradition was to loot the temples of foreign gods to show off the superiority of the Roman gods. In this matter the Jews already had a bad rep. In 63 BC Gnaeus Pompey Magnus had taken the city for Rome but upon entering the Holy of Holies, found the Temple empty. The Third Commandment states “Thou shalt not worship any graven images”. This had created a problem for Rome: How do you subdue a people who worship and invisible God?

We know from Josephus’ eyewitness account and Titus’ Column in Rome show that Titus had more luck than Pompey in that there were some things in the Temple to take (or at the very least they found some pieces elsewhere nice enough to claim they were from the Temple). History related that among the treasures were a silver Menorah and an elaborate table. All of these treasures remained in Rome. There they remained for centuries until the end of the Western Roman Empire. In 455 Rome was sacked for the first, but by no means the last, time in her history by the Vandals (from whose name we get our word). The Vandals are said to have taken this, now ancient, treasure in the sack. The Vandals were, themselves, Christian and probably, upon hearing that the treasures came from Titus’ looting of the Temple, believed that they were the treasures of the actual Temple of Solomon (they almost certainly did not know about the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians). The Vandals migrated and settled in what is now Spain, Portugal and North Africa. However, they were not there long. Eager to regain these wealthy provinces the the Western Roman Empire hired the Visigoths to drive the Vandals out of Spain.  The Visigoths proved remarkably effective at this but decided to simply replace the Vandals as the new rulers of Spain and Portugal.

Legend relates that the Vandals managed to take the Menorah with them all the way to Carthage where they settled. It is known that Carthage was retaken by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian in 533. It is probable that he Menorah was taken back to Constantinople to sit with the multitude of different relics there, although history does not relate its exact fate.

The elaborate table, however, features prominently in the 8th century. Islam had experienced an explosive expansion. Less than 100 years since the Prophet’s death the Arabs had gone from being several disparate tribes to ruling an area stretching from Pakistan to Morocco. The Iberian peninsula was their next target. The Muslim armies were put under the command of the governor of Morocco, Musa Ibn Nasyr. Ibn Nasyr is interesting in his own right and is the protagonist of one of the Arabian Nights “the City of Brass”. Ibn Nasyr tasked a Berber vassal of his called Tariq to lead the vanguard of his invasion force. It is from Tariq’s name that we get the name of his landing place Gibraltar (Gebel Al-Tariq, Tariq’s Rock). Tariq turned out to be a military genius and before Ibn Nasyr had even crossed the straights of Gibraltar Tariq had defeated the Visigothic king Roderick and captured the capital, Toledo. It was in Toledo that Tariq is said to have found a golden table from the Temple of Solomon. Tariq claimed the table as part of his loot, however, Ibn Nasyr, upon landing in Spain, had heard tale of this table and wished to give it as a gift to the Caliph in Damascus. Ibn Nasyr pulled rank and forced Tariq to relinquish the table. Tariq, as an act of spite, remove one of the elaborate table legs and replaced it with an obviously inferior one, knowing that Ibn Nasyr was a philistine and would never notice but that the Caliph would. Tariq was proven right. Upon finishing their conquest Ibn Nasyr and Tariq were summoned to Damascus. At the court Ibn Nasyr presented the Caliph with the golden table. The Caliph immediately noticed the inferior leg and asked Ibn Nasyr to explain, the reply was simply “I found it that way”. At this point Tariq produced the actual leg and offered it as proof that Ibn Nasyr had illegally seized the table. The result of this was that Tariq was compensated and allowed to live in great comfort in Damascus. Ibn Nasyr, on the other hand was disgraced and forced into penury dying a few years later on the Hajj to Mecca. The Caliph, of course, kept the table but beyond that it is lost to history.

There is a mention of a third item a rather colourful Spanish legend . This item appears in Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra which is a collection of stories he picked up whilst staying in the grand Moorish palace in Granada. This particular legend is about an Arab Prince who is kept in seclusion his whole life, by his father who wishes him to know nothing of love. The Prince, however, learns the language of the birds and one day talks to a lovesick dove. Intrigued by this thing called “love” that he has never heard of he asks other birds about it. The Owls are too philosophical and think it a distraction from the pursuit of knowledge. The hawks care only for killing and have no interest in love. One day the dove comes back and tells the prince all about love and tells him of a Christian Princess in Toledo. The Prince then decides to escape and go to Toledo to find the Princess. He takes with him an Owl as a guide and at some point comes across a womanizing parrot who also accompanies him. Upon arrival in Christian held Toledo he discovers there is a tournament for the Princess’ hand in marriage. At this point the Owl remembers that there is a cave nearby where, hidden inside, there is a magical sword and suit of armour which only a Muslim can wear. The Prince finds the cave and goes to the tournament with the sword and armour. However, it has not been explained that the sword and armour hate Christians and they decide to on a rampage at the tournament taking the poor Prince along for a ride and seriously wounding the pride of the King of Toledo. Having screwed up this chance to win the Princess the Owl then tells him of the treasury in Toledo which has in it a magic carpet, looted by the Romans during the sacking of the Temple of Solomon. The Prince tells the Owl to steal the aforementioned carpet, which it does, and the Prince then flies on the carpet up to the Princess’ room, charms her with Arabic love poems and then steals her and they fly off back to Granada. There is a final showdown where the Prince and Princess must face down their parents but the end result is that they become the rulers of Granada and the carpet is kept in their treasury there. Presumably to be later taken back by the Christian’s when they take Granada in 1492.

This story is undoubtedly just a legend, there is no mention of any such treasure in any historical source but it does serve to illustrate the romanticism and veneration of objects of such antiquity and prestige. All of the artifacts known to have been looted from the Temple by Titus have all eventually been lost but not before providing us with interesting narratives. They are really the story of the loss of Roman power. Gained at the height of the Empire and looted and dispersed from its ashes never to be heard of again.   

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