Seven months after the great discovery, archaeologist Eilat Mazar recalls the first moments when she saw the gold medallion emblazoned with a menorah • Mazar uncovered the treasure seven months ago but kept it secret to prevent looting of the site.By Nadav Shragai / IsraelHayom.com
When the Hasmoneans returned to the Temple only to discover that the golden menorah was stolen by the Greeks, they quickly put together a makeshift candelabrum with seven lamps using scraps of iron. They lit the menorah using pure oil, according to the story as it is written in the Book of Maccabees.
On the eve of Hanukkah in the year 5774 (2013), many generations after the drama that yielded the Festival of Lights had unfolded some 2,150 years ago, Dr. Eilat Mazar, an accomplished archaeologist, is recreating her earth-shattering rediscovery of the “lost menorah” at the foot of the Temple Mount. This discovery took place seven months ago but was only revealed in September. [See Katharine’s article in the November 2013 Levitt Letter.]
For many years, Mazar has excavated the hidden corners of this land. The ground she dug held thousands of discoveries and archaeological treasures. Still, nothing could have prepared Mazar–the granddaughter of Professor Benjamin Mazar, who is thought of as the pioneer in excavations of artifacts from the biblical era–for the 1,400-year-old discovery, not to mention the reverberating responses, from the prime minister himself to colleagues from abroad to “regular folks,” among them Jews and Arabs.
These unforgettable moments are seared into her consciousness. It was the start of the fourth excavation season at the City of David, also known as the Ophel, on the southern rim of the Temple Mount complex. The project is overseen by the Hebrew University.
The area itself was first excavated by her grandfather 40 years ago. During that initial period, the diggers, including students from Ambassador College in Oklahoma, devoted their efforts to removing the uppermost layer of earth from the area designated for excavation. They “uncovered” dozens of plastic cups, aluminum foil, and worn-out old shoes that appear to have been used by construction workers during their lunch breaks. At that stage of the dig, they didn’t expect to come across anything special.
Mazar was thus surprised when on the fifth day of her own dig, this past summer, Ariel Winderbaum, the archaeologist in charge of Area C, showed her a large golden earring that was particularly dense. It was uncovered in one of the rooms attached to the structure that hosted the shops in the Byzantine area. From here, things began to unfold quickly. Before Mazar managed to absorb the significance of what had been found, another earring was found nearby. It matched the first earring.
A few minutes later, several golden coins were also found. And minutes afterward more artifacts were uncovered. Mazar was concerned that the news of the golden findings would attracted unwanted guests to the complex. She asked Winderbaum to make sure that the workers who uncovered the 36 coins and earrings — Cari and Ahinoam — continue with their work while maintaining strict confidentiality. Mazar herself was quick to leave the vicinity so as not to arouse attention.
Now Mazar is releasing a Hebrew-language book entitled “Discovering the Lost Menorah at the Foot of the Temple Mount.” In it, she describes the moments that fired the imagination of archaeologists and millions of Jews from around the world. It also provided yet another rejoinder to the deceitful claims propagated for years by the Palestinians whereby Jewish links to Jerusalem and the existence of the temple are a fallacy.
“I asked Ariel to photograph the findings,” Mazar writes in her book. “Perhaps we will be able to say more about the coins after we examine the photographs, but Ariel came to me and said, ‘Eilat, you have to come and see something up close.'”
“I thought to myself, ‘This must be just more coins.’ I told him I’d be right there, but he insisted more forcefully. ‘Eilat, you have to come now.’ So I went to take a look. Cari was digging right up against the room’s western wall. It wasn’t the same collection of coins. She carefully cleared out the margins of a shallow indentation in the base of the limestone floor and inside there was a shiny, round gold medallion. On the medallion we noticed a partial image of something that we couldn’t make out, but now we could clearly discern that it was the image of the seven-lamp menorah.”
Gold underneath dirt
“I didn’t say a word,” Mazar said this week, recalling her exciting discovery. “I just stood there amazed, speechless. I could immediately sense the importance of the discovery. It was almost unreal. In my mind, a million thoughts were racing. What should I do? How do I go on? On the one hand, how do I go about continuing with this unbelievable discovery and digging in a professional manner, while on the other hand continue to keep this a secret so that we can continue digging without disturbances?”
Mazar asked Ariel to halt the excavation at the site where the medallion was uncovered. She also asked that he hide the medallion by covering it in dirt and that he carefully sieve the dirt that was dug up around it. Cari French and Ahinoam Meyers, the excavators who discovered the hidden treasure, were asked to be completely tight-lipped. In the months after the discovery, they kept quiet.
Mazal summoned Ariel and his top assistant, Sonia Pinsky, as well as her staff in charge of documenting and recording the events. She asked them to stay after the digging had been called for the day so that everyone could scour the area and document each finding uninterrupted. After all of the workers went home, small-scale digging equipment, cameras, and padded boxes were brought in.
With extreme caution, the digging resumed from the spot at which it had stopped in the early morning hours. Mazar and her crew dug around in order to loosen up the treasure and free it from the limestone floor. The artifact was ensconced in a wall that had been plastered. It was the section of the wall that had survived this entire time. Above the wall was a layer of dirt that reached 10 centimeters high. Slowly and carefully, the discovery was unveiled.
It was a gold medallion with a radius of 10 centimeters. Its margins bore a decoration, while the center of the medallion bore the image of a seven-lamp menorah. On each side of the menorah, one could notice in the background two symbols. On the right side, there was a large shofar (ram’s horn), and on the other side something that resembled a rectangular object with a decorative insignia over it.
But that wasn’t all. “Underneath the medallion lay a golden necklace which looked as if it had been taken out of a contemporary jewelry store,” Mazar recalled. “Despite the dust that covered it, we could see that this was the handiwork of an artist. We dug around until we saw that there was nothing underneath the artifacts that were found under the medallion. Unlike the coins that date back to the caesars of the Second Byzantine period (the fourth century C.E.) and were discovered scattered all around, the treasure in this case had been carefully laid down.”
“The artifacts were placed under the medallion, so very few of them could be seen jutting out from the sides. It was a way to package it neatly. We managed to extricate this treasure without doing any harm, and we put it straight into the padded box that had been prepared beforehand. We were ecstatic and excited.”
What did you do with this treasure after it was taken out of the ground?
Mazar: “Initially, I took it home. It was late at night. I knew that I wouldn’t find anyone at the institute who could put it in a safe. At home, I opened up the box, and I showed it to my family. They are accustomed to seeing special findings that are dug up in excavations, but this time it was different, and splendid. After all, it’s not every day that a seven-lamp golden menorah that was found at the foot of the Temple Mount is brought home.”
A community’s treasure
On the day after, Mazar brought her discovery to Mimi Lavi, the director of the preservation lab at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology. Lavi slowly began to clean the artifacts. The medallion was placed on the chain that had been found folded underneath it and connected to a specially decorated hook.
The two items — the medallion and the chain — were made by the same artist?
Mazar: “They don’t appear to have been. The differences were apparent immediately. The chain and the hook were made by a very skilled artist, while the medallion was much simpler despite the tremendous impression made by the symbols. By all appearances, the medallion had been made by a different artist. These two parts were in all likelihood combined together after the fact.”
“The medallion was made with an emphasis on the symbols, while the chain and the hook were done as a work of art that stood on its own merits. Three small medallions adorned the other side of the chain which may have originally been intended as an ornament for a Torah scroll. A nearly identical medallion was found in the Jewish Museum London and its source is unknown. Similar symbols appear on the medallion from London as on both sides of the menorah.”
“Along with the menorah medallion, there is also a small gold medallion which appears to have been made with a gemstone setting that didn’t survive. On both sides of it appeared two pieces of gold shaped like stylized flower buds and a gold coil that by the looks of it belonged to the same piece of jewelry.”
“There was also a silver artifact that looked very similar to a bracelet, and it was adorned with two cupolas that were quite striking. The manner in which these findings were discovered under the medallion and the woven materials that were found on the bracelet taught us that it had been placed inside a bag made out of something perishable.”
“The impression we got was that this treasure was wrapped in two separate packages. One of them contained the medallion, the chain, the silver bracelet, and small gold medallion, two gold pieces of jewelry shaped like flower buds that adorned the small medallion on both sides, and the coil. The bag with the medallion was apparently buried inside the floor near the wall, while the other bag met a grimmer fate. By all appearances, it wasn’t buried anywhere, and thus its contents — 36 gold coins, two gold earrings, a silver hook encrusted with gold, and a silver bar — were found scattered on the floor.”
Mazar brought the treasure to Lior Sandberg, an archaeologist who specializes in ancient coinage. Sandberg contributed an essay to the latest edition of Mazar’s book which was just released. He believes that the symbol of the menorah on the medallion proves that the treasure belonged to Jews.
Some of the items were apparently designed as ornaments for the Torah scroll. Other gold findings, Sandberg notes, have been found in synagogues in various locales such as Dir Aziz, Rimon, and Marot. Judging by where they were buried, it is a safe bet that they belonged to the community and were donated in order to contribute to its needs as well as cover synagogue expenses. It is not inconceivable that the treasure from the Ophel also belonged to the Jewish community whose representatives came to Jerusalem.
“It seems that the community began to amass the treasure in the fourth century C.E. and it was abandoned in the wake of a spontaneous incident,” Sandberg theorizes. “Such an event could have taken place after the last possible date in which coins were minted — 602 C.E. One of the events that took place after this year was the Muslim conquest of 638 and the collapse of Byzantine control of Jerusalem.”
“Perhaps the end of Christian rule in the holy city encouraged Jewish communities to come to Jerusalem in the hope fomenting a religious revival, but their hopes were dashed when the Persians preferred to support and rehabilitate the Christian community while turning their backs on the Jews and expelling them from the city,” he said.
According to the picture that Sandberg sketches, the objects came from outside of Jerusalem, either from within the country or from abroad. They were buried and abandoned when the Byzantines came back to the city, or perhaps before that.
“The Persian conquest of Jerusalem stirred up hopes among the Jews that redemption and salvation was at hand,” Mazar said. “In the first years of Persian rule, many Jews descended on Jerusalem hoping that they would enjoy freedoms to worship and perhaps even the freedom to rebuild the temple.”
Mazar said this context is important to keep in mind when examining the artifacts found in Ophel, just 50 meters south of the southern wall of the Temple Mount complex.
“It is reasonable to think that the treasure belonged to Jews, perhaps those who were sent as emissaries of the community and who were thus given currency that was amassed over a long period of time in the form of silver and gold,” she said.
Mazar’s colleague, Peretz Reuven, who was also asked to contribute in the research of the medallion, believes that the item that appears alongside the menorah is similar in appearance to the Torah scrolls that appear alongside the seven-lamp menorah from the Roman and Byzantine periods.
“These depictions rarely appear in Jewish art in the Land of Israel during these eras, but they are quite commonly found outside of the Land of Israel,” he said. “The bulk of the symbols that we came across, including the Torah scroll that was described as similar to the one that appears on the Ophel medallion, comes from Rome, so one could suggest that the depictions of Torah scrolls alongside the menorah represent a custom that was common abroad, and it is reasonable to assume that the source of the medallion was foreign.”
Mazar views the very discovery of the treasure as almost miraculous.
“The odds of these artifacts surviving and ending up in our hands was zero,” she said. “Just a few centimeters separated modern construction from this very special treasure, but it was left unharmed.”
For Mazar, the unveiling of this treasure was jaw-dropping not just because it is unprecedented, but also because of her personal ties to the seven-lamp menorah. Professor Nahum Slouschz, who is a relative of Mazar’s from her grandmother’s side, discovered a stone-sculpted menorah in excavations that he oversaw under the auspices of Israel Exploration Society in 1921. The menorah was found in a synagogue that dated back to the fourth century C.E. in the ancient archaeological site of Hamas Tiberias.
This was the first archaeological excavation done by Jewish residents of the country. Her grandfather, Benjamin Mazar, discovered large Jewish catacombs that dated to the second century C.E. in Beit Shearim. That dig yielded dozens of biblical texts and ornaments. A year after the discovery, her grandfather’s father, Haim Meisler, passed away in Jerusalem. He was buried atop the Mount of Olives, a spot that clearly overlooks the City of David and the Temple Mount. The seven-lamp menorah is inscribed on his tombstone. It is shaped exactly like the menorah that was discovered in Beit Shearim.
When Mazar’s grandfather, Benjamin, dug at the foot of the Temple Mount walls after the Six-Day War, a number of drawings of menorahs were found on the entrances to and the walls of one of the rooms in the Byzantine building, which most likely housed a synagogue just 20 meters away from the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount complex.
As if that weren’t enough, the father of Eilat Mazar’s three children, Yair Shoham, was bestowed this name because he was born on the week in which the Torah portion of b’halatcha was read. It is the portion in which Aharon commands us to light the seven-lamp menorah.
For Mazar, the discovery of the Ophel treasure six months ago represented a closure of sorts. She feels that it represents the ceaseless yearning of the Jewish people for redemption and resurrection in its homeland.
“It’s not just another symbol,” she said. “It’s the most ancient symbol and it has the most significance for the Jewish people. What’s more remarkable is that it was discovered alongside other symbols like the ram’s horn and the Torah scroll at the foot of the entrance to the Temple Mount. This is a very powerful discovery which highlights the unbreakable bond between the Jewish people and Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.”