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Original Essays

Codes, Keys, and Solomon's Treasure

by Sean Kingsley
 
  1. God
    $8.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[A] fast-paced tale that is part detective story, part travelogue and adventure story....Kingsley's bracing tale of religious intrigue." Publishers Weekly
In the spring of 1991 I packed up home in Yorkshire, England, and headed east to Israel with snorkel and wetsuit. The lure of exploring ancient shipwrecks lost beneath King Solomon's port city of Dor awaited me. I was inspired yet naïve. This was a foolish move professionally. As college friends fast tracked up corporate ladders in London, my future, I decided, lay in ruins. Back at Oxford University the careers service had no file recommendations for archaeologists. I had been warned.

It was during those heady months of underwater exploration and our successful discovery of twelve lost Greek and Late Roman ships — the largest ancient maritime graveyard in the Mediterranean — that my obsession with the Temple treasure of Jerusalem first dawned. As a violent storm engulfed the Carmel Mountains one afternoon, forcing us out of the sea, my diving buddy, Kurt Raveh, fell asleep in our lab, shrouded between loose pages of the half-read Jerusalem Post. By chance my eye settled on a brief communication from Israel's Ministry of Culture to the Pope demanding the return of its ultimate birthright, the seven-branched golden candelabrum plundered from the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem in September AD 70. Israel was convinced that the candelabrum and other loot from the House of God were imprisoned deep beneath Vatican City.

From such a fortuitous spark I would spend pockets of the next fifteen years obsessed with the true fate of the most intimate symbols of communication between man and the God of the Old Testament. How had these precious relics slipped between the cracks of modern exploration? After all, the Ark of the Covenant was destroyed in 586 BC by the henchmen of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and the Holy Grail was simply an invention of medieval literary wizards. So the Temple loot stands alone as the most important, real-life treasure of Bible times. But who stole God's gold? Is it in the Vatican or scattered amidst the rolling sands of the Negev desert, as the Copper Scroll from the Dead Sea hints? Did Rome callously melt down this booty as victors' spoils to re-fill the imperial coffers or did respect for its divine heritage lead to long-term preservation, perhaps into the modern day?

Since the publication of God's Gold, my world has gone topsy-turvy. Powerful, Dickensian characters from government spooks to right-wing think tanks have come out of the woodwork to offer me Disneyesque, weird and wonderful ground-penetrating radar to see beneath the soil and resurrect the Temple treasure for humanity. I turned down their offers. Cloaks and daggers have their attractions, but these characters got the wrong end of the stick.

Dan Brown, god bless him, has much to answer for. His literary sensation, The Da Vinci Code, successfully sold the public and publishers the ideal that the search for lost treasure inevitably hinges on codes, crypts and keys. Walt Disney's National Treasure and Nicolas Cage, map in hand, hunting down $10 billion of Solomonic Temple loot beneath Trinity Church on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway stoked the fires of fantasy further in 2004. We all love this cracking genre and rightly so. But it is just fantasy.

Journalists raise an eyebrow when I tell them that I'm not remotely interested in physically possessing Temple gold. In 1991 I discovered a fifth-century BC bronze war helmet on a Greek wreck off Dor worth a cool quarter of a million dollars. I drew, photographed, analysed, and researched the find and published my results. For two years afterwards, this precious relic sat unceremoniously in a plastic bucket in my diving buddy's shower while egotists fought power games over whether it should stay in the local museum or be housed in the Israel Museum. I had long since moved on.

If the holy candelabrum from the Temple were to surface on the antiquities market today, it would command opening bids of over $1 billion. In the modern 'Age of Plastic' and non-stop reality TV, everyone yearns for fame and fortune, treasure at the end of the rainbow. Yet as the successive possessors of the Temple candelabrum — Jews, pagan Romans, Arian Vandals, and Catholic Byzantines — remind us, we are only ever temporary custodians of the past. Interestingly, the multiple superpowers that conquered the candelabrum in antiquity did not see it as a lump of expensive metal. Unsentimental Rome put the lamp on public view in the Temple of Peace for all to see as visible propaganda of the Empire's global dominance. And sixth-century AD Byzantines also chose to perpetuate the lamp's life, rather than melt it down, because ownership of the ultimate symbol of the Old Testament past gave them the right to rule in the Christian present.

Bringing to life stories drawn from the mists of time, fusing the excitement of travel to strange lands with heart-stopping moments of historical and archaeological exposure, was a major goal of God's Gold. The drama I uncovered is at times so "fantastic" that crypts and codes appear all rather unreal and Harry Potter. This is a tale of desperate Jews besieged in Jerusalem in AD 70 eating their own babies to escape famine and the tyranny of Rome, of a wronged Roman princess inviting a barbarian king to enter the Eternal City to save her in AD 455, and in the process seizing God's gold, and of Byzantine hit squads tracking down a floating treasure ship moored off Algeria in AD 534. In short, not simply a treasure hunt but more importantly a biography of the Temple treasure and the tides of civilizations across whose royal thrones the candelabrum passed. My story is about people, propaganda, politics and constant laws of human behavior. So many of the stories in God's Gold are modern dilemmas; we have learnt little from the past.

While researching my book in Jerusalem in 2004, sectarian violence flared up across Israel as the withdrawal from Gaza loomed. Right-wing Jews burned tyres along Tel Aviv's Ayalon highway, chained the gates of seventeen Tel Aviv schools, and hung signs on their railings reading 'Jews do not expel Jews'. Sitting behind a rainy window in North London today, once again the Middle East is on fire. Iranian-sponsored rockets rain down on Kissufim in Israel, while Fatah and Hamas are seemingly locked in a biblical battle to the death.

Perhaps it is an inconvenient truth that two thousand years ago the same inter-faith clash of cultures between Jewish Zealots and High Priests led to Israel falling on its sword and the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Rome had no plans to ethnically cleanse the Holy City, only to impose imperial rule and gather fat taxes. As the Jewish historian Josephus recorded in his Jewish War, "the Romans are but demanding the customary tribute....Once they obtain this, they neither sack the city, nor touch the holy things, but grant you everything else, the freedom of your families, the enjoyment of your possessions, and the protection of your sacred laws." As in Gaza today, uncompromising fanatical zeal proved an un-Solomonic strategy. Perhaps the Wild West of the Middle East should learn from the past.

The death of the Temple was arguably the most influential event in the history of religion, liberating Christianity and forcing Judaism into a global Diaspora, the medieval evils of the Spanish Inquisition, and horrors of the twentieth century. Fanaticism, past and present, motivated the travels of God's gold wherever it went over the centuries. But just how different were the religions that battled for its possession? In 1948 Israel took the candelabrum shown on the Arch of Titus, built at the very summit of Rome's Forum in AD 81, as its formal insignia of state. But how Jewish really is the candelabrum?

In the book of Exodus, God instructed Moses on Mount Sinai to craft a lampstand of pure gold with six side branches terminating in "cups shaped like almond blossom." Why almonds? In the Near East this tree is the first to herald the arrival of spring in glorious blossom and the last to shed its leaves — an ideal sign of life, stability, seasonal resurrection and hope for rural societies in the bleak mid-winter. Rabbinical legend also believed that paradise could only be reached through a hole in the almond tree, where the angle of death's powers were neutralized. Rather than a uniquely Jewish invention, however, the Temple candelabrum was grafted on to the spine of the most primitive Near Eastern creation myth, the Tree of Life, first mentioned around 2700 BC in The Epic of Gilgamesh, when this cosmic tree grew in Dilmun (Paradise) along the River Euphrates with its roots in the underworld and crown in heaven.

Bizarrely, the artistic design of the candelabrum on the Arch of Titus also bears exotic figures of sea monsters and eagles. Surely this is sacrilege? After all, the book of Deuteronomy forbade graven images and pursued the idolatrous down to the fourth generation. Yet High Priests clearly ignored this ancient law, swinging with the Romanized times to produce an aesthetically pleasing artistic masterpiece. But more than this, when lit the lamp emitted a clear message: God's perpetual illumination over the land (trees), oceans (sea monsters), and heavens (eagles). This was a brilliant piece of ancient theology, but is also a timely message for the Arab-Israeli conflict perhaps. If the Jews of first-century AD Jerusalem could embrace political change and an alien culture — the coming of Rome — then why can't we?

Of course, God's Gold lifts the lid on the resting place of the central Temple treasures of Jerusalem in its finale. Readers get their satisfaction. And this summer we'll be at the scene of the crime once more for the History Channel to bring the story to life in glorious technicolor. I'm genuinely excited. But in the final analysis I firmly believe that the warts and all of history and archaeology can be as compelling as the fantasy offered by crypts and codes. I also defend my refusal to play ball with institutions that dream of owning the Temple candelabrum once again. How could I justify returning this lamp to the world, igniting the end-time in Jerusalem and building of a Third Temple? The Temple treasure is a very real clear and present danger, a symbol of eternal light to Judaism and distrust and fear for Muslims. The Temple Mount seethes enough as a volcano of religious hatred without me fuelling the fires any more.

God's Gold offers hope, I believe, by exposing greater similarities than differences between religions and cultures. The truth is healing. Do we really need unrealistic crypts and codes to satisfy our senses? Hope springs eternal from the Tree of Life. The past should always be about knowledge, not possession.

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