Jewish World Review Oct. 9, 2007 / 27 Tishrei 5768
New book takes us on the trail of objects taken from Second Temple By Richard Di Dio
The boundary between quest and obsession is not defined until it is crossed. By then it is too late — and extremely perilous. This is inevitable when the search is for some of the most precious and potentially explosive objects in the world: religious icons that, if found, will further agitate the roiling cauldron that is the Middle East.
In “G-d’s Gold: A Quest for the Lost Temple Treasures of Jerusalem,” archaeologist Sean Kingsley provides a dramatic account of his personal journey in search of the golden menorah, silver trumpets, and jewel-covered Table of Divine Presence taken from the Second Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70. These iconic artifacts were spirited away by the Roman emperor Vespasian and his son, Titus, during the razing of Jerusalem that followed the First Jewish Revolt. Back in Rome, the treasures became the centerpiece of a massive victory parade, the report of which can still be read 2,000 years later as intricate carvings on the Arch of Titus.
Although missing since antiquity, there are enough written references to them, and more than enough conspiracy theorists who claim that they reside in the Vatican, to suggest that the treasures were not melted down for pagan purposes. This is all Kingsley needs to launch what seems to be an impossible mission— one that is both delicate and dangerous because of the ever-present tensions that surround the jurisdiction of the Temple Mount.
In a narrative that is part history, part travelogue, and all action movie, Kingsley describes his 10 years of travels from the Holy Land to Rome to Tunis to Istanbul, digging for clues in the dusty texts of ancient scribes and the dangerous dirt of Hamas-controlled territory.
Has Kingsley crossed over, then, from quest to obsession? Perhaps. He is absolutely obsessive about knowing the objects of his search, although this is just excellent methodology. Part forensics investigator and part profiler, Kingsley is adamant that the key to any search is the understanding of both the material and psychological properties of the missing objects. It is not enough to know what the Temple treasures were made of, and their design; it is just as important to know their significance to Second-Temple Jews, and to the Romans and Vandals after them. It is Kingsley’s hypothesis that the icons survived not because of their monetary value, but because they could be used to support the founding myths of all those who held them, an ultimate source of “via fide” — street cred — in a world breaking free from Roman rule.
An expert in the archaeology of the Holy Land, Kingsley has the credentials that make his quest more than quixotic. He also has a writing style that successfully mixes arcane archaeological details with set-piece depictions of historical events. His account of the Triumph of Vespasian and Titus, as the Jewish treasures are marched through the various pagan and political sites of bustling Rome, is itself a triumph of re-creation.
I will admit that Kingsley’s approach is occasionally manipulative in its cinematic style. He is certainly not averse to playing up the inevitable Indiana Jones angle. But the power flows from the icons themselves, and Kingsley’s quest to understand their essence.
Does this imply that finding the actual menorah, trumpets, and table is secondary to the search? Kingsley firmly believes that he knows where the treasures reside, because he understands what they are, and what they mean. Whether his startlingly confident prediction of their final resting place is true, or just the inevitable result of his obsession, Kingsley’s analysis of the power of religious icons to
shape, and continue shaping, history seems as good as gold.