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The Riddle of the Shushan Gate
The 70 long years of the Babylonian exile had ended. Darius, the benevolent Persian king, son of Queen Esther and King Achashverosh, granted his Jewish subjects permission to return to Zion and rebuild their Temple.1 The Mishnah tells us that the returning Jews made an engraving of Shushan,2 the capital of the Persian Empire, above the newly built Eastern Gateway of the Temple Mount.3 The engraving commemorated the miracle of Purim4 and reminded the Jewish People from whence they came and to remain loyal to their Persian benefactors.5 Because Persia was east of the Holy Land, the Eastern Temple Gateway was chosen as the site for this memorial engraving.6
The Talmud also tells us that near the Eastern Gateway was a room in which the national standard of length, the cubit, was engraved upon the wall.7
A medieval Jewish tradition foretells that the prophet Elijah will lead the Mashiach into the Temple grounds through this Shushan Gateway. Elijah is a Kohain and a Kohain may not enter a cemetery. Many centuries ago, some scheming Moslems placed an Arab cemetery along the Eastern Wall to foil Elijah’s plan (Plate #1). However, in the Talmud8 there is a discussion of whether or not a Kohain may enter a non-Jewish cemetery. The sages sought the opinion of the prophet Elijah himself and he ruled that a member of the priestly clan could indeed enter a non-Jewish cemetery. Obviously, the Moslem designer of the cemetery was not a Talmudic scholar.
(Plate #1) Arab cemetery built along the Eastern Temple wall.
This Moslem cemetery is built up along the Eastern Wall and completely obscures the remains of the Shushan Gateway from view. Several hundred years ago, a plague in Jerusalem caused the death of many Arabs. The victims of the plague were buried in a mass grave in front of the Shushan gateway and a monument to the tragedy was placed nearby. Over the course of time, the bodies decomposed and compressed, creating a cavern in the cemetery.
(Plate #2) View inside the cavern. The stones arching upward are built onto the original Shushan Gateway.
The existence of this cavern was not publicized because the Moslems did not want curiosity-seekers trampling through their cemetery. They do not permit non-Moslems to enter those hallowed grounds. Not intending to be disrespectful, I knew that in order to complete my exploration of the walls of Jerusalem, I would need to inspect the cavern on my next trip to Jerusalem.
When I came to the Eastern Wall cemetery, I found that an Arab caretaker was stationed there to make certain no illicit entry would be made. I waited and watched from afar. Around noon, the caretaker decided to take a lunch break. As he walked off to a luncheonette in the Arab village below, I sneaked into the cemetery to the spot where the top of the cavern was located. It was covered over with a rusty metal sheet. After pulling aside the metal covering, I leaned inside the cave. It was pitch black. I began taking pictures at random, unsure of what I was photographing. My work was completed just in time the caretaker was returning with a metal pipe in hand. I made a hasty retreat.
(Plate #3) The Mercy Gate, Shaar Harachamim.
As soon as I came back to the “States, I had the pictures developed. I could see that the floor of the cavern was littered with the remains of corpses, skulls, and skeletal remnants. More importantly, in the rear of the cavern was an exposed lower portion of the Eastern Wall. On that exposed portion of the Eastern Wall was the upper segment of an arch — the remains of the Shushan Gateway (Plate #2). From that small segment of an arch, I could determine that the original Shushan Gateway was a double gateway, similar to the double Chuldah exit on the Southern Wall.10 With that meager bit of information, I could reconstruct the ancient Shushan Gateway. (See drawing.)
The formation of the cavern also yielded the opportunity to search for the room near the Shushan Gate alluded to in the Talmud which contained the national cubit standard. Such a discovery would resolve once and for all the great halachic debate as to the exact length of the cubit.11 I began to plan my next illegal expedition to the site.
When I arrived there the following year, my great expectations were quickly dashed. The Arabs had filled in the cavern with all sorts of trash and debris. I was not prepared to dig up and cart away several tons of refuse.
When King Solomon built the First Temple, he constructed a special two-chambered building in the Temple compound. One chamber was for bridegrooms and the other was for people observing the traditional period of mourning. Those who participated in the Temple service went to these rooms to offer the appropriate words, either of congratulations or of condolence.12 These rooms were built above the Eastern Gateway and were reconstructed in the Second Temple.13
Today, the only visible structure built onto the Eastern Wall is a large building with two sealed arched windows. Christians call it the Golden Gate, but the Jews and Moslems refer to it as Shaar Harachamim, the Mercy Gate (Plate #3). It is decorated with ornate Byzantine stonework similar to the stonework above the Chuldah exit on the Southern Wall.14 In medieval times, when access to the Western Wall was denied to the Jews, they would congregate in front of the Mercy Gate and pray for God’s compassion to redeem His holy nation. Some say that the Mercy Gate is a reconstruction of King Solomon’s two-chambered room.15
(Plate #4) The vertical line in the center of the photo is the seam, marking the point from which Herod extended the Eastern Wall. The stones to the lower left of the seam are typical Herodian ashlars. The stones to the right of the seam pre-date Herod and are the oldest Temple stones that can be seen.
A few years before the common era, the Judean tyrant, Herod the Great, completely rebuilt the Second Temple and expanded the Temple Mount Compound.16 Herod assembled 10,000 Jewish artisans, 120,000 non-Jewish wood cutters and quarrymen, 50,000 Jerusalemite foremen, and 1,500 uniformed Kohanim and Leviim to oversee the work atop the Temple Mount.17
(Plate #5) The stones projecting from the Eastern Wall were the beginning of an archway which supported a staircase that led to the Temple basement.
At the completion of Herod’s monumental reconstruction project, the Temple Compound was double its original area.18 He relocated the Northern, Western, and Southern Walls further outward. Herod could not move the Eastern wall further out because the Eastern Wall was located near the top of Mount Moriah and the eastern slope was a sharp 300 foot drop downward into the Kidron Valley. However, Herod had to extend the northern and southern ends of the Eastern Wall so it would meet the newly relocated Northern and Southern Temple Walls.
The original Eastern Wall was about 750-1,000 feet long. After Herod’s additions to the wall, it was 1,530 feet long. These additions produced two interesting architectural features. Herod instructed his builders to use a unique design for his Temple stones. The centers of the stones were to be smoothly polished flat surfaces, projecting a fraction of an inch from recessed margins framing the edges. The original Temple stones also had the recessed borders but had rough, unfinished centers projecting out several inches. Much of the Eastern Wall displays these primitive rough Temple stones. But the northern and southern ends of the wall have the smoothly polished Herodian stones.
(Plates #6a, 6b) Two types of building stones. The stone with the weave-like pattern was used in building outside the azarah courtyard. The fragment of splintered stone with the smooth center was used within.
Another architectural feature that was produced when Herod added to the length of the Eastern Wall is a seam. Whenever an extension is built onto a wall, a vertical line, called a seam, remains where the old wall ended and the new construction began. Today, we can see that seam 105 feet from the southern end of the Eastern Wall. We can see the Herodian stones, with their telltale smooth centers, to the left of the seam and the pre-Herodian stones, with their rough protruding centers, to the right of the seam (Plate #4).
Near the southern end of the Eastern Wall are several other intriguing features. The most noticeable is a series of stones projecting out from the wall (Plate #5). This was the beginning of a Temple archway. The archway supported steps that led into the basement of the Second Temple, popularly called King Solomon’s Stables. This archway on the Eastern Wall was directly opposite the archway on the Western Wall referred to as Robinson’s Arch.20 If one looks carefully above the stones of the arch, one can see the outlines of two sealed-up Temple gateways. Again, with some careful scrutiny, one can make out the outlines of three Temple windows, about 40 feet to the left of the two sealed gateways. The middle window has been reconstructed.
Another remarkable feature is found about 50 feet from the southern end of the Eastern Wall. The Herodian stones comprising the upper half of the wall are projecting slightly out from the wall. The further up the wall you look, the further the stones project outward. This projection formed the base of a Temple watch tower. In all likelihood, such towers were located in all four corners of the Temple Mount.
(Plate #8) Two marble flooring stones from the Beit Hamikdash.
In the late nineteenth century, the English archaeologist Charles Warren sank a mine shaft near the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount. His objective was to determine how far down the wall went before it hit bedrock. To his amazement, the shaft went down 80 feet before he reached solid rock and the base of the wall. The total height of the wall at that point was close to 160 feet, almost 16 stories high.
Warren also made the amazing discovery that the foundation stones contained Phoenician lettering. Some letters were carved into the stone others were painted in red ink. These letters were marks made at the quarry to later identify the stones in order to set them in their correct positions for the foundation of the great wall.21
(Plate #9) Corinthian capital atop the Mercy Gate.
The columns on top of the Temple Mount consisted of sections, called drums, that fit one on top of the other (Plate #13). The drums had to be arranged in a specific sequence. To ensure the proper arrangement, the bottoms of the drums were marked at the quarry with letters. All work carried out on top of the Temple Mount was performed by Kohanim who were unfamiliar with Phoenician lettering therefore, the marks on the bottoms of the drums were made in Hebrew. Since the marks of these foundation stones were Phoenician, these stones probably were set into place by non-Jews who were more familiar with the foreign script.
(Plate #10) Inside the Mercy Gate. The column to the rear probably dates back to the Second Beit Hamikdash. The column in the foreground dates to the fourth century Byzantine era.
Warren’s 80-foot-deep shaft remained exposed for about 100 years. A few years ago, the municipal officials considered the open pit to be a safety hazard and had it filled in. A bulldozer dug up earth from the surrounding area and dumped it into the shaft.
In any archaeological site, the further down one digs, the more ancient the relics that are exposed. But here, the order became reversed. The bulldozer carted upper layers of earth and deposited it into the bottom of the pit. It then returned to dig up the next layer and deposit it in the pit. When the task was completed, the bottom layer of the filled-in Warren’s Shaft contained the remains of 20th-century pottery, Coke bottles and discarded newspapers, which I suspect will certainly puzzle archaeologists of future generations. Imagine finding a copy of Ma’ariv in the dining room of a fourth-century Byzantine house! But, more importantly, the upper layer of fill in Warren’s shaft contained the remains of very ancient relics, a veritable treasure trove which I just had to examine.
Probing through the fill, I found two types of Herodian building stones. Both types had the carved margins typical of the Herodian Temple stones.22 However, one type of stone had a perfectly smooth center, the other type had a weave-like design carved onto the stone. The difference can be explained according to halachah. The rulingis that building stones that were used in the innermost courtyard (azarah) had to be perfectly smooth.23 No nicks or cracks should be detected by running the thumbnail across the surface. Stones that were used in construction for the outer courtyards did not have this halachic restriction (Plates #6a, 6b).
The Talmud tells us that the flooring was fashioned of marble tiles.24 There were three colors of tiles: white, brown, and bluish-purple. In the fill, I found two fragments of marble tiles. One fragment was brown, the other fragment was bluish-purple (Plate #8). I also found a stone oil lamp (Plate #7). Most oil lamps found in the Holy Land were made from clay. But baked clay utensils are susceptible to becoming defiled (tumah), while stone vessels cannot. It is therefore understandable that an oil lamp found in the vicinity of the Temple would be fashioned out of stone.
(Plate #11) The back of the Mercy Gate. A Corinthian column can be discerned between the two arches in this 110 year old photograph.
And now for the riddle alluded to in the title of this article. Quoted earlier was the mishnah which stated that above the Shushan Gateway was a depiction of the Persian capital, Shushan. I have often wondered how the Temple builders depicted Shushan. Did the city have a recognizable skyline, like New York, Chicago, or St. Louis? Did Shushan have some remarkable structure, like the Empire State building or the Acropolis, that symbolized the capital of the Persian Empire? Probably not. If so, how was Shushan depicted above the Eastern Gateway?
Built onto the top of the facade of the Mercy Gate is a little-noticed capital of a Corinthian column (Plate #9). In classical Greek and Roman architecture, there are three distinct styles: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. A capital of a column is the decorative stone on top of a column. Corinthian capitals are the most ornate of the three styles and usually consist of three tiers of acanthus leaves. For an example of typical Corinthian columns and capitals, we will take a look at the inside of the Mercy Gate (Plate #10). The capitals, as well as the columns themselves, are quite possibly remnants of the Second Temple.
The Temple Mount and Eastern Wall as seen from Har Hatzofim.
The Jewish historian of the late Second Temple Era, Josephus Flavius, tells us that the architectural style of the Herodian Second Temple was Corinthian.25 Classical rabbinic literature translates the word “Corinthian” into Hebrew as shushan, meaning lily-like or floral.26 King Solomon also used floral capitals for his First Temple columns and the Hebrew term used in Tanach to describe them is also the word shushan.27 Corinthian, or Shushan, capitals were also common in ancient temples and palaces.28
(Plate #13) Drums of columns lie scattered about in front of the Southern Wall.
In many languages, the same word is employed to denote the capital of a column and the capital city of a country. Perhaps, above the ancient Eastern Gateway was a large Corinthian/Shushan (i.e. floral) capital symbolizing Shushan, the capital city. In other words, there was no carving or engraving depicting the buildings of Shushan rather, an architectural play on words represented the Persian capital.
A further connection between Corinthian architecture and the Shushan Gateway can be made by the ornate design-work that remains on the structure. A more complete version still remains on the back doorway of the building (Plate #11). This design is certainly Corinthian in style. Some archaeologists, such as W. Harold Mare, believe that this design-work is from the Second Temple Era.
The small Corinthian capital that rests atop the Mercy Gate today, conceivably a relic of a Second Temple column, might be an architectural memory of ages past when a gigantic Shushan capital rested there.
In ages past, the ancient marble capital served to remind us of the place from which we came. Today it serves to remind us of the day when the Prophet Elijah will herald the Messianic Era and of the place to which we shall return. May it occur speedily in our days.
Aerial view of the Temple Mount and the Eastern Wall.
Rabbi Reznick is a maggid shiur in the Beit Midrash of Shaarei Torah of Rockland. He is the author of The Holy Temple Revisited, Woe Jerusalem, A Time to Weep and The Mystery of Bar Kokhba.
This article first appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of Jewish Action.
1. Rashi Ezra 1:1, Toldot Am Olam vol.I, p. 329.
3. Tiferet Yisrael Kelim 17, note 67.
4. Sefer HaYuchsin 61a.
6. Ezrat Kohanim vol. I, p. 105, para. 10.
7. See Menochot ibid. and Kelim 17:9 and commentaries ad loc.
8. Baba Metzia 114a & b.
9. “States” is a term used by sophisticated travelers, who have been abroad at least once. It usually is used by natives of Brooklyn, but it can heard in most Jewish sections of New York State.
10. See Jewish Action Summer 5755/1995, “The Forgotten Wall,” for a detailed description of this gateway and the entire expanse of the Southern Wall.
11. See Jewish Action Winter 1991/1992 for a discussion based on archaeological evidence as to the length of a cubit in my article concerning the Bar Kokhba Temple.
13. Kaftor Voferach, chap. 6.
14. See Jewish Action Summer 5755/1995, “The Forgotten Wall.”
17. Yossiphon chap. 55.
18. Josephus, Wars of the Jews Book I, chapter 21 & Book V, chapter 5.
19. See Jewish Action Summer 5755/1995 for a description and photographs of the “stables.”
20. See Jewish Action Winter 5753/1992-3, “A Private Tour of the Western Wall,” for a description of Robinson’s Arch.
21. See The Holy Temple Revisited, published by Jason Aronson Inc., p. 62 for a picture and a discussion of possibly dating the lettering.
22. See Jewish Action Winter 5753/1992-3.
23. Rambam Beit Habechirah 1:15.
24. Baba Batra 4a and Rashi ad loc.
25. Wars of the Jews Book V, chap. 5.
26. Such as Ezrat Kohanim.
28. Beneath the southern section of Har Habayit is a 300-foot-long tunnel with domes supported by columns. See Note #13. One of the columns has a very primitive Corinthian/Shushan capital, possibly a remnant of King Solomon’s First Temple.
History of Harmandir Sahib
The origin and evolution of the place where the Golden Temple now stands is covered in mystery. Some sources trace its origin from the pre-historic era as an Indian place of worship. The location of the Golden Temple is a low lying area with a big pond surrounded by dense jungle. This piece of land was shred by Sultanwind Tung, Gilwali and Gumtala etc. villages. More over its geographical location was superb. It was next to the city of Lahore, the then capital of Punjab and the highway connecting India and Central Asian countries was also running through this piece of land.
Select Chronology of Harmandir Sahib and Amritsar
1573 AD The construction work of the holy water tank started under the supervision of Guru RamDas Ji.
1577 AD Guru Ram Das Ji laid the foundation of Amritsar (earlier known as Ram Das Pur)
1588 AD The foundation of Harimandir was laid by a Muslim saint Mian Mir.
1604 AD The central shrine completed.
1606 AD The Sikh Guru Hargobind ji adopted two swords, one for religious affairs and another for worldly affairs. Guru Hargobind sahib ji also laid the foundation of Akal Takht.
1621 AD Guru Teg Bahadur ji was born in Amritsar.
1628 AD The first ever Sikh-Mughal armed conflict, and the Sikhs emerged victorious under the command of Guru Hargobind sahib ji.
1634 AD Guru Hargobind sahib ji left for Kiratpur with his devotees to avert possible attack on visiting Sikh devotees.
1665 AD Guru Teg Bhadur visited the Golden Temple after becoming the ninth Sikh Guru but he was denied entry by its priests.
1721 AD Bhai Mani Singh appointed the head priest and administrator of the Golden Temple. After a century long period, the Golden Temple’s control was again under the Sikhs.
1725 AD Dispute between the two Sikh sects over the Golden Temple’s control. Bhai Mani singh resolved it in a fair manner.
1738 AD The head priest Bhai Mani Singh hacked into pieces for not paying demanded revenue to the Mughal authorities
1739 AD The Mughals negotiated peace and granted independent territory [jagir] to the Sikhs.
1739 AD Persian king Nadis Shah attached the Golden Temple
1740 AD The Sikhs avenged the act of sacrilege by a Mughal administrator named Massa Ranghard. Two Sikh warriors Sukha singh and Mehtab singh chopped his head in the sanctum where he was watching dance under he effect of alcohol with his friends and soldiers.
1745 AD A wave of suppression started to curb the Sikhs.
1757 AD Afghan King Ahmed Shah Abdali attacked the Golden Temple and Baba Deep Singh martyred.
1762 AD After the greater holocaust of Feb 5, 1762 Afghan king Abdali Razed the Golden Temple to the ground and filled its holy tank with debris, rubbish and animal carcasses.
1764 AD Once again Abdali came to Amritsar and ruined what ever he came across. Baba Gubaksh Singh and his thirty comrades were ruthlessly murdered near the Akal Takhat.
1767 AD Udasi saints Nirvan Pritam Das and Mahant Santokh Das brought 35 miles long water canal to fill the holy water tank with the water of river Ravi.
1773 AD Sikh Misal chiefs raised the building of Gurdwara baba Atal near the Golden Temple.
1776 AD Reconstruction of the damaged holy water tank, entrance gate and bridge.
1802 AD Maharaja Ranjit Singh occupied the territory of Amritsar.
1808 AD Amritsar’s famous Gobindghar fort was raised to shift Lahore’s treasure to Amritsar.
1813 AD Maharaja Ranjit Singh obtained famous diamond "Ko-he-noor", now studded in the English crown, and a great army march past in the streets of Amritsar.
1822 AD Amritsar’s fortification wall with twelve gates completed.
1831 AD Gold world of the Golden Temple Reached its final stages.
1839 AD Maharaja Ranjit Singh came to Golden Temple in March 1839, it proved his last visit.
1849 AD The Sikhs lost their rule over the unified territory of Punjab.
1857 AD Amritsar observed a little effect of the mutiny against the British.
1871 AD Kuka [Namdhari] movement rocked Amritsar, Several Muslim butchers were assassinated. British administrators hanged several Kuka disciples to death in Amritsar near Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s summer palace.
1873 AD Singh Sabha Movement gained roots.
1881 AD The British government introduced their management agents or managers [Sarbarah] to exercise their full control over the Golden Temple.
1893 AD Khalsa College, Amritsar opened.
1902 AD Pro British chief Khala Diwan Formed.
1919 AD Jallian Wala Bagh massacre took life of several thousands innocent Sikhs and others on the Baisakhi day in Amritsar.
1921 AD The Sikhs took control of several Sikh shrines including the Golden Temple. SGPC like mother body emerged that took its final shape after some years.
1923 AD The first Ka Sewa or cleansing of the holy water tank took place.
1925 AD Sikh Gurdwara Act passed.
1947 AD Amritsar became a border city after India’s partition.
1949 AD Sikh Reference library formed.
1958 AD Central Sikh museum formed.
1973 AD The second Kar Sewa of the holy water tank.
1977 AD The city of Amritsar observed its 400th birthday.
1978 AD Sikh – Nirankari conflict took life of thirteen innocent Sikh demonstrators and it changed the Punjab forever.
1984 AD Indian Army invaded Golden Temple under operation "Blue Star", that claimed life of several innocent thousands of lives and resulted into the destruction of the Golden Temple complex.
1988 AD Another Para military action took place this year aimed to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple complex.
1988 AD Several thousand shops and houses generally of the Sikhs were removed to make a corridor around the Golden Temple. It added long awaited beauty and space to the Golden Temple.
1997 AD English Queen Elizabeth II and her husband paid a visit to the Golden Temple.
2004 AD The Golden Temple observed the first Kar Sewa of the 21st century for the purpose of installing water treatment plants. This year also observed the largest ever recorded strength of devotees visiting the Golden Temple at once, on the eve of Quadricentennial Installation celebrations of the Sikh Scripture in September 2004.
46 thoughts on &ldquoThe Golden Gate of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem&rdquo/>Leen Ritmeyer says:
It is useless to argue from text only without taking the archaeological remains into consideration. You only read texts, and are ignorant of the Archaeology of Jerusalem.
There is no “[some]” in 6:149 (Loeb translation). The rockscarp of the Antonia was, and still is, very high and afforded a good viewpoint for Titus, even after his soldiers had destroyed it down to its (rocky) foundation. Even after its destruction, it retained the name of Antonia.
War 6.166 is speaking of the porticoes that were joined to the rocky foundations of the Antonia Fortress. Some of the sockets for the roof beams of these porticoes have survived until today – see my post on the Antonia.
War 7.1 speaks of the houses of Jerusalem that stood on the Western Hill, for that is where the towers of Phasael, Hippicus (still standing today) and Mariamne stood. They protected Herod’s Palace that after Herod’s death was taken over by the Roman proconsuls. That is where Pilate stayed when he came to Jerusalem. That is where the Praetorium was located, and nowhere else. Remains of this palace have been excavated in the Citadel and its adjacent grounds.
When Jesus spoke of “not one stone” he referred to the “buildings” (plural) that stood on the Temple Mount. There is only one Temple Mount (singular), so jesus could not have referred to that, but he looked at the many buildings when he predicted their destruction. Please read carefully.
The ploughing of the Romans refer to ploughing a furrow to set out the boundaries of Aelia Capitolina. That is standard Roman practice.
There never stood a Byzantine church at the place of the Dome of the Rock, which has been thoroughly examined by many scholars. The Christians build the Holy Sepulchre, which was their main church. It is nonsense to suggest that the Praetorium was at the Dome of the Rock. No scholar would agree with that.
These are not my personal opinions, but those of an architect who for many years, and with many colleagues, has worked on the Temple Mount Excavations, the Excavations in the Jewish Quarter, the City of David and the Citadel.
Unless you read proper books on the archaeology of Jerusalem by professionals who have laboured for many years in Jerusalem, you will never understand the text of Josephus and it is pointless for me to enter into discussions with people who don’t know anything about Jerusalem’s past.
If you want to be serious getting to know Jerusalem better, I recommend reading the following books:
Dan Bahat: The Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem.
Ronny Reich: Excavating the City of David.
Leen Ritmeyer: The Quest – Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Leen and Kathleen Ritmeyer: Jerusalem – the Temple Mount.
Nahman Avigad: Discovering Jerusalem.
Hillel Geva (ed.): Ancient Jerusalem Revealed, 1998-2018.
Hillel Geva and Ephraim Stern (eds.): The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land.
These are standard works used in undergraduate studies of many universities that teach the Archaeology of Jerusalem. Once you get a grip on the true archaeology of Jerusalem by reading these books, we can discuss further, but not when you rely only on very old reports and hearsay from unqualified people.
“they forgot Zion”
Zion is Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, although also applied to David’s City, yet not not the current hill termed “Mt. Zion”.
Exaltation: A Family Affair
President Nelson: Exaltation is a family affair. Only through the saving ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ can families be exalted. The ultimate end for which we strive is that we become happy as a family—endowed, sealed, and prepared for eternal life in the presence of God.
Sister Nelson: Each Church class we attend, each time we serve, each covenant we make with God, each priesthood ordinance we receive, everything we do in the Church leads us to the holy temple, the house of the Lord. There is so much power available for a couple and for their children through the sealing ordinance when they keep their covenants.
President Nelson: Every day we choose where we want to live eternally by how we think, feel, speak, and act. Our Heavenly Father has declared that His work and His glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children (see Moses 1:39). But He wants us to choose to return to Him. He will not force us in any way. The precision with which we keep our covenants shows Him just how much we want to return to live with Him. Each day brings us closer to or farther from our glorious possibility of eternal life. We each need to keep our covenants, repent daily, and seek to be more like our Savior. Then and only then can families be together forever.
Sister Nelson: It is my testimony that however fabulous your life is right now, or however discouraging and heartbreaking it may be, your involvement in temple and family history work will make it better. What do you need in your life right now? More love? More joy? More self-mastery? More peace? More meaningful moments? More of a feeling that you’re making a difference? More fun? More answers to your soul-searching questions? More heart-to-heart connections with others? More understanding of what you are reading in the scriptures? More ability to love and to forgive? More ability to pray with power? More inspiration and creative ideas for your work and other projects? More time for what really matters?
I entreat you to make a sacrifice of time to the Lord by increasing the time you spend doing temple and family history work, and then watch what happens. It is my testimony that when we show the Lord we are serious about helping our ancestors, the heavens will open and we will receive all that we need.
President Nelson: We can be inspired all day long about temple and family history experiences others have had. But we must do something to actually experience the joy ourselves. I would like to extend a challenge to each one of us so that the wonderful feeling of this work can continue and even increase. I invite you to prayerfully consider what kind of sacrifice—preferably a sacrifice of time—you can make in order to do more temple and family history work this year.
We are engaged in the work of Almighty God. He lives. Jesus is the Christ. This is His Church. We are His covenant children. He can count on us.
Opportunity. Engagement. Discovery.
Temple University educates a vibrant student body and creates new knowledge through innovative teaching, research and other creative endeavors. Our urban setting provides transformative opportunities for engaged scholarship, experiential learning, and discovery of self, others and the world. We open our doors to a diverse community of learners and scholars who strive to make the possible real.
We are committed to the ideals upon which Temple was founded:
- providing access to an excellent, affordable higher education that prepares students for careers, further learning and active citizenship.
- creating a collaborative community of outstanding faculty and staff who foster inclusion and encourage the aspirations of Temple students.
- promoting service and engagement throughout Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the nation and the world.
Meenakshi Amman Temple, also known as Minakshi-Sundareshwara Temple, is one of the oldest and most important temples in India. Located in the city of Madurai, the temple has a great mythological and historical significance. It is believed that Lord Shiva assumed the form of Sundareswarar (the handsome one) and married Parvati (Meenakshi) at the site where the temple is currently located. Renowned for its astonishing architecture, Meenakshi Temple was nominated as one of the wonders of the world, but couldn’t make it into the list of ‘Seven Wonders of the World’. However, the temple is definitely one of the ‘Wonders of India’. It is also one of the main attractions of South India with thousands of devotees thronging it every day. During the ‘Tirukalyanam Festival,’ which takes place over a period of 10 days, the temple attracts more than a million devotees. Despite many people visiting it every day, the temple is well-maintained and was named the ‘Best Swachh Iconic Place’ (cleanest iconic place) in India.
According to a legend, Meenakshi emerged out of a ‘Yajna’ (sacred fire) as a three-year-old girl. The ‘Yajna’ was performed by a king named Malayadwaja Pandya along with his wife Kanchanamalai. Since the royal couple had no child, the King offered his prayers to Lord Shiva, requesting him to grant them a son. But to their dismay, a triple-breasted girl emerged from the sacred fire. When Malayadwaja and his wife expressed their concern over the girl’s abnormal appearance, a divine voice ordered them not to fret over the girl’s physical appearance. They were also informed that the girl’s third breast will disappear as soon as she meets her future husband. The relieved King named her Meenakshi and in due course crowned her as his successor.
Meenakshi ruled over the ancient city of Madurai and also went on to capture the neighboring kingdoms. Legend has it that she even captured Indralok, the abode of Lord Indra, and was on her way to capture Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva, as well. When Shiva appeared before her, Meenakshi’s third breast disappeared and she knew that she had met her better half. Shiva and Meenakshi returned to Madurai where their wedding took place. It is said that the wedding was attended by all the gods and goddesses. Since Parvati herself had assumed the form of Meenakshi, Lord Vishnu, Parvati’s brother, handed her over to Lord Shiva. Even today, the wedding ceremony is celebrated every year as ‘Chithirai Thiruvizha’ which is also known as ‘Tirukalyanam’ (the grand wedding).
The history of Meenakshi Temple dates back to the 1st century C.E with scholars claiming it to be as old as the city itself. It is said that Kulashekarar Pandyan, a king who ruled over the Pandyan dynasty, built the temple as per the instructions given in his dream by Lord Shiva. A few religious texts that belong to the 1st to 4th century C.E talk about the temple and describe it as the central structure of the city. Texts dating back to the early 6th century, describe the temple as a place where scholars met to discuss important topics. The temple as it stands today, however, was rebuilt throughout the 16th century as it was destroyed by the Muslim invaders.
During the 14th century C.E, Malik Kafur, a commander of Delhi Sultanate, led his army into most parts of southern India and looted many temples including the famed Meenakshi Temple. Valuables, such as gold, silver and precious gems were taken to Delhi. Since temples in those days had abundance of valuables, most of the temples were destroyed and were left in ruins. When the Vijayanagar Empire took over Madurai after defeating the Muslim Sultanate, the temple was rebuilt and reopened. The temple was further expanded during the late 16th century and early 17th century by Vishwanatha Nayakar, a king of the Nayaka dynasty. According to researchers, while rebuilding the temple, the rulers of Nayaka dynasty followed the architectural style of ‘Silpa Shastras.’ ‘Silpa Shastras’ are a set of architectural laws found in the ancient texts.
The temple was once again expanded by Thirumalai Nayak who ruled over Madurai from 1623 to 1655. During his reign, many ‘Mandapams’ (pillared halls) were built. The temple was then expanded by many later Nayaka rulers before the advent of the British East India Company. The temple was once again degraded and parts of it were destroyed during the British Rule. In 1959, the restoration work was started by Tamil Hindus by collecting donations and by collaborating with historians and engineers. The temple was completely restored in 1995.
The temple occupies a huge area in the heart of Madurai as it spreads over 14 acres. The temple is enclosed with huge walls, which were built in response to the invasions. The entire structure, when viewed from above, represents a mandala. A mandala is a structure built according to the laws of symmetry and loci. There are various shrines built within the temple complex. Apart from the two main shrines, which are dedicated to Sundareswarar and Meenakshi, the temple has shrines dedicated to various other deities like Ganesha and Murugan. The temple also houses goddesses Lakshmi, Rukmini, and Saraswati.
The temple also has a consecrated pond named ‘Porthamarai Kulam.’ The term ‘Potramarai Kulam’ is a literal translation of ‘pond with a golden lotus.’ The structure of a golden lotus is placed at the center of the pond. It is said that Lord Shiva blessed this pond and declared that no marine life would grow in it. In the Tamil folklore, the pond is believed to be an evaluator for reviewing the worth of any new literature.
The temple has four main towering gateways (gopurams) that look identical to each other. Apart from the four ‘gopurams,’ the temple also houses many other ‘gopurams’ that serve as gateways to a number of shrines. The temple has a total of 14 towering gateways. Each one of them is a multi-storey structure and displays thousands of mythological stories and several other sculptures. The major ‘gopurams’ of the temple are listed below:
- Kadaka Gopuram – This towering gateway leads to the main shrine that houses Goddess Meenakshi. The gateway was rebuilt by Tumpichi Nayakkar during the mid-16th century. The ‘gopuram’ has five storeys.
- Sundareswarar Shrine Gopuram – This is the oldest ‘gopuram’ of the temple and was built by Kulasekara Pandya. The ‘gopuram’ serves as a gateway to the Sundareswarar (Lord Shiva) shrine.
- Chitra Gopuram – Built by Maravarman Sundara Pandyan II, the gopuram depicts the religious and secular essence of Hinduism.
- Nadukkattu Gopuram – Also called as the ‘Idaikattu Gopuram,’ this gateway leads to the Ganesha shrine. The gateway is placed right in between the two main shrines.
- Mottai Gopuram – This ‘gopuram’ has fewer stucco images when compared to the other gateways. Interestingly, ‘Mottai gopuram’ had no roof for nearly three centuries.
- Nayaka Gopuram – This ‘gopuram’ was built by Visvappa Nayakkar around 1530. The ‘gopuram’ is astonishingly similar to another gateway called ‘Palahai Gopuram.’
The temple also has numerous pillared halls called ‘Mandapams.’ These halls were built by various kings and emperors and they serve as resting places for pilgrims and devotees. Some of the most important ‘mandapams’ are given below:
- Ayirakkal Mandapam – It literally translates to ‘hall with thousand pillars.’ The hall, which was built by Ariyanatha Mudaliar, is a true spectacle as it is supported by 985 pillars. Each and every pillar is sculpted magnificently and has images of Yali, a mythological creature.
- Kilikoondu Mandapam – This ‘mandapam’ was originally built to house hundreds of parrots. The parrots that were kept there in cages were trained to say ‘Meenakshi’. The hall, which is next to the Meenakshi shrine, has sculptures of characters from Mahabharata.
- Ashta Shakthi Mandapam – This hall houses the sculptures of eight goddesses. Built by two queens, the hall is placed in between the main ‘gopuram’ and the gateway that leads to the Meenakshi shrine.
- Nayaka Mandapam – ‘Nayaka Mandapam’ was built by Chinnappa Nayakkar. The hall is supported by 100 pillars and houses a Nataraja statue.
Significance & Worship
Since Meenakshi is the main deity of the temple, the temple signifies the importance of woman in a Tamil Hindu family. The temple also portrays the cordial relationship between Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. The Sundareswarar shrine is known as one fifth of ‘Pancha Sabhai’ (five courts) where Lord Shiva is believed to have performed the cosmic dance. Worship mainly involves rituals and processions. One of the rituals involves placing an image of Sundareswarar inside a palanquin which is then moved to the shrine of Meenakshi. The palanquin is taken into the shrine every night and is brought back to the shrine of Sundareswarar every morning. The devotees usually worship Meenakshi before offering their prayers to Sundareswarar.
Apart from the main festival, which is basically the wedding ceremony of the deities, a number of other festivals are celebrated in the temple. Some of these include ‘Vasantham festival,’ ‘Unjal festival,’ ‘Mulai-Kottu festival,’ ‘Arudhra Dharsan festival,’ ‘Thai utsavam,’ ‘Kolattam festival,’ etc. Each of these festivals has its own significance and is celebrated during various months throughout the year. The temple also celebrates ‘Navarathri festival.’ During ‘Navarathri’ the temple displays colorful dolls which are collectively called ‘gollu.’ ‘Gollu’ often convey stories from mythological scenes.
In the Middle Ages, the authority of the City of London Corporation reached beyond the City's ancient defensive walls in several places, known as the Liberties of London. To regulate trade into the City, barriers were erected on the major entrance routes wherever the true boundary was a substantial distance from the nearest ancient gatehouse in the walls. Temple Bar was the most used of these, since traffic between the City of London (England's prime commercial centre) and the Palace of Westminster (the political centre) passed through it. It was located where Fleet Street now meets The Strand, which is outside London's old boundary wall. 
Its name derives from the Temple Church, adjoining to the south, which has given its name to a wider area south of Fleet Street, the Temple, once belonging to the Knights Templar but now home to two of the legal profession's Inns of Court.
The historic ceremony of the monarch halting at Temple Bar and being met by the Lord Mayor has often featured in art and literature. It is commented on in televised coverage of modern-day royal ceremonial processions. The City of London's own website describes the ceremony as:
The Temple Bar ceremony, which is still occasionally re-enacted at a monument to the Bar, involves the monarch stopping to request permission to enter the City and the Lord Mayor presenting the Sword of State as a sign of loyalty. 
A bar is first mentioned in 1293 and was probably only a chain or bar between a row of posts.  More substantial structures with arches followed. After the Battle of Evesham of 1265, Prince Edward punished the rebellious Londoners, who had befriended Simon de Montfort, by taking away all their street chains and bars, and storing them in the Tower of London.  By 1351, a wooden archway had been built housing a small prison above it. The earliest known documentary and historical notice of Temple Bar is in 1327, concerning a hearing before the mayor regarding a right of way in the area. In 1384, Richard II granted a licence for paving the Strand Street from Temple Bar to the Savoy, and collecting tolls to cover the expense.
On 5 November 1422, the corpse of Henry V was borne to Westminster Abbey by the chief citizens and nobles, and every doorway from Southwark to Temple Bar had a torch-bearer. In 1503 the hearse of Elizabeth of York, queen of Henry VII, halted at Temple Bar, on its way from the Tower to Westminster, and at the Bar the Abbots of Westminster and Bermondsey blessed the corpse, and the Earl of Derby and a large company of nobles joined the funeral procession. Anne Boleyn passed through the Bar on May 31, 1534, the day before her coronation, on her way to the Tower. On that occasion Temple Bar was new painted and repaired, and near it stood singing men and children—the Fleet Street conduit all the time running claret. 
In 1554, Thomas Wyatt led an uprising in opposition to Queen Mary I's proposed marriage to Philip II of Spain. When he had fought his way down Piccadilly to The Strand, Temple Bar was thrown open to him, or forced open by him but when he had been repulsed at Ludgate he was hemmed in by cavalry at Temple Bar, where he surrendered. This revolt persuaded the government to go through with the verdict against Lady Jane Grey. 
The notable Scottish bookseller Andrew Millar owned his first London shop at Temple Bar, taken over from the ownership of James McEuen in 1728, whom Millar had apprenticed to. 
Wren's Temple Bar Gate Edit
Although the Bar Gate escaped damage by the Great Fire of London of 1666, it was rebuilt as part of the general improvement works made throughout the City after that devastating event. Commissioned by King Charles II, and attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, the fine arch of Portland stone was constructed between 1669 and 1672, by Thomas Knight, the City Mason, and Joshua Marshall, Master of the Mason's Company. The statues of Anne of Denmark, James l, Charles I, and Charles II, in niches in the upper floor were carved by John Bushnell. 
Rusticated, it is a two-story structure consisting of one wide central arch for the road traffic, flanked on both sides by narrower arches for pedestrians. On the upper part, four statues celebrate the 1660 Restoration of the Stuart monarchy: on the west side King Charles II is shown with his father King Charles I whose parents King James I and Anne of Denmark are depicted on the east side.  During the 18th century the heads of convicted traitors were frequently mounted on pikes and exhibited on the roof, as was the case on London Bridge. The other seven principal gateways to London, (Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate) were all demolished in the 1760s, but Temple Bar remained despite its impediment to the ever-growing traffic. The upper-storey room was leased to the neighbouring banking house of Child & Co for storage of records. 
In the 1853 Bleak House, Charles Dickens described it as "that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation". It was also the subject of jokes, "Why is Temple Bar like a lady's veil? Both must be raised (razed) for "busses" ('buses). It was noted in jest "as a weak spot in our defenses", since one could walk through the adjoining barbershop where one door opened on to the City and the other in the area of Westminster.
In 1874 it was discovered that the keystones had dropped and the arches were propped up with timbers. The steady increase in horse and cart traffic led to complaints that Temple Bar was becoming a bottleneck, holding back the City trade. In 1878 the City of London Corporation, eager to widen the road but unwilling to destroy so historic a monument, dismantled it piece-by-piece over an 11-day period and stored its 2,700 stones carefully. In 1880 the brewer Henry Meux, at the instigation of his wife Valerie Susan Meux, bought the stones and re-erected the arch as the facade of a new gatehouse in the park of his mansion house Theobalds Park in Hertfordshire, the site of a former substantial prodigy house of James VI and I.  There it remained, positioned in a woodland clearing, until 2003. A plaque marks the site where Temple Bar once stood.
NICANOR'S GATE, one of the gates leading to the Temple courtyard during the period of the Second Temple. According to the Mishnah, "There were seven gates in the Temple courtyard.… In the east there was the gate of Nicanor, which had two rooms attached, one on its right and one on its left, one the room of Phinehas the dresser and one the room of the griddle cake makers" (Mid. 1:4). This gate was one of the best known of the gifts made to the Temple and "miracles were performed in connection with the gate of Nicanor and his memory was praised" (Yoma 3:10). Of these miracles the Talmud states: "What miracles were performed by his doors? When Nicanor went to Alexandria in Egypt to bring them, on his return a huge wave threatened to engulf him. Thereupon they took one of the doors and cast it into the sea but still the sea continued to rage. When they prepared to cast the other one into the sea, Nicanor rose and clung to it, saying ⟊st me in with it.'" The sea immediately became calm. He was, however, deeply grieved about the other door. As they reached the harbor of Acre it broke the surface and appeared from under the sides of the boat. Others say a sea monster swallowed it and ejected it out onto dry land. Subsequently all the gates of the Sanctuary were changed for golden ones, but the Nicanor gates, which were said to be of bronze, were left because of the miracles wrought with them. But some say that they were retained because the bronze of which they were made had a special golden hue. R. Eliezer b. Jacob said, "It was Corinthian copper which shone like gold" (Yoma 38a). Corinthian gold was the name given to a family of copper alloys with gold and silver which were depletion-gilded to give them a golden or silver luster (see Jacobson ). An important production center for Corinthian gold was in Egypt, where, according to tradition, alchemy had its origins.
Scholars disagree over where the gates stood. Some claim that they were on the western side of the Court of Women which was to the east of the Court of Israelites others maintain that they were on the eastern side of the Court of Women. The basis of this conflict is in the interpretation of a passage in Josephus (Wars, 5:204). Schalit's discussion of the problem concludes that the words of Josephus are to be explained as meaning that the gates of Nicanor were "beyond" the entrance to the Sanctuary and facing "the gate that was larger," i.e., that it was on the eastern side of the Court of Women. The gates were undoubtedly made after the time of Herod (the most reasonable date being about the middle of the first century, a generation before the destruction) and were the work of an Alexandrian craftsman. Nicanor is also recorded in a first century C.E. inscription on an ossuary found in October 1902 in a cave on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem ("the Cave of Nicanor"). The Greek inscription reads: "the remains of the children of Nicanor of Alexandria who made the doors." Nicanor's name also appears in a Hebrew inscription as well. Nicanor's gift was so well known that no additional explanation was necessary. Nicanor was an Alexandrian, though he may have gone to live in Jerusalem. It seems more likely, however, that his remains were brought from Alexandria to Jerusalem, where he had a family tomb. The ossuary mentioning Nicanor is now in the collections of the British Museum. Klein (1920 see also Tal 2002) expressed certainty that the Nicanor of the ossuary was the same as the Nicanor who made the set of gates of the Temple according to rabbinic sources Schwartz (1991), however, has expressed some doubts about this.
H. Graetz, in: MGWJ, 25 (1876), 434f. A. Buechler, in: JQR, 11 (1898/99), 46-63 W. Dittenberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae, 2 (1905), 295f., no. 519 E. Schuerer, in: ZNW, 7 (1906), 54ff. O. Holtzmann, ibid., 9 (1908), 71-74 idem (ed.), Die Mischna Middot (1913) H. Vincent and F.M. Abel, Jérusalem, 2 (1914), 45ff. S. Klein, Juedisch-palaestinisches Corpus Inscriptionum (1920), 17f., no. 9 Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, 8 (1937), 30, no. 200 Frey, Corpus, 2 (1952), 261f., no. 1256 M. Avi-Yonah, Sefer Yerushalayim, 1 (1956), 412 E. Wiesenberg, in: JJS, 3 (1952), 14-29 E. Bammel, ibid., 7 (1956), 77-78 A. Schalit, Koenig Herodes, 1 (1969), 389ff. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Dickson, "The Tomb of Nicanor of Alexandria," in: PEFQSt (1903), 326-31 C. Clermont-Ganneau, "The 'Gate of Nicanor' in the Temple of Jerusalem," in: PEFQSt (1903), 125-31 R.A.S. Macalister, "Further Observations on the Ossuary of Nicanor of Alexandria, in: PEFQSt (1905), 253 R.D. Barnett, Illustrations of Old Testament History (1977), 93 J. Schwartz, "Once More on the Nicanor Gate," in: HUCA, 62 (1991), 245 T. Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish names in Late Antiquity. Part I: Palestine 330 B.C.E.–200 C.E. (2002), 297 D.M. Jacobson, "Corinthian Bronze and the Gold of the Alchemists," in: Gold Bulletin, 33 (2) (2000), 60.
[Uriel Rappaport / Shimon Gibson (2 nd ed.)]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
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Life Among the Ruins
NEXT month, the Temple of Baal will come to Times Square. Reproductions of the 50-foot arch that formed the temple’s entrance are to be installed in New York and in London, a tribute to the 2,000-year-old structure that the Islamic State destroyed last year in the Syrian town of Palmyra. The group’s rampage through Palmyra, a city that reached its peak in the second and third century A.D., enraged the world, spurring scholars and conservationists into action. Numerous nongovernmental organizations are now cataloging and mapping damaged cultural heritage sites in the region.
It will be uncanny and thrilling to see this arch from an ancient desert civilization set against the bright lights of New York. Unfortunately, facsimiles can achieve only so much. Denuded of people, stripped of the rich social contexts in which they were once embedded, antiquities appear just as evidence of the grandeur of the past, the accomplishments of another place in another time. But what did these assemblages of stone mean to the modern Iraqis and Syrians who lived with them?
For Salam al-Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist who works at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the loss of the Temple of Baal was deeply personal. “I have a special love for Palmyra because the Temple of Baal is where my mother was born,” she said.
Ms. Kuntar’s grandfather was a policeman in Palmyra when its Roman-era ruins were inhabited. Well into the 20th century, generations of Palmyrenes made their homes in the shade of millenniums-old columns. The locals taught Ms. Kuntar’s grandmother — who was a young bride when she arrived in Palmyra — how to cook and how to bake bread.
Her daughter was among the last generation born inside the ancient city. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, French colonial authorities cleared the area of its inhabitants and dismantled their mud-brick house. That paved the way for the archaeological exploration and preservation of the site, but it also definitively ended ancient Palmyra’s habitation as well as the use of the Temple of Baal, which over the centuries had transformed into a Byzantine church, then a mosque, before eventually becoming part of the village where Ms. Kuntar’s mother was born.
When lamenting the masonry and sculpture destroyed by the Islamic State, we can easily overlook this shifting human story. We too readily consign antiquities to the remote province of the past. But they can remain meaningful in surprising and ordinary ways. “This is the meaning of heritage,” Ms. Kuntar said. “It’s not only architecture or artifacts that represent history, it’s these memories and the ancestral connection to place.”
Bulldozed by the Islamic State in 2015, the 1,500-year-old monastery of St. Elian, near Al Qaryatain, Syria, was a symbol of these connections. It was a modest and unadorned structure that had none of the glamour of the Temple of Baal a 3D reconstruction of the rather plain sarcophagus that held the remains of its eponymous saint won’t be coming to a major Western city any time soon. But its importance lay in its role as a bridge between communities.
Al Qaryatain is a small town in the desert between Palmyra and Damascus. For centuries, Christian and Muslim pilgrims alike came to the monastery to seek the blessings of the saint. Muslims venerated St. Elian as a Sufi sheikh, known to them as Sheikh Ahmed the Priest. His tomb was draped in the green satin common to Sufi holy sites.
Until the turbulence of the civil war, the monastery hosted the festival of Eid Mar Elian every Sept. 9. Five to six thousand devotees — Muslim and Christian — would converge on the monastery, where under a large tent erected in the central cloister they would swap tales about St. Elian/Sheikh Ahmed, share plates of lamb and rice, and dance the dabka.
In attacking the monastery, the Islamic State was not simply leveling a holy place. The militants struck at a site that had knit Muslim and Christian communities together for centuries. Local legend has it that centuries ago, the townspeople decided that no matter whether Islam or Christianity gathered more believers, the group in the majority would always protect the one in the minority. Generations of pilgrims left affectionate graffiti on the sarcophagus of Mar Elian, including a Star of David suggesting that at least one Jew visited the saint.
Another instance of revealing graffiti can be found on an antiquity destroyed last year in northern Iraq. After the Islamic State seized Mosul in 2014, important archaeological sites fell into the group’s hands. These included the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, which the Islamic State pillaged in 2015.
One of the antiquities demolished at Nineveh was an enormous figure of a “lamassu,” a winged bull with the torso of a man and the beard of a king. It was a protective deity that watched over the Nergal Gate, a major entrance into the city. The lamassu was probably installed during the reign of King Sennacherib, who ruled from 705 to 681 B.C. He was an expansionist leader under whom Nineveh became the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The muscular iconography of the lamassu matched Sennacherib’s imperial ambition. Before smashing the sculpture, Islamic State fighters chiseled off its face with a pneumatic drill.
The winged bull carried the history not only of kings, but also of ordinary people. Archaeologists had noticed webs of lines scratched into the plinth of the lamassu. These markings, they determined, were the traces of a board game, possibly a version of the ancient Mesopotamian pastime known as the Twenty Squares, a descendant of which is still played in Iraq today. Bored Assyrian guards probably played as they whiled away their shifts. On the surface of a grand political statement, they left the irrepressible evidence of humbler life.
We should not think of the destroyed or at-risk heritage sites in the Middle East as history frozen in stone. It is, of course, worthwhile to study their structures, to resurrect them digitally and even raise them in the metropolitan plazas of the West. But those efforts will be hollow if we forget how antiquities have remained present in the lives of Iraqis and Syrians right up to this grim modern era of destruction.