Solomon’s Temple Treasure Returned to Israel
JERUSALEM (AP) _ An ivory pomegranate, believed to be the only existing relic of Solomon’s Temple, went on display Monday at the Israel Museum after officials paid $550,000 into a secret Swiss bank account.
The thumb-sized object, which measures 1.68 inches by .83 inches, has a hole in the bottom and may have been used as the top of a scepter carried by a temple priest.
″We have never had anything that was in Solomon’s Temple. Minuscule as it is, this is an exquisite treasure,″ said Meir Meyer, vice chairman of the museum.
A museum official who demanded anonymity said the money was paid to the secret account of an anonymous owner in Zurich, Switzerland, after the museum raised the money from an anonymous donor in Basel.
The cream-colored relic, which dates to the 8th century B.C. and is badly chipped on one side, was returned to Israel last week after it was apparently smuggled out of the country after 1979.
It is the only exhibit in a long narrow room, displayed in a case with a dim light to prevent damage to the ivory. An armed guard stood nearby as workers rushed to complete the display Monday.
Officials said they were reluctant to spend so much money to return the pomegranate but agreed to do so after two months of negotiations because it was a national treasure.
″The question is whether to bring it back or leave it. Of course, any object that has such high historical and cultural value should be brought back,″ said Nahman Avigad, a Hebrew University archaeologist who authenticated the pomegranate.
Avigad said ″in all probability″ it was used in the ancient temple, which was looted and destroyed by the Bablylonians in 589 B.C.
Thus the pomegranate is likely part of the great treasure of gold, ivory and precious objects that King Solomon invested in the temple, which was built about 960 B.C. and housed the Ark of the Covenant, two stone tablets containing the law of Moses.
The temple was rebuilt in the 6th century B.C. and expanded by Herod before being destroyed in A.D. 70. Today, the Dome of the Rock - a Moslem shrine that is part of the Al Aqsa complex - is located near the site of ancient temple, according to Israeli scholars.
Written on the pomegranate in ancient Hebrew is an inscription that says ″Belonging to the Temple of the Lord (Yahweh), holy to the priests.″
Meyer said it was the oldest Hebrew inscription using the name of God, predating by at least 100 years two silver scrolls with biblical inscriptions found in Jerusalem a decade ago.
Meyer said he had been tracking the pomegranate since hearing about it in 1985. He said a tour guide walked into his office in 1987 and put him in touch with a lawyer for the anonymous owner.
The pomegranate first came to light in 1979 when Andre Lemaire, a French expert on ancient inscriptions, stumbled on the relic in the shop of a Jerusalem antiquities dealer.
Lemaire of Paris wrote in a 1984 article for the Biblical Archaeology Review that the dealer only showed him the pomegranate so he could photograph it.
Lemaire said the dealer did not know where the pomegranate was found. But Lemaire speculated it may have been unearthed in the limestone caves surrounding Jerusalem, which were often used for tombs.
The pomegranate next turned up in an exhibition in Paris in 1985 and then disappeared again.
Israeli laws ban excavation or the export of antiquities without a permit from the education ministry’s Department of Antiquities. Officials are currently drafting proposed legislation to tighten controls and virtually outlaw antiquities trading.