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Sunday, 15 October 2006

Author traces journey of `God's gold'

Says Temple icons hidden in W. Bank

BOSTON GLOBE | October 15, 2006
By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

MAR THEODOSIUS, West Bank -- Until today, the main claim to fame of this sleepy monastery, home to 10 nuns on the edge of the Judean wilderness in the West Bank, was the tradition that said the Three Wise Men slept in the caves here after visiting the infant Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.

Now, a new book contends that Mar Theodosius is the last hiding place of one of the greatest treasures of antiquity: the gold and silver vessels of the Temple in Jerusalem.

British archeologist Sean Kingsley said he followed the journey of the legendary vessels for the first time since they disappeared from public view more than 1,500 years ago and traced them to their current location in this walled monastery east of Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank.

Kingsley's critics say there is no evidence to support his thesis, and plenty of evidence that it's ludicrous.

The vessels in question include some of the icons of biblical Judaism -- the seven-branched gold candelabrum, bejewel ed Table of the Divine Presence, and a pair of silver trumpets.

Many people, including Israeli government officials, believe the Temple vessels are hidden somewhere in the Vatican vaults. In 1996, Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet asked officially for the pope to return them. The Vatican denied the vessels were there.

Kingsley argues that the vessels were taken from Rome when it was sacked by the Vandals in AD 455.

In his new book, ``God's Gold: The Quest for the Lost Temple Treasure of Jerusalem," published in Britain by John Murray and in the United States by Harper Collins next spring, Kingsley describes what he says was the odyssey of the priceless haul: from Jerusalem to Rome and back again via Carthage and Constantinople, to what he says is its final resting place at the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Theodosius on the edge of the Judean desert, in the village of Ubadiyah, about 6 miles east of Bethlehem.

Kingsley holds a doctorate in the arch eology of the Holy Land from Oxford University and is a visiting fellow at the Research Centre for Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at the University of Reading. He is managing editor of Minerva, the International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology, and was one of the archeologists who discovered the largest trove of sunken treasure ever recovered off the coast of Israel.

Kingsley says his research suggests that the precious vessels were hidden in the caves under Mar Theodosius to escape the sacking of Jerusalem by Muslim invaders in AD 614.

Nuns at the monastery said there was no treasure buried at Mar Theodosius, which was itself destroyed during the same Muslim invasion and left abandoned until the late 19th century. During a visit to the caves beneath the monastery, a reporter was told that no precious artifacts had ever been recovered from the site, probably because it was left in ruins for nearly 1,300 years and any valuables there were looted by hermits and grave robbers.

Israeli specialists scoffed at Kingsley's theories.

``I've been there several times studying the skeletons of monks who were massacred by the Persians in the seventh century," said Joe Zias, an Israeli anthropologist and archeologist. ``It doesn't have any such treasure, and if it did it was plundered by the Arabs or Persians centuries ago."

The story of the vessels has long fascinated historians. According to Josephus, a first-century Roman-Jewish historian, 50 tons of gold and silver vessels were plundered from the Temple by the Roman Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus during the conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70.

``Contemporary sources show that it survived on public display in the Temple of Peace in the Roman Forum from AD 75 into the early fifth century. Then it suddenly disappeared. Who stole God's gold?" Kingsley said in an interview.

According to his research, it was Gaiseric, king of the Vandals.

``In AD 455, Gaiseric looted and burnt Rome in 14 days and threw everything he could, including the Temple treasures, into ships and took them to the Temple of Carthage," he said. ``They would not have liquidated the loot. It gave them power."

``In AD 534, the emperor Justinian brought the Vandal king into Constantinople. The records show that they resurrected the triumphal procession in AD 71. The historian Procopius of Ceasaria clearly describes the treasures of Jerusalem being paraded at the head of this triumph."

But the treasure did not remain in Constantinople for very long.

``The emperor Justinian was a student of classical antiquity, and he was aware that every civilization that controlled the Temple treasure had eventually been consumed by it. Fearful, he sent the treasure back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in around AD 560," said Kingsley.

Procopius reported that a Jewish court adviser warned Justinian about the dangers of keeping the vessels. The emperor ``became afraid and quickly sent everything to the sanctuaries of the Christians in Jerusalem, " Procopius wrote.

During a subsequent Persian invasion, Kingsley argues, a monk called Modestus from the monastery at Mar Theodosius found himself in charge of the priceless vessels and hid them in the isolated desert caves at the monastery.

Kingsley said he peered over the wall of the monastery and saw evidence of archeological looting in the area, but hoped the Temple treasures -- if they are there -- would remain undisturbed.

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