What Happened to Treasures of the Second Temple?

Arch of Titus Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons (Arc_de_Triumph_copy.jpg: user: בית השלום)

The last mention of the Ark of the Covenant in the Bible is when King Josiah of Judah orders it put back into the Holy of Holies within the temple during the 18th year of his reign, or 622 BC. Not long thereafter, in 587 BC, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian conqueror, Nebuchadnezzar II, who looted and burned Solomon’s Temple.

There is nothing in the records of the ancient Babylonians concerning an ark having been either destroyed or carried away as war booty. But concerning evidence in stone regarding war trophies seized in the later destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in August of 70 AD, the Arch of Titus plainly depicts legionaries carting off menorahs and other Jewish plunder—again though, the Ark of the Covenant is conspicuous in its absence.

The spoils taken from Jerusalem by Titus—even lacking an arc—were nonetheless stupendous. The Coliseum in no small part was financed by the plunder and from the sale of Jewish prisoners of war sold into slavery. The historian Josephus describes the triumphal procession of Titus into Rome, parading the treasures and specifically notes the most famous of the articles: the giant, solid gold, seven branched menorah, the golden table of the showbread, etc. These treasures were housed in Rome’s Temple of Peace, where the golden candelabrum was displayed for many centuries.

Finally, in 410 AD, exactly eight centuries after having been sacked by a foreign invader, Rome herself was subjected to three days of pillage and looting by the Visigoths under their king, Alaric. The departure of these Gothic warriors weighted down with valuables departing Rome comes down to us from the historian Procopius who lists among their spoils “the treasures of Solomon’s Temple, a sight most worthy to be seen, articles adorned with emeralds, taken from Jerusalem by the Romans.”

The Visigoths resettled in the south of France in what is today Languedoc, their territory centered upon modern-day Carcassonne. There are few places on Earth more steeped in local legends concerning secreted ancient Jewish treasures than this area and yet it’s plausible indeed that some of the Second Temple’s treasures may, in fact, lie buried here.

Still, there is a second credible locale in which some of the treasure may have found its way, and the site is 4,500 kilometers away from Carcassonne.

A few decades after Alaric sacked Rome, the city was again subjected to an even more thorough sacking, this time by the Vandals in 455 AD. While Alaric had spent only three days looting Rome, the Vandals invested fourteen days taking away everything valuable in plain view and attempting to uncover even the hidden caches, picking the city clean of anything worth hauling away. Again, it is Procopius who describes the Vandals’ proficiency in grand larceny. “It was an exceedingly great amount, among the items taken were the treasures of the Jews, carrying off the temple menorah to their capital city of Carthage.”

When the Eastern Roman Empire at last began reconquering lost provinces in the West, the general Belisarius defeated the Vandals in 534 AD, ransacked Carthage, and sailed back to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople to present the spoils of war to the emperor Justinian. Chief among the captured booty was—once again—a giant, solid gold menorah.

According to Procopius, Justinian became convinced that the temple treasures were cursed, bringing ruin to any city that housed them—Jerusalem, Rome, Carthage—and acceding to Jewish requests that they be returned, sent them away to the Christian churches in Jerusalem.

So it is at least feasibly plausible that some of the treasures of the Second Temple may be hidden away, lost, buried in or around the city from whence they first came. And if that is so, it would be one of the truly sublime justices history should have seen fit to mete out.

 

About the Author
David Nabhan is a science and science fiction writer. He is the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three other books on seismic forecasting.
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