The Arch of Titus remains standing in Rome today. Built in 81 CE, it depicts the triumphal procession of enslaved Jews and Temple spoils, including the Menorah, whose ultimate fate is unknown. (photo by Basya Laye)
Sixty-thousand heavily armed, well-trained and experienced soldiers of the most militarily mighty imperial power in the world are marching on Israel. The soldiers are being led by the Roman general Vespasian and his son Titus. The first Jewish revolt against Rome, that began in 66 CE, is doomed. One of the high priests of the Holy Temple, Josephus, has been assigned as general, tasked with defending the Galilee. But after the city of Jotapata is besieged, Josephus defects to the Roman camp. He prophesizes that Vespasian will one day become emperor and, for that, his life is spared.
While the Jewish-Roman war rages on for several years, the Roman emperor Nero dies, causing a struggle for succession. As Vespasian departs for Rome to become emperor and quell the political instability of the empire, he leaves his son Titus in charge of the war with the Jews. Though vilified as a coward and a traitor to his people, Josephus chronicles the war and the history of these Jews, preserving the tragic story of the fall of Jerusalem in the only reliable contemporary historical account. This is the story of the Temple Menorah; it is the story of symbols and tragedy. This is the story of the Jews.
In the year 70 CE, general Titus succeeded in sacking the city of Jerusalem, and looted the sacred treasures of the Holy Temple, burning it to the ground. The looted treasures were sent to Rome, paraded through the streets during the triumphal victory parade of Titus. Among those treasures was the giant solid gold Menorah. The triumphal procession was described in the writings of Josephus, and immortalized in bas relief on the inner walls of the enormous triumphal Arch of Titus, which still stands today in Rome.
The fall of Jerusalem was a devastating blow to the Jewish people, and was one of the most monumental and defining moments in Jewish history. It is perhaps somewhat fitting that this event is commemorated in such a monumental form. The menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus is one of the first such artistic depictions of the Menorah, and certainly the most famous. It would have had a great influence on later depictions of menorot, and was the inspiration for the menorah now on the coat of arms of the modern state of Israel.
The Jewish-Roman war of the first century, and the Bar Kokhva revolt of the second century, resulted in large populations of Jewish refugees that were forced to flee their homeland. Many Jews settled in Diaspora communities throughout the Roman Empire. Though they were unable to return to their homeland and rebuild their Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews vehemently clung to their cultural identity with a stubbornness that can only be described as chutzpah. They continued to practise their faith personally, and constructed smaller community temples, synagogues. Throughout the Roman Empire, archeologists have found depictions of menorot, often engraved on stone plaques in early synagogues, or at Jewish burial sites. There are even Jewish catacombs in Rome, where Roman-style sarcophagi bear an image of a menorah where one would expect to find the image of a Roman deity. Between the second and seventh centuries, synagogues have been uncovered at many places such as Stobi in Macedonia and Sardis in Turkey, and catacombs in such places as Aphrodisias and Tripoli in Turkey, in Sicily, and even at Melite, a now ruined Roman city on the island of Malta, all with depictions of menorot. The menorah had originally been a holy object and religious symbol, but it underwent a metamorphosis, and became something more. The Temple Menorah was stolen and, in a way, it, too, was forced into Diaspora. It thus became a symbol of the tragedy that befell the Jewish people, and the dream of a free and independent Jewish state.
Four years after the conquest of Jerusalem, construction in Rome of Vespasian’s Temple of Peace was completed. This “temple” displayed all the treasures and holy relics of the various peoples and nations conquered by Rome, and might more aptly be named a museum of appropriation.
Four years after the conquest of Jerusalem, construction in Rome of Vespasian’s Temple of Peace was completed. This “temple” displayed all the treasures and holy relics of the various peoples and nations conquered by Rome, and might more aptly be named a museum of appropriation. The Menorah and other Jerusalem Temple treasures were housed in the Temple of Peace. In fact, there was also a second Jewish temple in the Egyptian city of Leontopolis, with its own distinct menorah, which Josephus describes as having been hung on golden chains. The temple in Leontopolis was shut down by Vespasian, and its relics were also displayed at the Temple of Peace. Written records indicate that when the Vandals sacked Rome in 455 CE, King Geiseric shipped the treasures of the Temple of Peace to Carthage. The Vandals were later defeated by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in early sixth century CE. The historian Prokopios of Caesarea records that the Temple treasures were then moved to the Hippodrome in Constantinople for the triumphal celebration, before being sent to churches in Jerusalem. Though there are no written records of the location of the Menorah after this time, the region enjoyed relative stability until the seventh century, and it is safe to assume nothing happened to the Menorah until then.
Though the Jewish population of Israel had been significantly reduced after the Bar Kokhva revolt, it was not completely eliminated. Many Jews still resided in the Galilee and Jerusalem, during which time the Talmud and Mishnah were written. But it was life under Roman/Byzantine hegemony, and Jews longed to regain their independence and rebuild the Holy Temple. Around this time, the Byzantine and Persian empires were more or less continuously at war, a century-spanning rivalry that ultimately led to their bankruptcy and mutual destruction during the Muslim conquests.
The Menorah may have been melted down for its gold, or secreted away to some safe cavern, or taken off as loot, but nobody really knows what happened to it.
During the seventh century, the Persian emperor Khosrau II began a successful campaign against the Byzantines, conquering much of their territory in the Middle East. The Jews allied themselves with Khosrau II and, together, they won back the land of Israel from the Romans and established an autonomous Jewish province in the Persian Empire. However, this new Zion was short-lived. In that same century, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius re-conquered the region and, because of what was considered the Jewish betrayal, began to ethnically cleanse the area of Jews. During this tumultuous period in history, Jerusalem was besieged several times, churches and temples were burnt to the ground, Jews massacred Christians, Christians massacred Jews; the Temple Mount was a pile of rubble, stained with the blood of tens of thousands. It is during this period that the Menorah likely vanished completely from history. The Menorah may have been melted down for its gold, or secreted away to some safe cavern, or taken off as loot, but nobody really knows what happened to it.
Pope Felix IV converted the former Temple of Peace in Rome into a Catholic basilica in the sixth century CE, about 70 years after the sacking by the Vandals. Felix IV may have been motivated by the sacred association it may have held for having housed the Temple treasures, and which had been visited by Jewish pilgrims for this very reason. Some believe that the Catholic Church inherited the treasures of Rome, and that the Menorah is currently housed in storerooms of the Vatican. In the late 11th century CE, the clergy of San Giovanni Laterano (in Rome) claimed possession of the Temple treasures, though that claim is unsubstantiated. Allegedly, Shimon Shetreet, Israel’s minister of religious affairs in the mid-1990s, asked Pope John Paul II for assistance in researching the location of the Menorah, a question that was followed by “a tense silence that hovered over the room.” There are many other rumors related to the possible possession of the Menorah by the Vatican, however such musings are pure speculation, and it’s most likely that it was destroyed during the seventh century. In short, its ultimate fate remains a mystery.
Ben Leyland is an Israeli-Canadian writer and resident of Vancouver. This article is the third of a short series examining the menorah.