Ancient Golden Treasure Trove Found at Foot of Jerusalem's Temple Mount

Dubbed 'the Ophel Treasure,' 1,400-year-old cache sheds light on little-known era of Jewish settlement in city during the short period of Persian rule.

The recent discovery of a 1,400-year-old golden treasure trove, which sheds new light on a relatively unknown period in the history of Jewish Jerusalem, was announced Monday morning at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The finding was made during an archeological excavation near the foot of Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, and is linked to the Jewish settlement in the city during a short period of Persian rule in the early seventh century CE.

Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar disclosed the contents of the discovery Monday morning: Two bundles containing thirty-six gold coins, gold and silver jewelry, and a gold medallion, ten centimeter in diameter, adorned with images of a menorah, (Temple candelabrum) a shofar, (ram’s horn) and a Torah scroll.

Mazar, a third-generation archaeologist, directs excavations at the City of David’s summit and at the Temple Mount’s southern wall. She called the find "a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime discovery".

Mazar has been participating in excavations in the area known as the Ophel - a stretch of land between the Temple Mount and the City of David - for some 30 years. While the majority of her work pertains to the Biblical period, this summer's excavation was dated to the late Byzantine period, which stretches between the fourth and seventh centuries.

"We have been making significant finds dating to the First Temple Period in this area, a much earlier time in Jerusalem's history, so discovering a golden seven-branched Menorah from the seventh century CE at the foot of the Temple Mount was a complete surprise," she said.

The finding, unearthed just five days into Mazar’s latest phase of the Ophel excavations, was discovered in a ruined Byzantine public structure a mere 50 meters from the Temple Mount’s southern wall. The gold coins and two large earrings were discovered under a limestone floor, and the medallion was later found in a hole between the floor and a wall.

The menorah - a seven-branched candelabrum that was used in the Temple - is the national symbol of the state of Israel, and reflects the historical presence of Jews in the area.

The way the items were found suggests one bundle was carefully hidden underground, whereas the second was apparently abandoned in haste and scattered across the floor.

Given the items' dating, Mazar believes they were abandoned in the context of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE. Since there was only a small Jewish presence in Jerusalem during the Byzantine period, Mazar thinks the treasure was brought to the city by Jewish emissaries after the Persian conquest, when the city once again welcomed Jews.

The period of Persian rule lasted only 15 years, during which Jews cooperated with the Persian rulers and held hopes of rebuilding the Temple and Jerusalem as the center of Jewish life. While Jews eventually formed the majority of the city's population, their hopes were dashed when the Persians, with their power waning, sought the support of the Christian establishment - an alliance which ultimately brought to their expulsion upon the Byzantine reconquest of the city in 629.

The menorah medallion, which hangs from a gold chain, likely adorned a Torah scroll - In which case, it is the earliest Torah scroll ornament found in archaeological excavations to date. It was discovered buried in a small depression in the floor, along with a smaller gold medallion, two pendants, a gold coil and a silver clasp, all of which are also believed to have been used as Torah scroll ornaments.

“It would appear the most likely explanation is that the Ophel cache was earmarked as a contribution toward the building of a new synagogue, at a location near the Temple Mount," said Mazar. "What is certain is that the mission, whatever it was, was unsuccessful. The treasure was abandoned, and its owners could never return to collect it."

The Ophel cache is only the third collection of gold coins to be found in archaeological excavations in Jerusalem, said Lior Sandberg, a numismatics specialist at the Institute of Archaeology. “The 36 gold coins can be dated to the reigns of different Byzantine emperors, ranging from the middle of the fourth century CE to the early seventh century CE,” he stated. The oldest coin dates from the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine II, who ruled from 337 to 361, and the latest was minted during the period of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice, who ruled from 582 until 602.

Found with the coins were a pair of large gold earrings, a gold-plated silver hexagonal prism and a silver ingot. Remnants of fabric indicated that these items were once packaged in a cloth purse similar to the bundle that contained the menorah medallion.

Mazar’s Ophel excavation made headlines earlier this year when she announced the 2012 discovery of an ancient Canaanite inscription - recently identified as Hebrew - the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in Jerusalem.

Emil Salman