Thursday, October 2, 2008

Solomon’s Temple

No archeological remnant of Solomon’s Temple survives. The Bible provides descriptions, and since it is generally believed that the architectural style was constrained by regional influences, the biblical account is augmented by knowledge of contemporary buildings in the region. It is very possible that it was the most expensive structure ever built, because the gold alone, valued at 2001 prices, was worth something in the order of U.S.$62 billion. Cost aside, the temple is an architectural achievement because during the seven-year course of its construction no “sound of hammer, axe, or any other tool [was heard] at the building site.” The level of organization required to prefabricate every component of such a large and complicated stone building was a remarkable achievement.

King David united the Israelite tribes and extended the national boundaries. He ruled for seven years from Hebron, then moved the seat of government to Jerusalem—he had captured the former Jebusite town around 1000 b.c.—and reigned for another thirty-two years. The Ark of the Covenant, the nation’s most sacred object, was moved there around 955. Jerusalem stood on the south side of Mount Moriah, where Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, and the mountain’s summit was the site David chose for a future temple to replace the portable Mishkan. Because David was a warlike man, the God of Israel forbade him to build the temple; the task was reserved for his son Solomon. Nevertheless, David made the plans, provided many of the resources, and enlisted foreign stonecutters, masons, carpenters, and all kinds of metalsmiths for the work.

After his father’s death, Solomon contracted with Hiram, king of Tyre, to provide cedar and cypress timber in return for grain and oil. He also raised a labor force of 30,000 Israelites and rostered them to go to Lebanon to fell trees, directed by the Sidonians. Rafts of the timber were floated down the coast, and the logs were dressed into boards and delivered to the temple site. Four years later the building work began. Solomon also employed 80,000 men to shape huge blocks of stone in the mountain quarries and another 70,000 to haul materials to the site and perform the general laboring work. There were 3,300 foremen. None of this takes account of the number of people needed to feed such a workforce, nor the resources to produce the food, estimated by some sources to be 4,950 tons (4,500 tonnes) every month.

Solomon extended Jerusalem northward of the original city to include the summit of Mount Moriah, where he built his palace complex. The temple was probably part of that precinct. It stood in its own courtyards, to which the public was admitted only according to status, immediately north of the palace. Although the designers would have avoided the religious icons of their pagan neighbors, architecturally the building was probably a typical Phoenician temple, even in aspects of its decoration. Its furnishings were similar to those in the Mishkan, although more sumptuous, and in principle it had the same spatial organization. It stood on a raised platform, and its porch was approached by a flight of ten steps.

The temple itself was 90 feet long, 33 feet wide, and 45 feet high (about 27 by 9 by 13.5 meters); as one commentator remarks, in size more like a church than a cathedral. A 15-foot-deep (4.5-meter) porch (ulam) stretched across the eastern end. On either side of the only entrance stood two freestanding hollow cast bronze pillars. Each was 27 feet high and about 6 feet in diameter (8.25 by 1.8 meters), with walls 3 inches (7.5 centimeters) thick. Their capitals, in the shape of lilies, were decorated with chains of pomegranates. Solomon named the south pillar Jachin (“Yahweh will establish your throne forever”) and the north Boaz (“In Yahweh is strength”).

The body of the temple was enveloped on three sides with a three-story annex, which had a separate entrance and contained storerooms and others for the use of the many priests and attendants who served on a rostered basis. The side rooms were connected to the walls of the temple by beams resting on corbeled blocks, and the levels, each 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) high, were connected by spiral stairways. The two major rooms of the temple were paneled from floor to ceiling with carved cedar boards; the floors were boarded with cypress. Every interior surface—walls, ceilings, floors, and roofs—was sheathed in gold, embellished with figures of angels, palm trees, and open flowers. The 60-foot-long (18-meter) outer room, known as the Holy Place (hekhal), was entered directly from the porch; it was accessible only to the priests. The inner room was a 30-foot (9-meter) cube at the west end of the temple,
separated from the Holy Place by an embroidered curtain and carved doors of olive wood, overlaid with gold. This Most Holy Place (debir) could be entered only by the high priest once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yora Kippur). Within, the Ark of the Covenant was placed and overshadowed by two 15-foot-high (4.5-meter) olive-wood statues of guardian angels, also covered with gold, with outspread wings meeting above the ark.

The Temple of Solomon was dedicated in 953 b.c., accompanied by the offering of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep; needless to say, a great public feast followed. Between 604 and 597 b.c. the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar II took the Jews into exile and stripped the great building of its fabled treasures. He had it destroyed in 586 b.c. About fifty years later Cyrus of Persia, who had conquered Babylon, allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, and the Second Temple was completed by 515 b.c. For five centuries, although enjoying occasional and short-lived freedom, Jerusalem was successively occupied by the Macedonians, Egyptians, and Seleucids. Roman rule began in 64 b.c., and early in that period the Jewish puppet king Herod the Great (reigned 37–34 b.c.) rebuilt and enlarged the Second Temple. It was totally destroyed by the armies of Titus in a.d. 70, never to rise again. Today its great rectangular platform is occupied by the Islamic Dome of the Rock.

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