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The Ophel Excavations-Summer 2013

When Matanya Schnieder, 18, signed up to join the archeological excavations at The Ophelin Jerusalem’s Old City, upon recommendation of a friend, he thought it would be a fun and interesting experience and a nice way to make some money over the summer. What he didn’t realize was that he would be a part of archeological history.

“The work was not physically hard, but since it was so hot, we had to work in the early hours of the morning from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m,” claimed Matanya. “They supplied us with shade covering and lots of cold water and there was a nice breeze, so it was comfortable. I personally found a coin. I don’t understand enough about them, so I don’t know from what time period it was. I just gave it to my supervisor who was happy.” Matanya felt it was fun,“but I wouldn’t go into it as a profession.”

Little did Matanya know that not far from where he was working, five days into the dig, two workers uncovered the discovery of a lifetime: 35 gold coins, jewelry and the “jackpot,” a large gold medallion with an inscription of a menorah, shofar and Torah scroll. These items date to 614 C.E., about the time of another Persian conquest of Jerusalem. They were found in a Byzantine structure on the site.

The Ophel digs, located 50 meters outside the walls of the Temple Mount, have been excavated since 1838. Each excavation has uncovered another layer of Jewish history and silent testament of its residents at the time. As the excavations progressed, it became more obvious over time that the area uncovered corresponded to the descriptions in the Bible by King Solomon in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

The current excavation is directedby Dr. Eilat Mazar. Dr. Mazar, from the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University, is the granddaughter of Binyamin Mazar, a famous archeologist, who also excavated areas around the Temple Mount in 1930’s and was considered a pioneer in the field of biblical archeology.

Her staff of 50 workers, ages 17-35, included a group of 20 Christian undergraduates from the Herbert W. Armstrong College in Edmond, Oklahoma, who spent the summer of 2013 digging in The Ophel. Armstrong College students have participated in Dr. Mazar’s excavations since 2006. The students labor on the dig site and help to document and process the finds. Most of the Israeli workers were from the Jerusalem and Modi’in areas.

Since the excavations are right outside the old city, many people walk past daily. Only some passersby showed any interest in what was going on or took pictures, especially the tourists. The local Arabs, for the most part, ignore what is going on, but during the month of Ramadan there were a few instances where rocks were thrown at the excavators, barely missing them. The police and army maintain security during the excavations, as well as when the sites are not being excavated to avoid disruption of the finds.

When Dr. Mazar found herself with the unusual problem of having too much gold on her hands, she turned to Armstrong College to assist her in discreetly preparing to publish her initial research on the items. “Gold attracts attention,” she told her sponsors. Not wanting to risk disrupting the excavation that had only just begun five days before, and desiring to research further into the items, she chose to wait a few months before publicizing the finds.

Armstrong College students and staff of the Philadelphia Trumpet Magazine, helped Dr. Mazar prepare a 17-minute film (recorded in both Hebrew and English) detailing the significance of the Ophel treasure. They also assisted in creating her press release and promotional videos in preparation for the public announcement of the discovery, as well as the English translation of “The Discovery of the Menorah Treasure at the Foot of the Temple Mount.”

“She described the project as one that should shake the world with excitement, but before then, everything would have to be done in secret,” said Armstrong College senior Jessie Hester, who flew to Jerusalem in early June to tape the project. “Then we went to work on it.”

Finally, on September 9, Dr. Mazar called a press conference and announced to the world her amazing findings.

Dr. Mazar and her team believe the menorah medallion, which hangs from a gold chain, and the other jewelry items found with it were probably used to adorn a Torah scroll—a Jewish practice known for millennia. If so, the medallion and accompanying items would be the earliest known Torah scroll ornaments ever discovered. This appears to be corroborated by the appearance of the Torah symbol on the medallion itself. A similar medallion displaying a Torah scroll alongside a menorah can be found on display in the Jewish Museum in London, though its origins are unknown.

The second bundle held 36 gold coins, two gold earrings, a broken gold-plated silver pendant and a pure silver ingot—probably all items that a Jewish resident of the city had intended to use as payment.

Numismatics expert Lior Sandberg, who examined the coins, concludes that the last possible date for their minting is 602 C.E. Therefore, the gold coins and their accompanying items must have been abandoned sometime after this date. Dr. Mazar postulates that the treasure was abandoned around the time of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 C.E.

So why was it left behind?

Historical circumstances give us clues as to why such a treasure would have been left in Jerusalem.After the city fell under Persian control, Jews flocked to Jerusalem, intent on returning and rebuilding their homeland. However, history recounts that as the Persians’ power waned, so did their support for the Jewish population. To appease the rising power of Christendom, the Persians betrayed the Jews and expelled them from Jerusalem.

Sandburg wrote, “The cache was abandoned after  602 C.E., most probably after the Persian conquest of Jerusalem and after the Persians changed their attitude to the Jews and allowed their expulsion from the city. The fact that the gold was not properly hidden nor taken back attests to the tragic circumstances that led to its abandonment.”

What other secrets are hidden in The Ophel? Dr. Mazar, with the patience of an archeologist, will have to wait for the next excavation to find out.

By Judy Yazersky

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