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Storage vessels from the House of Ahiel

The ability to store food is easily taken for granted in a modern context, but could easily spell the difference between life and death in the ancient world. Food storage was crucial to a family's ability to survive the winter each year, as well as its ability to survive crises such as famine or siege. The administrative ability of the Judean state to control and direct food resources was also fundamental to its citizenry's survival in such crises. The collection of vessels shown here comes from a service room in the House of Ahiel (named after the man whose name appears on clay shards also found in the house). Excavators discovered thirty-seven storage jars in the room, most of which had been marked by a rosette-type stamp impression. These stamp impressions were part of the state's administrative system for the distribution or taxation of produce in the last years of the kingdom of Judah, just prior to the destruction of 586 BCE. 

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Tablet mentioning Nabû-šarussu-ūkin (Nebusarsekim), the Chief Eunuch of Nebuchadnezzar II

This clay tablet dates from 595 BCE and describes the presentation of a gift of gold from Nebuchadnezzar II’s chief eunuch, Nabû-šarussu-ūkin, to the temple of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon. Measuring just 5.4 cm by 3.5 cm, the tablet was discovered in Sippar, close to Baghdad, in the 1870s CE, but its full significance for study of the Bible was not realised until 2007. The Neo-Babylonian administrative document, currently located at the British Museum, contains eleven lines of cuneiform text. From the perspective of biblical studies, its most interesting feature is that it may refer to a Babylonian royal official who is also named in Jeremiah 39.* If both texts refer to the same man, the cuneiform text may lend historical credence to other details contained in Jeremiah 39 concerning the siege of Jerusalem, fleshing out the picture of life under Babylonian rule. The full translation of the tablet reads: “(Regarding) 1.5 minas (0.75 kg) of gold, the property of Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, the chief eunuch, which he sent via Arad-Banitu the eunuch to [the temple] Esangila: Arad-Banitu has delivered [it] to Esangila. In the presence of Bel-usat, son of Alpaya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nadin, son of Marduk-zer-ibni. Month XI, day 18, year 10 [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.” *The name should be Hebraized as Nebusarsekim, but some English translations, follow another manuscript traditions which divided up the list of Babylonian officials' names differently, putting the 'Nebu' part of the name with the previous one and resulting in officials called Nergal-sharezer, Samgar-nebo and Sarsechim, instead of Nergal-Sharezer of Samgar and Nebo-Sarsekim.

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The 'Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem'

More scientifically accurate maps of Jerusalem began to be produced from the sixteenth century onward, following on from the developments made by Reuwich and Breydenbach and other pilgrimage maps. As cartographic skills developed, so too did the veracity with which the Holy City could be mapped; in place of artistic panoramas came bird's-eye views of the city. Interestingly, however, there was less appetite to create topographically exact records for Jerusalem than there was for other, religiously less significant cities. It was not until the nineteenth century that the development away from imaginative, biblically-informed maps came to full fruition. The first modern, scientifically accurate map of the holy city, the British Ordnance Survey Map of Jerusalem, was undertaken by Major General Charles Wilson, a member of the British Royal Engineers, between 1864-1865. He was commissioned by George Grove—one of the founders of the Palestine Exploration Fund, the moving force behind Crystal Palace, a biblical Scholar and famous musicologist—with backing from Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts (of Coutts Bank fame) and approval from the British War Office, on the grounds that the map would allow for the improvement of Jerusalem’s polluted water supply. The aim of improving the water supply by mapping the city was, of course, not disinterested: greater intelligence of the area and the improvement of its infrastructure meant an increased chance of incorporating the Holy Land into the British Empire. In addition to two scaled maps of Jerusalem, Wilson published an accompanying report that included a significant review of the water cisterns below Temple Mount. This was an early foray into the archaeology of the holy city which, although conducted on the basis of civic development, ultimately functioned as a catalyst for further British exploration of Jerusalem’s architectural remains, particularly the destroyed Jerusalem Temple, presumed to be hidden below the Dome of the Rock. The production of modern scientific maps thus remained underpinned by military and religious interests, much in keeping with earlier endeavours to map Jerusalem.

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The Book of Hours, Use of Sarum ('The Neville of Hornby Hours')

This fourteenth century CE Book of Hours—a type of medieval devotional volume with texts, prayers and psalms, and usually beautifully illuminated—is a carefully constructed piece of devotional narrative offers a guide to Christian history. It begins with the creation of the universe and concludes with a decisive moment in Christian history, the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. On this leaf of the manuscript, the Roman army appears below the battlements of Jerusalem, firing arrows up into the ranks of the Jews above. Amidst the ranks of Jewish soldiers on the lower section of the wall are two women, devouring their own babies in an act of savage desperation. This depiction of infanticide may be derived from Josephus’ story of Mary of Bethezuba, as seen in the Gospel Book of Otto III. Unusually, however, this depiction shows not one but two women consuming their children. This suggests the author may (also) have been influenced by the description of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, as recounted in Lamentations: 'The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.' The horror of the city's destruction by the Babylonians and the suffering of its people were understood by Lamentations and other texts of the period, such as Ezekiel, as just punishment for their broken covenant with Yhwh. For the Christian readership of this fourteenth century book of hours, the cannibalism it represents was the Jews' punishment for killing Christ—a deeply problematic but common Christian accusation against the Jews. The text's caption thus declares that it depicts ‘How Titus and Vespasian the Emperor of Rome destroyed the Jews in the city of Jerusalem for the love of God. And how the women ate their sons and the sons their fathers and the fathers their sons’.The Sarum in the title refers to the Cathedral of Salisbury, which had its own slightly different liturgy and continues to do so to this day.

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The Broad Wall, Jerusalem

Excavation works in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City revealed a significant stretch—65 metres long and varying between six and seven metres wide—of a major defensive wall of Jerusalem. The construction of this wall has been dated to the late eighth or early seventh century BCE, because is built over the top of earlier, eighth century houses. The wall may have been built during preparations for the Assyrian invasion by King Hezekiah, as described in 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:2-5. Hezekiah is rebuked for his preparations by Isaiah 22:9-11, protesting that he ought to have trusted in Yhwh to protect him but also that he broke down houses to build the wall. The wall serves as a poignant reminder of the impact that warfare and royal authority could have on the lives of individuals. This part of the wall must have been still standing after the the Babylonian sieges in 597 and 586 BCE, although other parts of it would undoubtedly have succumbed to the onslaught of the Babylonian siege engines.

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

For many medieval Christians, the most powerful physical reminders of the New Jerusalem that they would encounter were the great cathedrals and churches of the medieval era. Nowhere would this have been more the case than at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem itself. These buildings, often entered via a door depicting the Last Judgement, self-consciously evoked the New Jerusalem and all its promise, with their soaring height, light-filled space and stained glass. This is powerfully evoked by Chaucer, in the prayer he places on the lips of the Parson at the end of the the pilgrims' journey to Canterbury in England: ‘So, may this earthly pilgrimage show you pilgrims the way to the perfect pilgrimage...which culminates in entry to the heavenly Jerusalem (Jerusalem celestial).’ The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the alleged site of Christ’s crucifixion, is an imposing, sprawling building, dating in its current form to 1149 CE. It was built to bring together under a single church roof the chapel where Christ’s tomb was supposed to have been located; a chapel on Golgotha, the hill on which the crucifixion was thought to have taken place; and another basilica on the site that Constantine’s mother Helena was reported to have found the true cross in 320 CE. A constant source of acrimony between Christian Crusaders and Muslim Arab residents during the medieval era and beyond—as well as between the four Christian dominations guarding over it—the Church was and is still considered by Christians to be the most holy location in the world and the climactic end point of any pilgrimage.

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The Hague Map

Although Jerusalem remained at the heart of the Christian imagination between the sixth and the twelfth centuries CE, it was not until the city came under Christian rule during the Crusades that it began to be mapped with detail comparable to the Madaba mosaic map. Approximately fifteen such maps are known from the Crusader period (1099–1187). Combining apocalyptic images of the New Jerusalem with the cartographic tradition of representing the world as a circle with Jerusalem at its centre, these maps present a peculiarly circular image of the holy city. The map shown here is a beautifully preserved example known as the Hague map, which produced in connection with the first Crusade. It offers a detailed rendering of the city, with Jerusalem is depicted as a walled city. Like the Madaba map and the Hereford Mappa Mundi, the Hague map presents a synthesis of reality and imagination. While not including fantastical beasts, the map takes liberties with the geographical layout of the Holy City, prioritising the presentation of Jerusalem in cruciform rather than according to its cartographic realities. The map also takes liberties in its presentation of the city’s architecture. For example, it shows two temples on the Temple Mount: the templum domini (the Temple of the Lord) and the templum salomonis (the Temple of Solomon). The buildings marked as such were, in actuality, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, which the Crusaders converted and renamed as churches. The continuation of this elision between the Dome of the Rock and the Temple of Solomon may be seen in Reuwich's map of the city, four centuries later.The overarching effect is a map that simultaneously erased Islamic influence on Jerusalem whilst glorifying and celebrating the Christian heritage of the city. As such, the Hague map offers an important witness to the struggle between Christians and Muslims over the Holy City, its architecture, and, indeed, its history. Indeed, this sense of Jerusalem as a place of conflict is heightened in the map itself, as mounted Crusaders speed across the bottom of the map, giving chase to several fleeing Saracen fighters. The figures have been identified as St George in the lead, with St Demetrius of Thessaloniki following on behind.

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The House of Ahiel

The typical domestic unit in the cities of Judah during the late Iron Age was the four-room house. The House of Ahiel, excavated in the City of David in Jerusalem, follows this typical type: there are side rooms, separated by monolithic pillars and piers, and adjoining service rooms to the north. These service rooms provide good examples of spaces dedicated to food preparation and food storage, as well as the house's toilet facilities.

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The Madaba Mosaic Map

The Madaba Map is a sixth century CE floor mosaic partially preserved in the Byzantine Church of St George in Madaba, Jordan. It is the earliest extant example of a map of the 'Holy City of Jerusalem'. Much of the map, which was likely originally around 7 metres high and 22 metres long, has now been lost; only a fragmentary remnant of 5 metres by 10 metres survives. Jerusalem would have been at the heart of the sixth century map. Among the key features of the map's rendering of the city are the Roman Cardo—the main street running through Jerusalem, which serves as the map's major horizontal axis—and several major Byzantine churches, including the Hagia Sophia and the Nea Church. The wider map also includes Palestine, the Transjordan, and part of Egypt. The Jerusalem section does not, however, offer an accurate geographical representation of the city. Rather, it offers an image of the idealised Jerusalem of the Christian artist's imagination, with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre placed directly at the city’s heart, even though this is geographically inaccurate. Another cartographic anomaly in the map is the absence of the Temple Mount. This was probably omitted deliberately by the artist(s). The erasure of the site from Christian topography seems to have developed in reaction against Jewish attempts to re-build the Temple in the fourth century CE. Numerous Christians successfully protested against the project at the time that the rebuilding was proposed, because they believed that the site should be allowed to remain in ruins as a sign of the fulfilment of Jesus' prophecy that the Temple would be destroyed. An alternative explanation may be that during the sixth century CE the Temple Mount was not considered part of the city proper, because it was located beyond the city walls.


The New Jerusalem Text from Qumran

The New Jerusalem Text (4Q554), composed in the first third of the second century BCE in Aramaic, conveys in minute detail an architectural plan of a city of huge proportions. The city has twelve gates named after the twelve tribes of Israel. Although the city is not named, the descriptions are usually taken as referring to the New Jerusalem. It is similar in many ways to the description of the temple in the Temple Scroll, but there are no direct literary links between the two texts. Further images of the New Jerusalem text and most other Dead Sea Scrolls can be seen in the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

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The Silos Apocalypse

This early twelfth century CE image of the New Jerusalem is from the Beatus family of Apocalypse manuscripts and depicts Christ seated on his throne, above the river and tree of life. Produced mainly in Spain between the ninth to the twelfth centuries CE, at monasteries in Catalonia, Aragon, Navarre, and elsewhere, the Beatus Apocalypse manuscripts are all based on the Apocalypse commentary of the eighth century Abbot Beatus of Liebana. They all reflect a similar iconography, quite distinct from the Anglo-Norman Apocalypse iconography that had developed in Northern Europe and is reflected in the Trinity Apocalypse and the Angers Apocalypse tapestry. The images in the Beatus Apocalypse manuscripts tend to be uncluttered, dramatic and vividly coloured. This image of the New Jerusalem, from the Silos Apocalypse, is no exception. An angel with very elongated fingers shows John not the descending city of the New Jerusalem but instead the River of Life, descending from the throne of God and the Lamb (Revelation 22:1–2). This throne is depicted as identical with the Heavenly Throne Room described in Revelation 4–5. Thus God/Christ is surrounded by the twenty-four elders, who point at him with elongated fingers. To the left of the river is the Tree of Life. While the text declares the Tree of Life to be growing on both sides of the river—a physical impossibility—the artist has quite sensibly elected to depict it on one side only. This image of the New Jerusalem radiates a reassuring sense of calm but, with its heavy visual divide between the heavenly and earthly realms—evoked via a heavy and ornate brown barrier underneath the heavenly throne room—it perhaps lacks the sense of interactivity between the divine and the human that the text of Revelation is at pains to stress.

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The Temple Scroll from Qumran

The Temple Scroll is the largest single preserved composition found in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea. A small portion of the scroll, columns 41–44, is shown here. This work has been called the most important halakhic (Jewish legal) composition known from the Second Temple period. It is generally considered to have been compiled no later than the last quarter of the second-century BCE, describing systems that served as forerunners to the wider Qumran communities. As it precedes the Qumran community, it was not written by them, but its presence among other texts belonging to the community indicates that it was copied by and likely significant to them. The most well preserved copy of the Temple Scroll is 11QTemple Scroll a (11Q19), which was found in Cave 2 and is about eight metres long, with 65 extant columns (2-66). The copy is written in two hands, with one scribe writing columns 1-5 at the end of the first-century BCE and another scribe writing the remainder of the Scroll probably at the beginning of the first-century CE. The main purpose of the Temple Scroll is to envisage an idealised version of Jewish everyday life and religion that should be lived and maintained in the present, rather than a state which should be implemented in the later days.


Thomas Tallis's 'Lamentatio Ieremiae'

The most famous of all settings of Lamentations is that composed by Thomas Tallis in the middle of the sixteenth century CE. By the time that Tallis composed this work, the text of the Lamentations was an established part of the liturgy of Holy Week. European Christianity thus used the texts of the Lamentations—which had been written either as a direct reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, or in order to recall the horror of the destruction during the rededication of the newly rebuilt temple in the late sixth century BCE—to express despair at the liturgically re-lived crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Tallis used the Latin text of the Vulgate translation of the Bible. The Hebrew poetry of Lamentations used a stylistic device quite common in Semitic languages: it was written as an acrostic. Instead of spelling out a word or name with the first letter of each verse, Lamentations goes through the letters of the alphabet in their Hebrew order—aleph, bet, gimel, daleth, he, and so on. In order to preserve this feature, the Vulgate translation has the name of the Hebrew letters preceding each verse, and Tallis, like most other composers included that into his music. By Tallis' time, it had already become common to compose the names of the Hebrew letters in a different style to the rest of the setting, perhaps comparable to the way the first letter in an illuminated manuscript often differed from that of other letters on the same page.

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Wall Panel from Tiglath-Pileser III's South West Palace at Nimrud

This wall panel from the South West Palace of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (ruled 745–727 BCE) shows Assyrian soldiers carrying away four statues of gods, captured from a city the army has just conquered. Although the exact location of the city is unknown, it was perhaps in Syria. The relief depicts the practice of 'godnapping', in which a conquering army carried off statues of the defeated enemy's gods. Although the exact contents of the Jerusalem temple when it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE are unknown—Ezekiel 8–11 claims that all manner of objects and practices were present—it is likely that the Babylonian army would have carted off whatever it found there.Deporting the statues of the defeated people's gods demonstrated the power of the Assyrian or Babylonian king's god, who had enabled his victory by defeating the gods of the conquered. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians posed a major theological crisis for the defeated people of Judah, because it implied that Yhwh was weaker than the Babylonian gods. Many texts from this period seek to understand how this could have happened. Rather than admit that Yhwh was weaker than the Babylonian gods, however, most of these texts (such as Ezekiel) argue that Yhwh has authority over all of human history, and that the disaster was punishment for their accumulated sins, including and especially the worship of other gods. The experience of defeat and deportation thus was an important contributor to the theological development of the idea that the Israelites should only worship one god and, ultimately, that their god was the god of all.

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Weidner Ration List (Jehoiachin’s Rations Tablet)

This is one of four clay tablets, all from the middle of the sixth century BCE and housed in the Vorderasiatische Museum, Berlin, which detail the rations given to 'Ya’u-kīnu, king of the land of Yāhudu,' his five sons, and other royal captives. Ya’u-kīnu is usually identified with Jehoiachin, the king of Judah taken into captivity in 597 BCE, when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem the first time. Parts of Ezekiel and Jeremiah reflect an argument over whether this king-in-exile should still be considered the rightful king of Judah, or if his authority had been ceded to the Babylonian appointee, Zedekiah.2 Kings 25:27-30 (paralleled by Jeremiah 52:31-34) records Jehoiachin receiving relatively favourable rations from the Babylonian king, as well as the presence of other royal deportees in Babylon. This appears to be corroborated by the cuneiform rations tablets. Interestingly, these tablets use the title 'King' for Jehoiachin. We must exercise caution in using these tablets to understand daily life in the diaspora: conditions were different for people deported to different places in Babylonia—life in the city of Babylon would have been very different from life on a rural royal agricultural project—and royal captives were treated very differently from others in the diaspora communities. These tablets can help to round out our picture of diaspora life, but only one very small and early part of it. The Al Yahudu tablets from the Nippur region show a very different kind of diaspora life in southern Babylonia.

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William Blake's 'The River of Life'

William Blake was affected throughout his life by the power of Revelation, its beasts and its vision of the future via the New Jerusalem. He produced watercolours and engravings on themes from Revelation during the 1790s and early 1800s as well as a series of watercolours on Revelation for his patron, Thomas Butts, between 1800 and 1805. His depictions of the city are perhaps the most influential of all imagined Jerusalems in the British artistic tradition.For Blake Jerusalem was the antithesis of Babylon—which, in his mind, was to be equated with London—and the locus of a new birth. He expanded on this idea at great length in his epic illustrated poem, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804–1820). The image of the New Jerusalem shown here is, on the face of it, a fairly literal visualisation of the River of Life in Revelation 22:1–2. The city of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21 is not depicted. A river flows from the sun in the background—probably God’s throne of Revelation 22:1—through a street of the ‘city’, encircled by fructifying trees of life. The banks of the river are adorned with classical buildings, perhaps harking back to a nobler age, and the overall impression is one of space and light, in contrast to the dark and dirty London of Blake’s poems. Although this New Jerusalem is peopled—in contrast to many of the earlier manuscript depictions where humankind is conspicuous by its absence—it is difficult to make out who the figures are. The androgynous figure dressed in white and swimming with his back to us may be Jesus, while the flying figure is probably an angel. In contrast to Blake’s other works, there is no manifest difference in size between the human figures and divine ones; it is of interest that Blake has included children in this vision of the New Jerusalem—perhaps suggesting that, in his view, one appears in heaven at the age at which one dies.

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Wim Wenders’ 'Jerusalem Seen from Mt Zion'

Wim Wenders’ documentary-style photographs capture a sense of the profound tragedy that often accompanies Jerusalem in the modern imagination. In contrast to the magisterial panorama of Reuwich’s work, or the imaginative rendering of the city in the Hague Map, Wenders captures a desolate landscape that hints at the troubling political situation of the city in the twenty-first century. Taken from Mount Zion—believed by many to be the burial site of King David and a particularly important location in the history of Judaism—Wenders’ image highlights the way in which the geography of the city has been shaped by both Judaism and Islam. As if standing on the 'holy mountain', the viewer’s eye is caught by the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the centre of Wenders’ image, implicitly placing the two sites in parallel. While Wenders’ composition recognises the centrality of these two important spiritual locations, it diminishes their power by foregrounding of a decrepit-looking graveyard, suggesting a sense of loss and degradation that exists in modern day Jerusalem.The image can also be interpreted to refer to the hope of many to be buried in Jerusalem so that they might be among the first to rise—but that that is a future reality and not the current situation.