The Queen Who Loved the Destroyer of the Second Temple

Who was Queen Berenice? Was she a cold, calculating seductress or simply a woman captivated by a young, charismatic general? Here we give you the story of the Second Temple-period Jewish queen forced to survive in a tumultuous world, whose love affair with Titus - the future Roman emperor and notorious suppressor of a Jewish rebellion—remains a bone of contention

"Juive de Tanger" by Charles Landelle, Musée des beaux-arts de Reims

By Amit Naor

It is customary to think of the Jews in antiquity as a small, insular people that dwelled alone, a people forced to interact from time to time with the great powers around them. Once it might be Babylon and Assyria, on another occasion the Greeks or the Romans. But during the early years of the great Roman Empire, not all Jews were zealots hiding out in the desert, waiting for an opportunity to ambush Roman soldiers. Jews were sometimes willing and committed stakeholders in the Empire, holding positions of power and influence. In this article, we will tell of a Jewish woman, a queen, who lived during this time, and whose dramatic life story might resemble something out of Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon.

Queen Berenice was not just another queen. She was a princess by birth, daughter of a union between two of the most important families in the Roman province of Judea at that time. At one point, she was even considered a threat to the stability of the Empire. Here we can attempt only to summarize the complicated life story of this daughter of Jewish royalty and how she came to meet such historical figures as Emperor Vespasian and the Christian apostle Paul; how she found herself present at decisive moments in the revolt against the Romans; and above all, how she became the mistress of one of the most reviled figures in Jewish collective memory, a man who would later become Emperor of Rome—”Titus the Evil”. But, as with any multi-character saga, we begin at the beginning, with the birth of Berenice.

Berenice’s father, Agrippa I. Source: Wikipedia]

Berenice was probably born in the year 28 CE to King Agrippa I and his wife Cypros. On her father’s side, she descended from the Herodian dynasty; her roots on her mother’s side traced back to the Hasmoneans. These were the two most significant Jewish families of the Second Temple-period. When she was about 10 years old, her father, a friend of Emperor Caligula, was made King of Judea, thereby officially making Berenice a princess.

Like other powerful women from antiquity, her historical portrait was drawn for posterity by the men around her. Many historians and writers of the past accused her of scheming, licentiousness, and even incest. In a recent biography of Berenice, historian Professor Tal Ilan takes a fresh look at the Second Temple-period queen, putting aside judgmental perspectives of the past that were rooted in anachronistic, ultra-conservative values. “…she is often described by ancient sources in negative terms”, Prof. Ilan writes, “[…] this is because the historians and authors who mention her conform in their writing to genres of poetry and prose prevalent in their days, that viewed women as the cause of all intrigue and scheming in the world. The sources on Berenice will be judged according to the actions they describe and not in line with their own judgement of these. The values of the ancient Jews and of the ancient Romans […] are not our values. Their conventional expectations of women are not our expectations”, says Prof. Ilan in the introduction to her book.

We hope to do the same.


Berenice Appears on the Historical Stage

When she was still a young girl—a child—Berenice was betrothed to Marcus Julius Alexander, son of the leader of the distinguished Jewish community in Alexandria, and nephew of the important Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. The marriage was consummated when Berenice was 14 years old, apparently. It was short-lived however, as her much older husband soon died, leaving Berenice a widow.

In the same year Berenice was widowed, her father, Agrippa I, also died unexpectedly while attending a festival honoring the Emperor. According to the historian Josephus, on the second day of the festival, “a severe pain also arose in his belly; and began in a most violent manner.” Before his death, Agrippa managed to arrange a second marriage for his by now 16-year-old daughter—this time to his widowed brother Herod, King of Chalcis. Chalcis was a small kingdom in the mountains of Lebanon, and it was there that Berenice first received the title of Queen. That same year, she became pregnant and gave birth to her first son, Berenicianus, who was named for her. Prof. Ilan believes Berenice herself thought up the name, which became popular in the Chalcis region of the time. She named her second child Hyrcanus, an undeniably Hasmonean name. Was it she or her husband Herod who wanted to remind the kingdom’s subjects of their monarch’s illustrious roots?

Roman and Crusader ruins in ancient Banias (Caesarea Philippi), where Berenice spent many years of her life. Postcard published by Max Jaffe, for Jüdische Verlag (Wien), this item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible by collaboration between the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

After Agrippa I’s death, the Emperor Claudius decided to appoint a procurator for Judea rather than transfer the kingdom to Berenice’s brother. The new procurator was none other than Berenice’s former brother-in-law from her first marriage, Tiberius Julius Alexander. After enlisting in the Roman army, Tiberius had an impressive career, not only as procurator of Judea but also as the brutal suppressor of a Jewish uprising in Alexandria that broke out at the same time as the revolt in Judea.

After four years of marriage, the 20 year-old Berenice once again found herself a widow. With the death of Herod of Chalcis, who also oversaw the Temple in Jerusalem, Emperor Claudius contemplated what to do with the province. He eventually chose to name Berenice’s brother as King, who was by then older and more skilled. He took the name Agrippa II.

“The first twenty years of Berenice’s life witnessed some of the most dramatic events of Jewish and even world history”, Prof. Ilan writes in her book, “Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem […] a mad emperor attempted (yet again) to induce the Jews to abandon their religion and worship him.” According to Ilan, Berenice was only a bystander during this period—her father married her off as soon as he could, and she did not take an active part in these dramatic events. “The next 20 stormy years of Berenice’s life thrust her to the fore of the historical stage”, she says.

 So what happened next?

The Apostle Paul explains the Tenets of faith in the presence of King Agrippa and his Sister Berenice, Vasily Surikov, 1875, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Agrippa II arrived in great splendor to his new kingdom that included both Judea and Chalcis, now reuniting with his sister as well. Berenice, twice widowed in just four years, and with two young children in tow, was not the best candidate for a new match. Ilan mentions the Talmudic dictate, Isha Katlanit (“lethal woman”), in this respect. According to this religious rule, a woman who is widowed twice is not permitted to marry for a third time.

In terms of our story, it seems that over the next few years Berenice became her brother’s companion, living with him in his various palaces in Chalcis, Jerusalem and in the city of Caesarea-Philippi, or Banias, located today in northern Israel. Berenice is also mentioned in several places in the historical record alongside her brother, the King. Josephus says that she stood next to Agrippa when he gave a conciliatory speech to the people of Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of the Great Revolt. The New Testament mentions Berenice as being present with her brother at the trial of the Apostle Paul and that she was among those who thought he did not deserve punishment. The close relationship between the siblings also led to the spread of malicious rumors, with various sources claiming that Agrippa and Berenice had incestuous relations. Perhaps in order to stave off the gossip, Berenice quickly found herself another royal match and once again became a queen.

The ancient city of Tiberias with Mount Berenice in the distance. It is believed that her palace was situated on this mountain, but no trace of it has ever been found. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible by collaboration between the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

This time she married Polomon, King of Cilicia, a small kingdom in the south of Asia Minor. In order to facilitate the marriage, she convinced him to undergo circumcision and accept the commandments of Judaism. However, this marriage did not last long either. For one reason or another, Berenice left husband number three and returned to her palace in Banias.  And so it happened that Berenice arrived in time for what was perhaps the most important event in Jewish history of the first century CE—the Great Revolt against the Romans.

By then, it seems that Berenice was more than a passive figure swept along by the currents of her life. There is evidence that, after the death of her second husband, Berenice herself managed the affairs in Chalcis, at least until her brother was crowned King. Various historians described her as a Cleopatra-like queen who used her charms to influence the men around her. But it seems that when the reins of power fell into her hands, Berenice proved herself adept and used them wisely.


A Last Attempt to Save Jerusalem

Up until the outbreak of the Great Revolt (66–73 CE), Berenice apparently tried to use all her powers to prevent rebellion and save Jerusalem. She happened to be in the city during one of the most famous incidents leading up to the rebellion. The procurator of Judea at the time, Florus, coveted a portion of the Temple’s treasures for himself. When the Jews protested against this, he sent his soldiers to quell the unrest by carrying out a pogrom in Jerusalem. Berenice was alone in the city at the time, recovering from an illness for which she had taken a vow of ascetism. At the end of this period of abstinence, she shaved her head and probably came to Jerusalem in order to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice following her recovery.

While Florus’s soldiers were raiding the city, Berenice sent her officers to the procurator to try to stop the massacre and looting. After her plea was ignored, she risked her own life and went herself, shaven-headed and barefoot, to Florus’s palace to beg him to spare the lives of the city’s residents. She eventually made her way back to her palace where she anxiously spent the night, surrounded by her guards. The next day, the Jerusalemites drove Florus and his soldiers out of the city. With Judea now on the brink of rebellion, Berenice and Agrippa addressed the people in the center of Jerusalem, but their attempt at appeasement failed and the Great Revolt erupted.

Titus and Berenice, ornamental watch cover, unknown artist. Wikimedia

During this period, a young man by the name of Titus entered Berenice’s life. A popular general, he also happened to be the son of Vespasian, the man sent by Rome to suppress the rebellion in Judea. Berenice spent the war years in Agrippa II’s palace in Banias, Caesarea-Philippi. It was there she most likely met Vespasian’s son for the first time. “Titus the Evil”, as he is often referred to in the Jewish sources, would later become Emperor of Rome. Berenice was then about 40 years old. Titus was in his late twenties, but the age gap was no match for their passionate love.

We will do our best to trace their love story, though after the dramatic scene describing her and her brother’s appeal to the rebellious crowds, Berenice all but disappears from Josephus’s account of the rebellion in The Jewish War. Some contend that Josephus refrained from writing about her at the express request of Titus. In his later work, The Life of Flavius Josephus, written after the death of Titus, Josephus allows himself a bit more leeway regarding her story. There, for example, he describes how Berenice intervened in favor of the historian Justus of Tiberias whom Vespasian had sentenced to death. Agrippa spared his life at his sister’s request, another example of Berenice’s influence on political affairs.

Titus probably first met Berenice in the year 67, during the Roman campaign against the Jewish rebels in Galilee. Agrippa apparently invited Vespasian and his son Titus to rest for a while in his palace in Caesarea Philippi—where Berenice was also staying. The affair between the two seemed to finally resolve the question of the Herodian dynasty’s support for the Roman forces suppressing the rebellion. This alliance likely saved the city of Tiberias, which Vespasian ordered not be looted nor its walls destroyed after it was conquered, as a gesture to King Agrippa.

The Emperor Titus, marble, the Louvre, Paris

The alliance may have also helped Vespasian himself. By the end of the “Year of the Four Emperors” (69 CE), Vespasian was intent on declaring himself Emperor and was in urgent need of allies. One of his supporters was none other than Tiberius Julius Alexander, Berenice’s former brother-in-law. Could she have been the one who convinced Tiberius to support her lover’s father? The Roman historian Tacitus seemed to think so.

Whatever happened, it worked. Vespasian became Emperor and Titus became commander of the military operation to suppress the rebellion in Judea. As fate would have it, Berenice was now the mistress of the very person who would go down in history as the destroyer and looter of the Temple in Jerusalem. What was her role in these events? We’ll probably never know. In the film Legend of Destruction which describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the claim is made that Berenice intended to seduce Titus in order to save the city. In her biography of Berenice, Prof. Ilan believes that the truth is more straightforward—the two were simply in love, and Titus looked for any excuse to remain close to her. In The Jewish War, Josephus describes Titus as merciful, as having tried to avoid killing Jews who surrendered and waiting until the last possible moment before destroying Jerusalem and burning down the Temple. Some have claimed that Josephus wrote the account this way out of friendship with Titus who was also his patron. Ilan, on the other hand, believes Josephus’s account to be an unflattering description of Titus in the eyes of the Romans who were the book’s target audience. Instead, she contends, it was Titus’s idea to portray himself in this way for the benefit of none other than Berenice—as a kind of mea culpa for the actions he had been forced to commit in Judea.


A Second Cleopatra

After the suppression of the rebellion, Agrippa II continued to rule over Judea until his death, probably in the nineties of the first century CE. Titus, now the decorated conqueror of Jerusalem and heir to the imperial throne, embarked on a triumphal journey to cities in the eastern provinces of the Empire. It is possible that Berenice accompanied him. Eventually, Titus had to return to Rome, and Berenice apparently returned to Caesarea-Philippi. Throughout the period between the arrival of Vespasian’s forces in Judea and the destruction of the Temple, Titus and Berenice cohabited, but there were now reasons that prevented them from marrying. The age difference, for one. It was clear to them that the young Titus must find a suitable, young wife who would be able to provide him with heirs for the new dynasty ascending the imperial throne. And there was the matter of Berenice’s Jewishness, which prevented her from marrying a non-Jew without renouncing her religion.

Victory procession with the treasures of the Temple, relief on the Arch of Titus, Rome. Photo: Th. Benzinger. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible by collaboration between the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

But this was not the end of that extraordinary romance. What began as a love affair between a queen, a daughter of a royal family, and a dashing young general—one of many—in the Roman army, ended with roles and power-relations reversed: a client queen and a future emperor.  In the year 75, Berenice arrived in Rome, four years after she separated from Titus. She came with her brother, and according to the sources, she stayed there for close to four years. She apparently lived with Titus in his palace and they were effectively a couple. Four Roman sources claimed Berenice to be his greatest weakness, raising the concern that she would cause him to become another Nero, bringing about Rome’s destruction. Titus proved he was made of different stuff. After seeing the Roman people’s displeasure with the match—either out of antisemitic feelings towards the people who had rebelled, or fear of a “second Cleopatra”—he sent Berenice home.

Farewell Between Berenice and Titus, Adriaan Schoonebeek, 1694, engraving. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Berenice tried to return to Rome again a few months later, when Titus finally became Emperor, but he refused to see her. This was the end of their relationship and Queen Berenice disappears from the annals of history at this point. We have no information about what happened to her after she was sent away from Rome for the second time. Some believe that she remained in Italy and died there, but it is likely that she returned to Judea and lived in Banias until her death. We do not know what year she died. Her extraordinary story has inspired writers, poets, playwrights and screenwriters. Given the incredible events we have described here, we can only hope for a historical drama series…


Further Reading:

Queen Berenice: A Jewish Female Icon of the First Century CE, by Tal Ilan,
Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2022

A True Jerusalem Story: The Failed Raid of the Lost Ark

More than a century ago, a group of English treasure-hunters showed up in Jerusalem with the most ambitious of goals: They were determined to find the treasures of the ancient biblical kings, no less. This grand quest and its strange results made sensational headlines in newspapers around the globe, not to mention the riots that erupted across the city…

The Temple Mount, Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker and a model of the Ark of the Covenant, credit: Avraham Gracier, The National Trust, Mary Harrsch

The rumor spread like wildfire across the city.

The crimes were unthinkable. Perhaps too fantastical to believe. And yet many did.

In mid-April of 1911, a team of English treasure hunters was busy at work in Jerusalem. They were digging under the Dome of the Rock, under the Temple Mount – the Noble Sanctuary, one of the world’s most sacred and sensitive religious landmarks. They were actually given permission, of a sort, to do so, but this did not make the act any less scandalous.

The Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount, or the Haram al-Sharif (“Noble Sanctuary”) as it is known to Muslims. Photo by Gabi Laron, 2008, the Gabi Laron Archive, the National Library of Israel

It was on the night of April 12 that the excavation came to an abrupt end: the wrong person found out about the dig, and it quickly became clear that remaining in Jerusalem was dangerous. The team packed up its equipment and findings and left town in a hurry. They were long gone when word began to spread that British adventurers had made off with the treasures of the ancient Jewish kings.

The press did not feel the need to downplay the event. Respectable newspapers declared that the stolen artifacts included King Solomon’s crown, his sword and his ring, as well as an ancient manuscript of the Bible (long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The New York Times ran with the headline: “Gone With Treasure That Was Solomon’s”. Some dispatches even mentioned the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant itself.

“Stealing the Law” – John Bull, the British equivalent of Uncle Sam, makes off with the Ten Commandments and other ancient treasures. This caricature of the Parker affair appeared in ⁨⁨the May 13, 1911, issue of The Warheiht (“The Truth”), a Yiddish newspaper based in New York. Click on the image to enlarge.


“It is believed that the explorers found Solomon’s crown, his sword and his ring and an ancient manuscript of the Bible”, from the May 20, 1911 issue of The Reform Advocate


A more skeptical report about the incident in the May 12, 1911 edition of The Jewish Voice, mentioning “fairy tales”…

The incident soon led to chaos. Riots were sparked in Jerusalem, with local citizens going on strike and venting their fury at the Ottoman government for allowing such an outrage to occur. It was clear to all that the authorities had been in the know. Only the eventual resignation of the district governor was enough to calm the masses.

But what was the nature of this strange incident? Who were these treasure hunters? What were they looking for and what did they truly find?


The Genesis of the Parker Expedition

It began a few years earlier with a man named Walter Henrich Juvelius.

This strange Finnish poet was a man of eccentric interests, a doctor of philosophy who was fascinated with numerology, the Kabbalah and Jewish chronology. At some point in the early 1900s, Juvelius claimed to have made a startling discovery: he believed he had found a mysterious cipher while conducting research on Jewish history (one report mentioned he found it in the library of St. Sophia in Constantinople).

The cipher supposedly enabled one to unlock secrets hidden in the Bible and other ancient Jewish texts. Among these: the location of the treasures of the First Temple, including the Ark of the Covenant. As if this wasn’t odd enough, there was also talk of strange ancient documents unearthed in Ireland that also hinted at treasure buried in Jerusalem.

“The cipher was furnished by documents said to have been recently unearthed in Ireland”, from the August 25, 1911 issue of The Hebrew Standard

Armed with these “revelations”, Juvelius eventually turned up in London, where he met Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker. A decorated British soldier who had fought in the Second Boer War, Parker was also a well-connected aristocrat – his brother was the 4th Earl of Morley. Parker bought into Juvelius’ scheme to locate the ancient treasures in Jerusalem, and set about raising money and recruiting personnel. The 30-year-old English officer was quite successful in this: he managed to raise some £25,000 from a number of wealthy British and American patrons (equivalent to more than £3.8 million in 2023), and convinced several of his army buddies to join him and Juvelius on the expedition to the Holy Land.

Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker, the leader of the expedition, in military uniform.  Later in life he would succeed his brother and become the 5th Earl of Morley, photo: The National Trust

Why were these affluent socialites and bored army veterans so eager to support such an overly ambitious excavation based on such flimsy evidence, you ask?  It likely had something to do with Juvelius’ estimate that the treasure they were certain to find, including copious amounts of gold and silver, would be equal to a value of around $200 million dollars (over $6.4 billion today). This was also a time when the Spiritualist movement was still quite popular in the upper classes of British and American society. Hidden bible codes, mystical long-lost artifacts and ancient buried treasure? What’s not to like?

In 1908, before beginning the dig, Parker made a stop in Constantinople. His team may have been unorthodox (it included a former cricket player, a Swiss psychic and precisely zero archaeologists) and his motives were perhaps questionable, but the army captain was still intent on getting the proper legal permits from the Ottoman administration. After a quick negotiation, officials from the new Young Turks government supplied the permit in late November in exchange for £500 and half of any treasure to be found.

Members of the Parker expedition in Jerusalem. Left to right: Robin Duff, Habip Bey, Montagu Parker, Cyril Foley, Hagop Makasdar, Cyril Ward, Abdulaziz Mecdi Effendi, Clarence Wilson. Photo reproduced in “In Search of the Temple Treasure — The Story of the Parker Expedition in the City of David, 1909—1911” [Hebrew], by N. Shalev-Khalifa in Qadmoniot: A Journal for the Antiquities of Eretz-Israel and Bible Lands, 1998, n°2.

By this point Parker and Juvelius had already made a brief scouting trip to Jerusalem to identify the exact locations for the dig. Juvelius believed that the treasure lay underground, somewhere in the vicinity of the Temple Mount – the massive stone platform thought to be the site of both Jewish temples, where the Dome of the Rock now stood alongside the Al Aqsa Mosque.

The Temple Mount platform dates to Herodian times. The area known as the Ophel is seen in the bottom right corner, below the ancient wall. Photo: Avraham Gracier


Let the Digging Begin

Since digging under the platform itself was (initially) out of the question because of the religious sensitivities involved, Juvelius planned to reach the area by using already-existing ancient underground passages, accessible from what was known as the Hill of Ophel, the area south of the Temple Mount and the mosques. These would hopefully lead to a secret treasure chamber, that Juvelius was convinced existed under the Temple Mount itself.

The British team actually purchased land in the area of the dig site with some help from Ottoman officials.  The Turks were able to overcome local resistance to the sale by announcing that the land was to be used for a hospital (this did not pan out). Finally, with the bureaucratic wrangling out of the way, work could begin.

A view of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount from the house where Parker and his men stayed, south of the Old City walls. From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, the book written by Louis-Hugues Vincent, mere months after the Parker expedition ended in controversy, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

In August of 1909, the team set up in a lone villa south of the Old City walls, the dig site was fenced off, and preparations for the excavation began. The European visitors stood out like a sore thumb in early 20th century Jerusalem, and their secretive behavior aroused plenty of attention and curiosity. Inevitably, despite the efforts to pretend otherwise, rumor got out that these were treasure hunters. Soon enough, the team was under pressure from suspicious locals and community leaders, who were eager to have someone on the inside that they could trust – a serious professional whose mere presence would reassure them. Parker finally gave in.

Enter Louis-Hugues Vincent.

Vincent was a Dominican monk, but also a respected archaeologist who worked at Jerusalem’s École biblique et archéologique française. Parker agreed to allow Vincent full access to the dig, three days a week, on the condition that no information would be shared with the public until Parker saw fit. This had the double effect of silencing local criticism, as well as providing the team with its only certified and relevant expert.

It is primarily thanks to Vincent that we have a detailed record of most of the Parker expedition’s underground work in Jerusalem. In fact, mere months after the scandalous incident on the Temple Mount, Vincent published an entire book, in both French and English, about the Parker expedition, detailing its work methods and findings and featuring intricate maps, drawings and photographs. A rare copy of Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel (1909-11) can be found in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel.

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

As work got underway, some three hundred men were employed from the nearby village of Silwan (Siloam) to do the digging. The team began the excavations in the area of the Gihon Spring, Warren’s Shaft and the Siloam Tunnel (also known as Hezekiah’s tunnel). Both the tunnel and the shaft were previously explored in the 19th century, to much fanfare, and were thought to have formed parts of ancient Jerusalem’s underground water system. The general plan was to search for as-yet undiscovered passages, branching off from the known tunnels, that would hopefully lead the team to the secret treasure under the Temple Mount.

The houses of Silwan (Siloam), viewed from the Temple Mount (late 19th/ early 20th century), the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Library, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The work was arduous and dangerous, continuing at all times of the day, in 4-hour shifts. The workers carried torches and chanted songs as they picked away. Vincent wrote that they “found it necessary to take some such means to counteract the monotony of the dark, mysterious tunnels which seemed to stretch endlessly into the very entrails of the rock”.

The 1909 dig lasted into the autumn, but bad weather soon made further progress impossible. The team dispersed for the season, with Parker and company returning to Britain. They were back in Jerusalem by early August of 1910, with better equipment and aided by experts who had worked on the London Underground subway system. In this second dig season, the team continued to clear out the existing tunnels and even discovered previously unknown passages and chambers. Yet none of these came near the area of the Temple Mount, where the treasure was believed to be hidden. Parker even decided to begin carving out new tunnels, to bore an underground path that would lead them to their goal, but this was a slow and laborious process.

Vincent’s book contains a number of detailed maps charting out the network of ancient tunnels excavated by the team, as well as tunnels that they themselves dug underground.

An overall plan of the Parker expedition’s excavations in the area south of the Temple Mount. From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

Conditions were difficult, even for those with experience. Vincent wrote: “Thirty metres from the fountain the candles would not burn any longer, and we had to fall back on portable electric lanterns. In spite of a ventilator and oxygen capsules, the gangs had to be relieved every hour. At certain times I was not able to be more than a quarter of an hour in the gallery.”

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

While work was underway, water had to be diverted from the ancient Siloam Tunnel in which the famous Siloam Inscription was found in 1880. One of the benefits of this entire enterprise was that the clearing out of the underground waterways meant that water could now flow more easily through the channels. As the dig season drew to a close, the water was diverted back on October 11, 1910. Vincent wrote that its volume was now double what it had been previously, to the delight of the villagers of Silwan: “The flow of water gradually passed through to the Pool of Siloam; the shouts of acclamation and the noise of the feast to celebrate this occasion will long sound in my ears”.

This act of benevolence made Parker and his associates momentarily more popular with the locals, but for the team itself, the year 1910 was full of frustration and disappointment. Two seasons of hard manual labor in the summer heat had taken their toll, and the treasure hunters had little treasure to show for their efforts. Juvelius, the original visionary behind the quest, contracted malaria, packed his things and left for home. The winter rains once again put a stop to the digging and the Ottoman overseers also seemed to lose faith at this point. Parker’s dig permit was set to expire in late 1911, and chances of a renewal appeared slim, but the Englishman, who had investors to answer to, was not quite ready to give up.

A dejected looking Walter Juvelius sits in a subterranean chamber excavated during the expedition. Photograph published in Ronny Reich’s Excavating the City of David: Where Jerusalem’s History Began (Israel Exploration Society, 2011)

With the excavations south of the Temple Mount not yielding any treasures belonging to biblical kings, a desperate Parker decided it was finally time for a different, more direct approach.


Things Fall Apart

Parker proceeded to discreetly bribe Sheikh Khalil al-Zanaf, the caretaker of the “Noble Sanctuary” (the Haram al-Sharif, the Arabic name for the Temple Mount). This payment allowed Parker and his team access to the massive ancient platform, now a site of daily Muslim worship. It was April of 1911, and that year Easter and Passover coincided with the celebration of Nebi Musa. This festival honoring the figure of Moses was marked by local Muslims with a pilgrimage to a religious site near Jericho. Sheikh Khalil made sure the guards usually stationed on the platform were given well-paid leave to attend the festival.

With prying eyes removed from the premises, at night and with a police guard present, Parker and his associates commenced digging on the Temple Mount. Louis-Hugues Vincent, the French archaeologist-monk, did not participate in this part of the venture. He may have disapproved, he may have been kept in the dark, but there is no mention of the dig on the mount in his book. What we know of these events comes from other contemporary accounts and press reports.

The Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, in the late 19th/early 20th century, a view from the north. The Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Library, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Parker’s men began digging in the south-eastern corner of the platform – the area that the crusaders erroneously called Solomon’s Stables. Gustaf Dalman wrote later that year that the team “apparently hoped to be able to get underground from thence to the site of the Temple, but they were stopped by cisterns, and gave up the attempt as impossible.”

“Solomon’s Stables” – the vaulted subterranean chamber in the south-eastern corner of the Temple Mount platform. Photo taken late 19th/early 20th century, the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Library, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

At this point, Parker finally stopped beating around the bush. He and his men entered the Dome of the Rock, and began digging beneath the Foundation Stone, the place that many believe to have once been the location of the Holy of Holies, the sacred innermost chamber of the ancient Jewish temple. Dalman,  the director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem at the time, wrote that the team: “opened the rock tunnel, which leads from the north to the Sacred Rock under the Dome of the Rock, and which perhaps carried away the blood from the Altar of the Temple. This tunnel was followed for about seven metres in a northerly direction, but nothing particular was found except a slight enlargement of it.”

The Foundation Stone, housed inside the Dome of the Rock, late 19th/early 20th century. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Some accounts claimed the men also dug into the floor of the cave beneath the Foundation Stone, known as the Well of Souls, in search of a chamber rumored to exist there, though Dalman was not convinced this occurred. In any case, after nine nights of digging on the Temple Mount, the excavations were stopped when the secretive work was discovered. Dalman wrote that one of the Haram guards, who was “insufficiently bribed”, was responsible. According to another version of events, a guard happened to show up at the Haram at night, intending to sleep there as his own home was full of relatives attending the pilgrimage festival, when he came across the sacrilegious work being done.

The word soon spread, and chaos broke out.

Fueled by rumors of ancient treasures being stolen by foreigners, angry mobs formed in the streets. Some two thousand Muslim demonstrators vented their fury in front of the Ottoman government headquarters, the Saraya, not far from the Temple Mount. A general strike was announced, marches were held and calls were made to kill the foreign intruders and Azmi Bey, the Ottoman governor, along with them. The tension lasted for days, occasionally erupting into public demonstrations and violent riots. Sheikh Khalil, the caretaker of the Haram al-Sharif, was another target of the protestors’ ire. The demonstrators were even supported by some of the local Hebrew press. One article stated that “The Ashkenazi newspapers accuse the English and American tourists of not treating the Muslim holy places with the proper respect”.

Scholar Louis Fishman described these events in detail in his 2005 article, The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident. Writing of the episode on the Temple Mount and particularly the protests that followed, Fishman noted that there was something remarkable about these demonstrations and the motivation behind them:

“we can also detect the beginnings of a Palestinian identity as distinct from the local population’s overlapping Ottoman and Arab identities. This is important because it gives us a rare look at the beginnings of a local nationalism expressed through opposition to Ottoman policies concerning not Zionism but the city of Jerusalem.”

As for Parker, he and his men quickly left for Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast, once their secret was out. The Ottoman authorities, who of course had approved the whole enterprise to begin with, made a show of searching their ship, declaring that no treasures were found onboard. The Englishmen were then quietly allowed to leave for home, likely thanks to Parker’s political connections. Sheikh Khalil, however, was soon arrested, as was a local Armenian named Hagop Makasder, who had served as the team’s translator and was found to be a convenient scapegoat.

Captain Parker did not deny digging under the Dome of the Rock in the statement above (he referred to it as “the Mosque of Omar”). This quote given to the Times appeared in the May 20, 1911 issue of The Reform Advocate

In the aftermath, both Azmi Bey, the district governor, and Sheikh Khalil lost their jobs. This was decided during a parliamentary inquiry into the episode, held in Constantinople. The incident made international headlines, especially across the Islamic world and as far as India. The masses wanted accountability. Representatives of the Ottoman government again declared that no ancient treasures of significance were stolen, while also justifying their original support for the expedition, arguing that it could conceivably have turned out to be a profitable venture. In any case, the higher-ups in the Ottoman establishment were cleared of any wrongdoing.

So it seems that no crowns belonging to ancient kings, no scepters, no rings, no swords and of course no curious-looking boxes topped with winged angels were uncovered during the work of the Parker expedition. But after two years of digging under ancient Jerusalem, using state of the art equipment and hundreds of workmen laboring day and night, it would, after all, be ludicrous to suggest that absolutely nothing at all was found… So what did Parker have to show for his efforts?


What Did They Find?

The excavations under the Hill of Ophel, south of the Temple Mount, were able to reveal a number of ancient subterranean tombs. One of these was, according to Vincent, “a most remarkable Egyptian-looking tomb, containing wonderfully well-preserved pottery, with specimens as fine as any yet found in Palestine”. Vincent identified the pottery as Jebusite, dating it to around 2,400 BCE at the latest, meaning these finds were significantly older than the Jewish treasures the expedition was looking for. Despite the Egyptian artistic features, the Frenchman concluded that the tomb belonged to a wealthy Jebusite “who either introduced or fostered” Egyptian fashions in the area.

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the images to enlarge.

The expedition excavated a number of other tombs and burial chambers that Vincent believed were “almost exactly contemporaneous with the palmy days of the Israelitish kings”. Vincent made impressive efforts to document the large amounts of pottery found in the many chambers and passages dug up by the workers. The pottery finds included “thousands of Israelitish jars”. A handful bore stamps that indicated their purpose or owner. Vincent wrote that only one of these was legible, and that in his opinion, this particular stamp’s letters formed the word “MoReSHeT”. The Frenchman believed that the jar was a tribute from the small town of Moreshet on the southwestern border of ancient Judea, sent to the royal treasury in Jerusalem. This he saw as evidence that the Judean king’s palace could not be far away from the dig site.

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

The team also found the remains of an ancient gateway, held up by two monolithic stones, each around 5 feet 10 inches high and less than 3 feet apart. The small size of this strange portal led Vincent to conclude that it was a postern gate, leading to a secret passage towards the nearby Gihon Spring, a critical source of water for ancient Jerusalem.

Vincent believed this “ancient gateway” was a postern gate, leading to a secret passage to the Gihon Spring. From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

Another interesting find was “a magnificent chair of ‘royal’ stone”. The workers at first thought this must indeed have been Solomon’s throne, but Vincent was not convinced, writing cryptically – “I fear its actual destination was at once more private and more naturally necessary”. A recent study has confirmed this particular item as the remains of an Iron Age toilet seat.

Other finds included “a few big balls of metal”, some indecipherable Roman coins, a small statue, probably Herodian, a handful of Canaanite idols and carvings of animal figures, as well as:

 “certain blocks of stone we discovered which probably formed the bases of columns or candelabras; the lower portion of a porphyry table; various mouldings cut in rare marbles; the remains of a splendid bronze flower-pot. All were found at about the same place, and all confirmed the impression that we were among the remains of a magnificent and luxurious household”

From Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by Louis-Hugues Vincent, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click on the image to enlarge.

One discovery was somewhat puzzling. Vincent described “a mark like an arrow-head cut in the rock of the natural escarpment…” Similar marks had been found at Tell es-Safi and on the Mount of Olives. Vincent thought they were possibly made by the master mason “to indicate the limit or the plan of various constructions”, but the matter is open to debate.

When Israeli archaeologists Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron re-excavated this area in 2009, their discovery of several more of these mysterious V-shaped markings in an underground chamber nearby made headlines. They hypothesized that the incisions may have been used to hold some sort of apparatus in place, perhaps a type of loom or other device in the field of industry or agriculture.

Strange V-shaped incisions in the floor of an underground chamber. This image appears in “One Hundred Years Since the Parker–Vincent Excavations in the City of David“, by Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron, City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem 7 (Hebrew)

Reich and Shukron have argued that Vincent’s work in the area south of the Temple Mount (facilitated by Captain Parker, of course) was critically important in the context of the archaeological study of Jerusalem. They make the case that it was Parker and Vincent who proved this site to be the true site of ancient Jerusalem. Reich and Shukrun believe, as did Vincent, that the City of David was built on this spot, as it was here and only here that remains from the early and mid-Bronze Age were found – meaning that this was Canaanite Jerusalem, the city that would later, during the Iron Age, become the Jerusalem described in the Bible.

The Temple Mount and the Ophel, a view from the south. Photo by Gabi Laron, 2021, the Gabi Laron Archive, the National Library of Israel

Not everyone agrees, however. Another leading Israeli archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, has argued extensively that the center of ancient Jerusalem was on the Temple Mount itself, and not on the Hill of Ophel, which lies slightly to the south.

Of course it is difficult to know for sure, without digging below the surface, but that, as we have seen, can get complicated.


Further Reading

Louis-Hugues Vincent, Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, London: H. Cox, 1911

Gustaf Dalman, “The Search for the Temple Treasure at Jerusalem”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1912

Nirit Shalev Khalifa, “In Search of the Temple Treasures,” Qadmoniot, Vol. 31, issue 116, 1999 (Hebrew)

Louis Fishman, “The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident: Palestinian Notables Versus the Ottoman Administration”, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, Spring 2005

Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron, “One Hundred Years Since the Parker–Vincent Excavations in the City of David”, City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem 7 (Hebrew)


The Holy Land “in Natural Color”: German Postcards From 1932

Less than a year before the Nazis came to power, a collection of postcards featuring holy sites and the developing Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel was published in Munich…

The Jaffa Gate

In addition to the thousands of books that find their way to the National Library of Israel every year, there are also hundreds of other historical items which are added to the collections on an annual basis: photo albums, posters, letters and, once in a while, the occasional mysterious cardboard box.

Such a box was recently donated by Chana and Yoram Harel. On its cover appears a description in German that offers a first clue to its contents. The description reads:  Das Heilige Land: 126 Ansichten in Naturfarbenphotographie. Preiss & Co., Munchen – “The Holy Land: 126 Postcards in Natural Color, Price and Co., Munich”.

When we opened the box, its contents were as we had expected—several dozen postcards featuring landscapes of the Holy Land, two maps of Palestine (north and south), a map of Jerusalem and a booklet in German. A closer look at the postcards reveals that these were created using the photochrome technique.

A young Bedouin


Landscapes of the Holy Land

In 1880, a Swiss printing company by the name of “Orell Füssli” developed a technique for creating color images. This method came to be known as the photochrome technique. Long before the development of analog color photography, which captures original colors of the subject being photographed on a roll of film, the photochrome technique enabled color reprinting of a black and white photo. Orell Füssli’s innovation was the use of the centuries-old technique of lithography to produce these color prints.

Ironically, the photochrome technique gave rise to a strange state of affairs: in the event that the colorists did not have precise instructions concerning the original colors of the image they were being asked to reprint, they had no choice but to use their own imagination and common sense.

This was the case in many photochrome albums, where the relationship between the actual colors of the photographed subject and the colors that were artificially added later on is often purely coincidental. In the postcards we have here, on the other hand, it seems that the “Uvachrom” company that published them went to great lengths to get as close as possible to reality.

The booklet that accompanies the postcards provides the necessary background. The 126 photos in the collection were taken during a “trip to the Holy Land in spring 1931,” a year before the postcards were printed in Munich. The booklet’s title page makes reference to a “High Shepherd”, who gave his approval to the project. It seems this collection of postcards was produced for a German Catholic audience, printed with the approval of a high-ranking bishop, possibly even the Pope himself.

Das Heilige Land: 126 Ansichten in Naturfarbenphotographie. Preiss & Co., Munchen – “The Holy Land: 126 Postcards in Natural Color, Price and Co., Munich”

But don’t let this fact mislead you. Despite the many images of Christian holy sites (including, of course, the Church of the Dormition, which was built following the visit of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Holy Land), many others depict the progress of the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel. There are, for example, pictures of the Hebrew University, the National Library at its former location on Mount Scopus, the tomb of Rabbi Meir in Tiberias, and the electric power station established by Pinchas Rutenberg.

The Tomb of Rabbi Meir in Tiberias

Eighty of the original 126 postcards in the collection remain in their original box. The rest were probably sent by the owners of the collection to friends and family. This leads us to the obvious question: Who was the target buyer of such a collection? While we do not know the identity of the collection’s original owner, the accompanying booklet makes clear who it was meant for. The collection is described as a “precious souvenir for anyone lucky enough to see the land with their own eyes, providing all others with a vivid glimpse of its beauty.”

The 67-page booklet contains detailed information about the Holy Land: general topographical information, an explanation of the perpetual water shortage; a history of Zionism and the Hebrew language; an in-depth discussion of Jerusalem including information about the Temple Mount and the Western Wall; as well as details of the different stations in the life of Jesus in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.  The booklet concludes with a drawing of the Temple Mount Plaza.

The collection’s date of publication is of particular historical significance. It was published in Munich, Germany, in 1932; less than a year later, on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.

Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue in Jerusalem


The Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. The domes of the Hurva and Tiferet Yisrael synagogues are both visible


Jerusalem children enjoying locally grown oranges


Tomb of Rabbi Akiva


Rachel’s Tomb


This building on Mount Scopus housed the Jewish National and University Library at the time, today’s National Library of Israel


A view from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus


The Dome of the Rock


Dr. Stephen Litt, Curator of the Humanities Collection at the National Library, contributed to the preparation of this article.

How to Move Four Million Books

How did the National Library of Israel move its collections—not once, but twice—from one location to another? These photos captured the transfer of hundreds of thousands and then millions of books to the various homes of the National Library over the years

On the left, moving the National Library of Israel’s books from the Terra Sancta building to the Givat Ram campus in 1960; on the right, the robot-operated automated stacks in the new National Library building

On January 10, 2023, the transfer of all the books from the National Library of Israel’s current location on the Givat Ram campus to its new home was completed. In all, 3.6 million books were moved, an important milestone ahead of the relocation to the new National Library of Israel campus across from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Since its establishment, the Library has undergone many changes, both in terms of its location and its collections. However, the transfer of its books on such a massive scale from one building to another was carried out only twice: in 1960, and in 2022.


Moving the Books: 1960 vs. 2022

In 1948, during the War of Independence, access to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus was cut off along with access to the National Library, then called the “Jewish National and University Library.” As a result, the Library’s collections were dispersed among different locations in the western part of the city, including the Terra Sancta building, the Yeshurun Synagogue library and several other places. In 1960, the Library moved once again, from the various buildings where its collections had been housed temporarily to its current location on the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. Photographer David Harris documented this transfer in many fascinating photos showing how the Library staff worked diligently to move the hundreds of thousands of books from all the different sites to the new building. Today, photographers are once again documenting the process of transferring the Library’s books to a new permanent home.

Loading books for transport to the Library’s current building on the Givat Ram campus, 1960


The beginning of the transfer of books, October 2022. Photo: Udi Alfassi

As you can see, this is hard work. It involves first sorting, then packing and finally moving the books. Back in 1960, the books were loaded into sacks, bundled and tied with rope or packed into boxes. Staff members then loaded the sacks, bundles and boxes onto pick-up trucks. Today, the process mainly involves forklifts and semi-trailers – the collections have grown, after all.

Workers transporting books from the Terra Sancta building to the Givat Ram campus location, 1960. Photo: David Harris


Sorting books in the new building. Photo: Albatross


The Jewish National and University Library storeroom at Terra Sancta, 1960. Photo; David Harris

The sorting process is also completely different today: in the past, the process was done completely by hand. Today, it is a combination of manual and digital work centered on scanning the books’ barcodes.

Sorting books at Givat Ram, 1960. Photo: David Harris


Sorting books in the new National Library of Israel building, 2022. Photo: Albatross

As of today, all the Library’s books have been transferred to the Main Automated Stacks in the new National Library of Israel building, stored inside special crates on a multistory shelving system. When a book is ordered, it is no longer located by an actual human being, rather, this task is now performed by a crane-like robot. The robot knows which crate to take from which shelf. It then moves the crate to a location where staff can pull out the specific book that has been ordered. Even more astounding is that there is no human involvement at all inside the gigantic automated storeroom, which maintains a low level of oxygen and contains the vast majority of the Library’s collections. The robot knows exactly where to find a particular book from among the millions packed in the precisely stacked crates.

Stacks at Givat Ram. Photo: Hanan Cohen


The automated storeroom in the new National Library of Israel building, 2022. Photo: Yaniv Levi Korem

From the photos, you can see that moving books on such a scale—whether hundreds of thousands or millions—is a visually compelling and technically complex process. And whether analog or digital, the Library has always taken care of its collections, making sure that each and every book is in its correct location on the shelf, with the storeroom space only expanding over the years.

In the coming year, the National Library of Israel will complete its relocation to the new campus and when we open our doors, all these millions of books will be available to you, along with the rest of the Library’s collections.