Beyond Idumaea and Samaria stretches the wide expanse of Judaea divided into ten toparchies [including] Orine, where Jerusalem was formerly situated, by far the most famous city of the East.
PLINY THE ELDER, 1ST CENTURY AD
The Italian polymath Pliny wrote these words in the AD 70s, shortly after the reduction of Jerusalem to rubble by Roman forces led by the future emperor Titus. An oriental city, in which Aramaic and Hebrew were the predominant languages, Jerusalem had been accustomed to the influence of Western powers since the conquests of Alexander the Great in 330 BC. The population consisted almost entirely of Jews, a nation whose historical memory, preserved in the Hebrew Bible, stretched far back, but in these centuries, especially after the siege of the city by Pompey the Great in 63 BC, their fortunes were increasingly enmeshed with those of Rome.
The biblical texts enjoined Jews to treat Jerusalem as the unique place on earth where God wished to be worshipped through sacrifices, libations and incense. In the late 1st century BC the Jewish king Herod, appointed ruler of Judaea in 40 BC by the Roman state, rebuilt and enlarged the existing Temple on a scale of astonishing size and grandeur. Almost all that remains today is the Western Wall, part of the platform on which the Temple stood, but this still impresses.
The Dome of the Rock, built many centuries later, rises approximately on the site of the Jewish Temple of Herod’s day. The great platform, which rests on a series of arches, was created by Herod to accommodate the crowds of pilgrims.
© Walter Bibikow/agefotostock.com.
The Temple dominated the city. It was here that crowds gathered and movements like the early Christians met and gained supporters. From dawn to sunset each day a select group of the hereditary caste of priests performed the fixed sacrifices on behalf of the nation, together with a constant stream of private offerings. In the surrounding porticoes throngs of worshippers bought sacrificial animals and changed their coins into Tyrian shekels for the payment of sacred donations. This daily rhythm of worship was disrupted three times a year when the Temple and the city were invaded by huge crowds of pilgrims at the festivals of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. At these times there was a truly international flavour to the place, as it played host to what St Luke describes in the Acts of the Apostles as ‘devout Jews from every nation under heaven’. Such religious festivals were also occasions for political volatility.
A street in Jerusalem today. The Old City retains much of the street plan of Aelia Capitolina, the Roman colony built on the ruined site of Jerusalem after AD 135.
© Images & Stories.
In AD 66 the revolt that led to the destruction of Jerusalem four years later began at the time of Passover. Some 36 years earlier, Jesus of Nazareth had been executed by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate during the same festival. But the religious excitement and enthusiasm that led to such disturbances also enabled the city to prosper: Jerusalem enjoyed no exceptional natural resources and lay astride no natural trade route, so the wealth of the city was founded entirely on the influx of funds from elsewhere, brought there out of pious devotion.
By the mid-1st century AD a building boom fuelled by this international pilgrimage had transformed much of Jerusalem into an impressive display of Hellenistic and Roman architecture. New aqueducts enabled the settled population to expand into the large new suburb of Bezetha to the north. The hilly site on which the city had been founded some thousand years before discouraged a clear urban layout, but amid the narrow streets were town houses with mosaics and frescoes reminiscent of those in contemporary Pompeii. The Pax Romana which facilitated pilgrimage also encouraged international trade. Jerusalem, in the years before its downfall, appeared to be a flourishing and integrated part of the Roman empire.
Detail from a frieze on the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing Roman soldiers carrying the seven-branched menorah through the streets of Rome after the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70; the Romans did not permit the Jews to rebuild their Temple.
Bible Land Pictures/akg-images.
Such appearances were deceptive, however. When Herod had tried around 30 BC to import into Jerusalem modern entertainments such as competitions of athletes, stage artists and charioteers (on the Greek model), and wild beast hunts (on the Roman), his attempts were roundly rejected by unenthusiastic locals, who argued that such activities were against ancestral custom. Public attitudes were puritanical, and there was a widespread belief that physical purity could be a powerful metaphor for spiritual purity – ritual baths are a striking characteristic of the archaeology of Jerusalem at this time.
The zealous attachment of Jews to their religious customs was well known to outsiders: that was why Pompey had attacked Jerusalem on the Sabbath. While Jewish interpretations of their law varied widely, with quite contrary views espoused by groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, and different ideas again held by the authors of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, a few miles away to the east, it was their complete devotion to that law which encouraged many of the defenders of Jerusalem to fight to the end in August AD 70 as the Roman siege drew to its terrible close.
For much of the 1st century up to AD 70, Jerusalem was ruled by Rome through an elite class led by High Priests selected by the governor or (through authority delegated by Rome) by a descendant of Herod. The Roman state in Judaea was represented by only a very small military force. Any serious unrest had to be suppressed by legions stationed far to the north in Syria. In AD 66 a series of events escalated into war. Jerusalem was the epicentre of the revolt, and in the following years Vespasian, the obscure general sent from Syria by the emperor Nero in AD 67 to suppress the rebellion, encircled the city.
The Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Little remains of the original wall erected by Herod for the Temple apart from the huge blocks dragged to the site to act as foundations. They have continued to attract veneration by Jewish pilgrims since late antiquity.
© amit erez/iStockphoto.com.
Following Nero’s death by suicide in late AD 68, and the proclamation of Vespasian himself as emperor by his troops in June AD 69, victory over Jerusalem took on new significance as a means to win prestige in Roman society. Just before Passover in AD 70, Vespasian’s son Titus began a prolonged assault on the city. The contemporary Jewish priest Josephus recorded the dire consequences: ‘The city was so completely levelled … as to leave future visitors no ground for believing that it had ever been inhabited.’
But even destroyed, Jerusalem was to linger in people’s imagination. Among Jews, hope for the restoration of the Temple continued powerfully for many years, until rabbinic Jews evolved a new theology in which prayer and good deeds might partially compensate for the sacrifices which could no longer be offered. Among Christians, the destruction of the city took on a special significance as a mark of divine retribution for those who had rejected the message of Christ; they, like the Jews, watched and waited for the New Jerusalem to arise at the end of days.