Striking gold

Scholarly sleuthing cracks an ancient code.

jer gold ketuba 88 298 (photo credit: Calligraphy: Norman Slepkov)
jer gold ketuba 88 298
(photo credit: Calligraphy: Norman Slepkov)
Defining the "Jerusalem of Gold" has perplexed Biblical scholars for centuries. Though it's best known as a song title, it does not refer to the city's golden-domed Al-Aksa mosque, nor its buildings of sun-burnished stone. Instead, it codifies an object nearly lost to modern knowledge. The clues lay scattered within Biblical texts, ancient etymology and archaeological finds. Few scholars can glean from all three fields, but Shalom Paul is one of them. A professor emeritus of Biblical studies at Hebrew University, Paul leads a charge of academic sleuths in exploring the culture of antiquity. Part literary critic, part historian, part biblical interpreter, Paul considers artifacts in light of history and vice versa for a fuller understanding of ancient life. Students enrolled in Paul's advanced courses at Hebrew University must possess fluency in two ancient and three modern languages, along with a deep background in history, ancient literature, archaeology, linguistics, theology and comparative ancient religions. "Most people think all you have to do to study the Bible is open the English translation and start to read," he says. "There's much more to it." With cuneiform tablets, Talmudic tractates, diligent pursuit and sheer luck, Paul snapped together the puzzle that revealed the Jerusalem of Gold, restoring a lost tradition to its former glory. Born in Philadelphia in 1936, Paul was ordained as a rabbi in 1962 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Two years later he received his PhD in Oriental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, joining Hebrew University in 1971. Aided by close reading, historical study and ancient source material, he has become a field guide to the text and to the world it evokes. He has published a Biblical almanac and an illustrated dictionary. A recent volume called Divrei Shalom compiles his hundreds of articles on the sacred scrolls. A popular and engaging speaker, Paul communicates his authority with accessible argot and impish charm. The serpent in Eden approached Eve, not Adam, because it "simply wanted to have an intelligent conversation," he says. Before the patriarch Abraham struck out for Canaan, he sat through remedial religion courses at the otherwise prestigious "U of M": University of Mesopotamia. Silver-haired and sinewy, habitually fiddling with his glasses, Paul marks his lectures with narrative drama and mischievous deadpan. PAUL'S STRUGGLE to decode the Jerusalem of Gold began in the late 1960s with an ancient cuneiform document from the Canaanite city-state of Ugarit, whose ancient Semitic language shares common roots with Hebrew. This ancient bit of bookkeeping, circa 1400 BCE, includes an inventory of the trousseau of one Queen Aatmilku, with the unique Sumerian phrase uru k -gi in her catalogue of jewelry. Translated, the phrase reads "one city of gold," with a listed weight of 215 shekels - the equivalent of 10 pounds. Analyzing at the most basic level, Paul realized a crown, unlike a bangle or earring, might feasibly weigh 10 pounds and was not yet mentioned in the queen's trousseau. The tradition of crowns extends beyond medieval European monarchies. In ancient cultures and theologies, they adorn the heads of goddesses and queens in sculpture and story. The phrase "city of gold" resonates with anyone familiar with the Talmud, the corpus of ancient Rabbinic literature that expounds upon the Torah with commentary and legend. This opulent symbol of wealth figures in many stories. The Talmud implies it is customary for brides to wear one. It declares that only a wealthy woman is permitted to flaunt one in public. It also relates how Rabbi Akiva presented his wife with a "city of gold" as recompense for selling her hair to subsidize his Torah study. The identification of this article of jewelry becomes apparent from a variant version of this text, which substitutes the reading "crown of gold" for "city of gold." This same crown bears another name in rabbinic literature: "Jerusalem of gold," since, according to the rabbis, the term "city" referred to their city par excellence, Jerusalem. But Paul was at a loss to explain why the crown was described as a "city." Did it relate to the crown's appearance? It took a bold stroke of luck to connect the dots. One of Paul's colleagues, a linguistic scholar, had casually mentioned the corrupted Greek term for "city of gold" used in the Talmud, whose Hebrew text had absorbed several "loan words" from the era's prevailing Hellenism. The word was a variant compound of "krisos," or gold, and "kastellion," or castle. In a flash of insight, Paul understood that the crown was designed to resemble a citadel or fortress, sculpted into turreted segments to evoke the ramparts that bordered ancient cities. A city was in fact defined by its surrounding walls. Racking his brain, Paul recalled the frescoes at the Dura Europus synagogue, in Syria, which depict Queen Esther with a turreted crown on her head. Once he began to search, he found ample evidence. A similar crown adorns the heads of Hittite female deities on the rock sanctuary of Yazilikaya, Turkey, dating from about 1200 BCE; of an Elamite queen depicted within an eighth-century relief in Iran; and of two prominent Assyrian women in the same era. The motif of the turreted crown had even entered the vocabulary of Greek and Roman art. The mythical Greek goddess Tyche, patron deity of cities, is perpetually rendered with a turreted crown. The missing epigraphical link between the occurrence of this phrase in the Ugaritic text and its reappearance in Talmudic sources appears in an Aramaic tablet from neo-Assyrian times. In recording the sale of a slave, it declares that anyone contesting the case must give a "city of gold" to Nikkal, wife of the moon god Sahar. Though most are unaware of its textual and pictorial origins, "Jerusalem of Gold" has accrued a meaning of its own: a catchphrase in Israel connoting beauty, love, Torah and Jerusalem's exalted status. Real estate developers borrowed the term to name a residential tower under construction in Jerusalem - aptly enough, near Rabbi Akiva Street. Israel's most celebrated songwriter, Naomi Shemer, wrote a stirring ballad in 1967 titled Yerushalayim shel zahav. Paul contacted Shemer to discuss the term, and the two became close friends. Shortly after Paul locally published his findings, an Israeli jeweler was inspired to design a gold, antique-style belt. The jeweler, who took the pseudonym Shambaz, sold the piece to the House of Cartier, avowing the existence of Biblical-era wedding belts termed "cities of gold." The New York Times perpetuated the error. On Paul's next visit to New York, he strode into the Cartier store on Fifth Avenue, dressed to the nines and vowing to splurge - if the sales clerk would reveal the belt designer's identity. Shambaz happened to have business in Manhattan's Diamond District that day. Squared off across the dinner table, Paul lambasted Shambaz for his defacement of intellectual property. Over the years, Paul offered his students the "golden" opportunity to revive the tradition of wearing the crown at their nuptials. It fell to Paul's daughter to become the first bride in 2,000 years to don the Jerusalem of Gold, walking down the aisle in the image of her foremothers. For Paul, the simcha marked the real triumph of his discovery - its tangible, visceral rewards and riches. The City of Gold, no longer obscured, shone anew upon the next generation.