In the twenty-first century, the Jewish people have been admired for resilience and resourcefulness, and for their ability to survive and thrive in adversity. Yet the incredibly long history of the Jews has plunged them into hardship time and again, but, to the benefit of mankind's collective cultural heritage, has failed to break them.
The Menorah has an important place in Jewish tradition, and its design was revealed to Moses by God himself. The oral tradition holds that the original example was a seven-armed lampstand that stood over five feet tall, was made of gold, and present in the tabernacle until the crossing of the Jordan river by the Israelites. Upon the establishment of Solomon's temple (also called the First Temple of Jerusalem), the Menorah was placed within it. It has been an important symbol of Judaism and represents the idea of universal enlightenment and knowledge, its three outward pairs of lamps symbolizing human knowledge, guided by the central lamp which is a representation of God's guidance.
In 586 BCE, the invading Babylonians destroyed the Temple, and the Jews entered their first dark age, held in captivity with their sacred relics (including the Menorah) stripped away. Fifty years later, however, they were liberated by Cyrus the Great, whose Persian superstate now absorbed Judea where a Second Temple was constructed. This Second Temple was a modest construction, and no longer held many of the sacred items that were housed inside Solomon's temple although the Menorah was meticulously preserved. For almost half a Millenium afterwards, the Jews no longer found themselves masters of their destiny, attached to the Achaemenids until the conquests of Alexander, and then finding themselves under Ptolemaic Egypt before being annexed by the Seleucid Empire.
Menorah with the Star of David. Available here.
Life under the Seleucids was another period of trial for the Jewish people, whose religion was effectively outlawed and the temple converted to Greek worship. These actions directly led to the Maccabean revolt, a seven-year guerilla conflict between the Jews and the Seleucid Empire, where the former eventually emerged victorious, re-establishing Jewish control after more than four hundred years. This victory is a key part of Jewish culture, and the resulting rededication of the Temple is celebrated as the festival of Hanukkah, commemorated by lighting the Menorah.
The Hamsa is a beautiful palm-shaped pattern that, predominantly among Jews and Muslims, is seen as a sign of protection. This beautiful mat is available here.
The Menorah stood in the Second Temple for nearly six hundred years and is widely attested to in historical writings, although its exact location within the temple has been subject to some controversy. The Hasmonean dynasty came to control Judea in the aftermath of the rebellion, semi-independently at first and then as full sovereigns as the Seleucids declined in power. At the same time, in the century leading up the start of the Christian era, sweeping changes were occurring in all parts of the world. In the east, the Parthians were re-establishing a powerful Persian state at Seleucid expense, and in the West, two of history's most ambitious and talented men were seeking glory in the Roman Late Republic.
Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus both saw military glory as the path to high office in Rome. Caesar's iconic conquest of Gaul was preceded by Pompey's push into the Eastern Mediterranean, bringing Anatolia, Armenia, and the Levant under Roman domination, 63 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Judea was made a client state of Rome, and thus started the complex, and ultimately doomed relationship between the Romans and the Jews. Hasmonean rule was ended by the ascension of Herod the Great as a client king to the Romans, who carried out a large renovation program for the Second Temple. At this time, the Jewish diaspora was spreading across the Mediterranean world, and tensions between Jewish and Hellenistic populations would become commonplace over the next century.
This jewelled Rhinestone Menorah, complete with a Star of David, can be found here.
Mark Antony's defeat at the battle of Actium signalled the rise of the Roman Empire under Octavian and the incorporation of Egypt as a Roman province. Octavian for his part continued Julius Caesar's policy of religious tolerance and Judaism was legally recognized as a religion of the Empire. However, the tension between the monotheistic Jews and polytheistic Romans was present from the beginning. In 6 CE, Judea was converted into a complete Roman province, and the reign of Emperor Caligula saw a sharp increase in tension over clashing cultures, religious tensions and the imposition of Roman law.
From this point onwards, conflict was rife, and small scale rebellion in Judea was almost constant. In 66 CE however, full-scale war broke out. Anti-taxation protests and attacks on Romans were responded to by the Roman governor by plundering the Second Temple, immediately making war inevitable. The thirteen-year war was extremely bloody and only ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 BCE. Emperor Vespasian's son Titus fought a protracted siege against Jerusalem, and the victorious Romans destroyed the city and the Temple, carrying off the spoils to Rome.
These beautiful earrings celebrate the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Titus' return to Rome was commemorated with the creation of the Arch of Titus in 81 AD after his death, depicting the celebration of his triumph. The Menorah can be seen as a Frieze in the arch even today, and it was located at the Temple of Peace in Rome for nearly four hundred years. Its whereabouts after the 455 AD sack of Rome, however, remains unknown.
The First Jewish-Roman war was followed by two other major conflicts. The Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 BCE finally drove Jewish communities out of their homeland for good, and more than half a million Jews perished in the war as the Romans adopted an official policy of ethnic cleansing. This war deeply influenced the Jewish religion, distinguishing it more clearly from Christianity, and took Judea out of Jewish hands for nearly two millennia.
The Kinara is a seven-armed candlestick holder that is lit on Kwanza by African Americans.
The Second Temple and its memory, and Jewish symbolism like the Menorah, kept the religion and its tradition alive for more than nineteen hundred years, without any official homeland. The festival of Tisha B'av, for instance, is an opportunity for remembrance for the hardships faced by the Jewish people at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans. Through thousands of years of adversity and oppression, however, the Jews have continued to amaze the world through their resilience and resourcefulness into the modern day. Along the way, they have consistently made outsized contributions to science, finance, and culture, of which the Menorah is but one example, its presence noted in Christianity, and, more recently, the African American celebration of Kwanza, which also involves the lighting of a seven-armed candlestick holder called a Kinara. Not bad huh?