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ISRAEL: The pope's gifts--taking stock

May 15, 2009 |  6:47 pm

MapPope Benedict XVI was presented with a great many gifts during his visit to the Holy Land. Careful thought had gone into each to ensure the token carried the desired message: religious, political, national and other.

Here's a (partial) list of what the pope left Israel and the West Bank with: 

  • Nano-Bible: the whole Bible --all 1.2 million letters and 300,000 words-- engraved on a silicon chip the size of a grain of sand by researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
  • Painting: "Camp Synagogue," by Felix Nussbaum, a Jewish artist who perished in Auschwitz.
  • Ancient lamp: a 1,500-year-old menorah, a rare antique lamp, gift of the Jewish National Fund, which had worked for weeks to prepare the site of the Mass at Mt. Precipice near Nazareth. Sculpture 
  • Covenant to save lives: Magen David Adom, Israel's largest medical organization, conceived a covenant addressing the highest religious value of all, saving lives, from an interfaith perspective. Written and signed by distinguished Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders.
  • Ancient map: a framed copy of Heinrich Bunting's famous 16th century depiction of Jerusalem as the center of the clover leaf-shaped Old World, presented by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat upon welcoming Benedict to Jerusalem.
  • The Gospel of Luke: a volume of 65 poster-size pages written in ornate Arabic script by a Bethlehem artist of Islamic calligraphy. The Bethlehem mayor commissioned the Muslim Yasser Abu Saymeh for the project, a message of religious coexistence that took two months to complete. 

    Bronze sculpture (right): Jerusalem artist Aharon Bezalel's sculpture designed of 10 bronze figures welded together, the tallest three engraved with a cross, moon and menorah in a sign of religious coexistence. This completes a circle for the artist, who had met with Pope John Paul II and presented him with a sculpture honoring the memory of the Holocaust. It is on display in the Vatican. 

A few of the gifts combined ancient and modern, some were an interfaith statement, and others yet hinted at political issues, such as the sash that was given to him when he visited a West Bank refugee camp; it was embroidered with a key--a symbol of Palestinian refugees' desire to return to their homes, now in Israel.

Pope Benedict brought some gifts with him too, such as the ventilator for a children's hospital and a mosaic representation of the birth of Jesus he presented to Bethlehem. And, he left a note in the Western Wall.

But some people wanted the pope to return some stuff too.

This week, two right-wing activists had filed a request for a stay of exit against the pope and three senior members of his delegation. Complete with a report of theft ("on an unknown date" ), citing Israel's two chief rabbis as witnesses, they demanded the court to order the pope to return artifacts stolen from the Jewish temple by Titus, who ransacked Jerusalem and the temple nearly 2,000 years ago and brought them to Rome, where the petitioners believe they remain, hidden somewhere under the Vatican.

Plenty of people have a touch of the Templars or have watched too many Indiana Jones movies. Not these two. Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel, two ultra-nationalist serial petitioners, were just doing what they do best: mounting high-publicity protests of issues they take to be anti-Jewish or anti-Israel, including gay pride parades and papal visits. They would have known their petition would be kicked out of court; the pope is a head of state and as such enjoys diplomatic immunity.Arch of titus

Cockamamie as the petition was, the issue isn't a new one. Besides being a great mystery that has intrigued writers, adventurers and dreamers, it has also produced academic and historic debate. Most seem to agree the spoils did make it to Rome intact in AD 71, as later depicted on one of the panels on the Arch of Titus in Rome that shows the Romans making off with the treasures. 

Many believe that the plundered temple artifacts remain in Rome today. But in his book God's Gold, British historian Sean Kingsley wrote that the treasures were not in the Vatican, or even in Rome, for that matter. Kingsley believes they were spirited away from Rome when the Vandals (the original ones) came to town and made it back to the Holy Land, where he thinks he knows where they are: the Monastery of St. Theodosius, near Bethlehem.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem. 

Top: Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat greets Benedict XVI, presents him with gift. Credit: Government Press Office.

Middle: Sculpture by Aharon Bezalel, presented to the pope by Israel's tourism minister. Publicity picture.

Bottom: Arch of Titus panel showing the spoils of the temple. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.