There are very few historical ruins in the world that have held up their legacy so much so that they still play a significant role in the cultural consciousness of the people. The Second Temple of Jerusalem (or simply the Second Temple) undoubtedly belongs to this rare category of historical structures. And while the remnants of this temple complex, like the Wailing Wall, are confined to the perimeters of the present-day Temple Mount, the structure in itself probably reached its greatest extent (in dimensions) during the reign of Herod (circa 1st century BC). And that is why the Second Temple is often referred to as Herod’s Temple.
When Was the Second Temple Founded?
While our popular notions hark back to the Second Temple of King Herod (circa 1st century BC), Biblical accounts talk about the founding of the Second Temple in the 6th century itself, more than seventy years after the unceremonious destruction of the First Temple (or Solomon’s Temple – see the reconstruction here) by the ancient Neo-Babylonian army in 586 BC. According to such accounts, the second founding was spearheaded by the Jewish exiles who were allowed to return to their homeland following the magnanimous decree of the Persian king Cyrus the Great.
One of their leaders, known as Zerubbabel, was later appointed the governor of the Persian Province of Yehud Medinata. And it was his possibly elevated effort as an administrative head, aided by both logistical and materialistic support (including personal gifts) from his followers, that allowed the establishment of a new altar on the original site of the altar of the First Temple. This was followed by the construction of the temple itself in 515 BC, which rose to a height of 60 cubits (approx. 90 ft). Lawrence H. Schiffman, professor at New York University, wrote (at My Jewish Learning) –
While there is no complete description of the Temple built by Zerubbabel, considerable detail can be gleaned from various sources. It had two courtyards. One report suggests dimensions of 500 by 100 cubits (about 750 by 150 ft) for the inner courtyard. There were at least four gates in the wall of the outer courtyard, and at least one of them faced a street. There were at least two gates to the inner courtyard. Various chambers surrounded the Temple in both courtyards. Most of these were in the outer courtyard, and were used for the storage of tithes, equipment, and vessels. Certain high officials apparently merited private chambers within the Temple precincts.
Continuation of the Legacy In the Form of Herod’s Temple –
Interestingly enough, while the rededication was successfully made with the usual pomp and ceremony, the Second Temple still lacked a few holy objects, including the enigmatic Ark of the Covenant and the sacred fire. And furthermore, the Second Temple also went through its own cycle of foreign interventions. One of these major episodes involved the fledgling Seleucid Empire in 167 AD when Antiochus IV Epiphanes not only sacked and looted the temple but also ordered an altar to Zeus to be erected within the sacred precinct of the Temple Mount. The Seleucid monarch then went on to outlaw the observance of Sabbath and forbade the possession of Jewish scriptures, thus essentially relegating Judaism to a fringe social space.
Such harsh measures, in turn, instigated the successful Maccabean Revolt that ultimately allowed the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty to take semi-autonomous control of Judea and Jerusalem. Unsurprisingly, the Second Temple was once again heralded as the center of the Jewish religion and this historical feat is culturally associated with the observance of Hanukkah. However, beyond just symbolic overtures, the Hasmoneans also played their part in refurbishing many parts of the temple precinct – except for the main structure.
This latter scope was covered by King Herod during his incredible restoration project that fascinatingly touched upon the main building of the Second Temple. Often touted as one of the major construction endeavors of 1st century BC, Herod invited architects and builders from distant Greece, Egypt, and even Rome to oversee some of the outer works, while the core structure and its edifice (which still functioned as a spot for sacrificial offerings) were expanded upon by the Jewish priests. The entire precinct and surrounding areas of ancient Jerusalem possibly attracted over 300,000 pilgrims during the Passover, thus alluding to the massive undertaking of Herod. Lawrence H. Schiffman wrote (in the Bible Odyssey) –
In addition to the temple building itself, the temple area (Greek, temenos) consisted of an outer courtyard surrounding the complex; the Court of the Women, which both men and women could enter; and a courtyard that enclosed the altar for burnt offerings. Only male Israelites were permitted in the Court of Israel, a small strip extending along the width of the inner courtyard. Beyond the Court of Israel, only priests were permitted to enter. Inside the temple building were the menorah, table for showbread, incense altar and, further in, the holy of holies. Biblical tradition held that this had been the location of the ark of the covenant in the first temple.
The Visual Reconstruction of Herod’s Temple –
Many of the reconstructions of Herod’s Temple found in various modern media outlets are based on the 1966 model of Israeli historian and archaeologist Michael Avi-Yonah. And it is known that Avi-Yonah made use of extensive research techniques, entailing ancient sources like the writings of Josephus, New Testament, and even imagery from curious artifacts like Jewish Revolt coins, to give scale and elevation to his model. However, as Peter J. Schertz and Steven Fine, from Biblical Archaeology, noted –
As with any reconstruction of a long destroyed ancient building, especially one as important as Herod’s Temple, many complications surround Michael Avi-Yonah’s model. Josephus describes Herod’s Temple extensively in his Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews, but each description differs slightly, and neither allows for easy architectural reconstruction. Other elements of Josephus’s descriptions, such as the height of the Temple gate doors—which Josephus lists at 49 feet high and 24.5 feet wide—could be exaggerated, as Josephus was wont to do. However, doors of this size were known to exist in the ancient world. Two examples can be found in Rome itself: at the Pantheon and at the Senate House in the Roman Forum. Thus, Avi-Yonah’s model of Herod’s Temple stays true to Josephus’s description. This is but one of the decisions Avi-Yonah had to make concerning his representation of Herod’s Temple
In any case, the 3D model of Herod’s Temple has been superbly presented (below) in its animated avatar – concocted by Daniel Smith and the talented folks over at Immersive History –
The Incredible Floor Tiles of Herod’s Temple –
One of the oft-overlooked features of the Second Temple during Herod’s era pertains to its artistic flair. A significant part of this architectural ambit encompassed the richly decorated floor tiles that adorned the porticoes on the Temple Mount. Discovered (back in 2016) by researchers at the Jerusalem-based Temple Mount Sifting Project, these restored floor tiles were crafted by using geometric patterns that were prevalent during the time of Herod. In fact, given the Roman influence in the region, Herod adopted many of the Mediterranean architectural styles (along with Roman measurements), including a particular type of flooring, known as opus sectile (roughly translated as ‘cut-work’). These floors were considered exclusively opulent and thus were far more prestigious than their mosaic tiled counterparts. This is what Frankie Snyder, a member of the Temple Mount Sifting Project and an expert in ancient Herodian style flooring, said –
So far, we have succeeded in restoring seven potential designs of the majestic flooring that decorated the buildings of the Temple Mount. The tile segments were perfectly inlaid such that one could not even insert a sharp blade between them.
From the archaeological angle, the researchers were able to salvage at least 600 colored tile segments from the proximate areas of the Temple Mount. Among them, around 100 specimens conform to the date of the Second Temple during Herod’s reign. Unsurprisingly, their styles and pattern match with other Herodian architectural feats, including his palaces at Masada and Jericho. Furthermore, many of the segments are also similar to the ones used in the distant palaces and villas that dotted the Mediterranean territories of the ascendant Roman Empire (of the time).
As for the literary evidence of the opus sectile tiles being used for the Second Temple, the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus wrote (circa 1st century AD) how the Temple Mount courtyard was “completely paved with stones of various types and colors”. Talmudic literature also complements such a perspective by making mention of the green, blue and white marbles that adorned the Temple Mount in geometric rows. These multicolored components were possibly imported from selective manufacturers in Egypt, Tunisia, Asia Minor and even Greece. Suffice it to say, the end result of these multifariously colored floors, accompanied by the sheer size of the Second Temple, must have been magnificent in its kaleidoscopic ambit. As Dr. Gabriel Barkay, co-founder and director of the Temple Mount Sifting Project said (in 2016) –
Now, as a result of Frankie Snyder’s mathematical skills, we have succeeded in recreating the actual tile patterns. This represents the first time that we can see with our own eyes the splendor of the flooring that decorated the Second Temple and its annexes 2,000 years ago. Referring to the Temple that Herod built, the Talmud says that ‘Whoever has not seen Herod’s building has not seen a beautiful building in his life’. Though we have not merited seeing the Temple in its glory, with the discovery and restoration of these unique floor tiles, we are now able to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Second Temple, even through this one distinctive characteristic.
Lastly, in case one is interested in yet another visual representation of the Second Temple, have a gander at the animation below made by Israel Archaeology YouTube channel, which is a part of the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority organization. According to them –
The Herodian version of the model shows visitors how excavators believe the Temple Mount site appeared prior to its destruction by Roman troops in the year 70 AD. The focus is on the southern portion of the
enclosure,and includes reconstructions of Robinson’s Arch (an early overpass linking the top of the platform with the major city street below), the Hulda Street gates and passages onto the platform, the Royal Stoa, and the Second Temple. The reconstruction is based on the excavations at the Temple Mount under the direction of Ronny Reich and regional archaeologist Gideon Avni.