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Ain Dara Temple, 10th century BCE

ain dara templeThe settlement of ‘Ain Dara sits along the route from Aleppo to the Mediterranean coast in modern-day northwest Syria. The town, with a palace and elaborately decorated temple, existed from the 10-7th c. BC. This 10th c. temple typifies the plan commonly employed throughout the Bronze and Iron Age Levant (the eastern edge of the Mediterranean basin, from the second through the first half of the first millennium) from the mid- second millennium Shechem (in the hills north of Jerusalem, to Hazor (north of the Sea of Galilee) in the second half of the second millennium, to 8th c. Tell Ta‘yinat in northern Syria. Each temple took the form of a tri-partite structure consisting of a rectangular building entered from one of the short ends and divided into three successive rooms- an entryway or porch with flanking pillars or towers, a large middle room for ritual activities, and the innermost room where the deity resided. Surrounding corridors provided outer storerooms for some temples including the ‘Ain Dara and biblical temples (2 Kgs 6- 2-6).

The carved basalt reliefs and three dimensional monumental animals lining the temple walls and façade render the ‘Ain Dara Temple unique. Cherubs and lions greeted the temple visitor from the façade, and deities accompanied by lesser divinities such as the horned bull-men were carved into stone panels (orthostats) in the temple interior. Perhaps most striking are the supra-human footprints of the deity, perhaps Ishtar, imprinted in the thresholds symbolizing the deity entering the shrine – both footprints on the outer threshold, then a left footprint followed by a right footprint on the inner threshold.

‘Ain Dara Temple and the Bible

The parallels between the ‘Ain Dara Temple and the biblical description of Solomon’s temple are striking. In each case, the structure consisted of a rectangular building oriented the long way and divided into three successive areas – a porch or vestibule with columns flanking the entrance, an intermediary room for ritual activity, and the innermost room to house the deity (1 Kings 6- 2-6). Cherubs featured in both temples- in Solomon’s temple adorning the wooden doors and walls and forming God’s throne in the innermost room (1 Kgs 6- 23-35), and in the ‘Ain Dara temple as creatures guarding the temple entrance. Both temples housed a deity of supra-human size. The divine footprints in the ‘Ain Dara thresholds measure approximately 3 feet long each, and God’s cherub throne in the Jerusalem temple stood approximately 15 feet high (10 cubits,1 Kgs 6- 23-26). Given that King Hiram of Tyre provided resources and workmen to assist Solomon’s workmen (1 Kgs 5-15-25) and Hiram of Tyre (not related to the king) cast the bronze objects for the Temple courtyard, it’s no surprise that Solomon’s temple so closely resembled Phoenician (eg. Tel Ta‘yinat) and neo-Hittite (eg. ‘Ain Dara) temples.

Solomon departed from the prevailing practice in not rendering images of God on the temple walls or keeping an image of God in the holy-of-holies, the innermost room in the temple. Depictions at ‘Ain Dara of an enthroned god on a stele and the mountain god carved in relief on the shrine wall attest to the practice of portraying deities within their temples. Solomon, however, adhered to the prohibition not to render an image of God, the “aniconic principle.”

For a general discussion of temples in Syria-Palestine see Anchor Bible Dictionary “Temples and Sanctuaries.” To focus on the Jerusalem Temple see Anchor Bible Dictionary “Temple, Jerusalem.” J. Monson’s lavishly-illustrated article on the ‘Ain Dara Temple appears in BAR 26.3 (2000). For a discussion of the possible symbolism of the Jerusalem Temple decoration and cultic objects see E. Bloch-Smith, “‘Who is the King of Glory?’ Solomon’s Temple and Its Symbolism” in M. Coogan, J. Exum, and L. Stager eds. Scripture and Other Artifacts- Essays on the Bible and Archaeology in Honor of Philip J. King.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith

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