Friday, May 4, 2012

The Burnt House: Remembering Jerusalem's Destruction

Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, "You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." (Mat 24:1-2)

During the excavations that took place in the Jewish Quarter after the Six Day War in 1967, archaeologists discovered the ruins of a house that had collapsed and been burnt by a fierce fire.

Welcome to Beit Katros - the home of an important family of priests who served in the Second Temple and are mentioned in the Talmud. Visitors to the restored ancient site are in for a unique experience: a gripping multimedia, sound and light show dramatically recreates the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple against the backdrop of the social strife and fraternal division that undermined the foundations of the Jewish nation.

The drama makes every visitor a part of the Katros family and of Jerusalem during those last tragic days of the city that Jesus knew and loved.

Entering the small museum, as one walks down towards the remains of the house, panels along the stairs bear sobering inscriptions from the Talmud and from the First Century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius attempting to explain the destruction of the city and its sanctuary:

"Why was Jerusalem destroyed? The first time because of idol worship; the second time because of unqualified hatred."

"Woe to the children because of whose sins I destroyed my home and burnt down my sanctuary and cast them into exile among the nations of the world."

The excavations have uncovered the full fury of the catastrophe: collapsed walls, stones seared by fire, charred wooden beams, soot, and shattered household utensils beneath heaps of fallen stones.

The Burnt House

An iron spearhead found leaning against the wall in a corner of a room and the bones of a young woman's arm found in the kitchen are further evidence of the fierce battle that took place here.

Numerous stones vessels remain in the various chambers, as well as stone tables, basalt mortars, cooking pots, measuring cups, weights and containers. As is the case in the houses of the Herodian Quarter, the predominance of stone items is explained by the Jewish laws of ritual purity, which state that stone vessels cannot become ritually impure.

An engraving found on one of the weights says "(de) Bar Katros." The House of Katros is known to have been one of the priestly families serving in the Second Temple.

In an instant, the scene of destruction comes back to life as a film is projected on a screen lowered over the ruins and we are transported nearly 2,000 years back into the villa of the Katros family.

The story, narrated by a young man by the name of Zadok, begins with a festive Passover meal in the Katros home. Pinchas, Zadok's father, is the head of the family and a priest. As the family and their guests commemorate the Exodus and their freedom from Egyptian slavery, they are clearly preoccupied by the immediate danger of the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman army. The Jewish revolt that had begun four years earlier has taken a disastrous turn. Like most priests, Pinchas tends to favor conciliation with the Romans. But Zadok is distressed that people are being killed by the Romans down in the lower city while the Jewish zealots are leading active resistance against them.

A scene from the Katros house on the eve of the Temple's destruction

Pinchas reassures those present: "We have nothing to worry about: we are a family of priests. Who would touch a family of priests?"

He even dismisses his wife's worries and her suggestion that they leave the city: if worse comes to worse, says Pinchas, they will find refuge in the Temple. When she suggests that even the Temple could be destroyed - as it had already happened in the past - Pinchas is outraged: "The Temple... destroyed? Unthinkable!"

Then Pinchas finds out something about his son Zadok's role in the resistance against the Romans that makes him livid with anger. He is just about to throw his son out of the house when the housemaid intervenes: "the Temple will not survive if you continue to hate each other!"

As the Romans break into the city, tragedy strikes - first the Temple, and then the Katros family. When Zadok returns home, in the midst of his grief he exclaims: "something tells me that we will one day return here, and that we will again inhabit the streets of Jerusalem."

These words of hope are echoed by the words of the prophet Zechariah as the film transitions into images of lively families and children in the rebuilt Jewish Quarter of today:

"Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets... Thus says the LORD of hosts: behold, I will save my people from the east and from the west country, and I will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness" (Zec 8:4-8).

Revisit and experience the last days of Second Temple Jerusalem with a visit to the Burnt House!