The unassuming slab of limestone doesn’t look like much. It’s crudely fractured and chipped on the sides, pockmarked with age, and is perched not too prominently on a shelf at the Israel Museum. But its smoothly hewn face and crisply etched Greek letters still bearing faint traces of red paint belie monumental significance.
“If we talk about the closest thing to the Temple we have,” said David Mevorach, senior curator of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Archaeology, “on the Temple Mount, this was closest.”
Two millennia ago, the block served as one of several Do Not Enter signs in the Second Temple in Jerusalem, delineating a section of the 37-acre complex which was off-limits for the ritually impure — Jews and non-Jews alike. Written in Greek (no Latin versions have survived), they warned: “No foreigner may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.”
There are actually two extant copies of the warning notices — a partial one here in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, and a second, complete, one in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum — and they are among a small handful of artifacts conclusively belonging to the shrine built by Herod toward the end of the first century CE. Contemporary accounts mentioned their existence, and 1,800 years after the Temple’s destruction, a French archaeologist found a complete copy that had been incorporated into the wall of a Muslim school in Jerusalem’s Old City.
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