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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Gift Out of Context

Updated: Jul 5, 2019

Roman Imperial Basin found at Montfort, now in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem

It is customary for national leaders when visiting one another to bring gifts, items of great or little value, though generally useless to the receiver, intended as an expression of the cordial relations that the visit has established or strengthened. Richard I of England presented Saladin with a flock of birds and Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, gave Henry III of England three leopards or lions. Indeed, animals are often used in this context. In 1515, the King of Portugal, Manuel I, sent a rhinoceros as a gift to Pope Leo X, but sadly it died en route in a shipwreck. Until 1982 China conducted what was termed “Panda diplomacy”, and in 1972, in honour of Richard Nixon's visit to the Peoples' Republic, the American president received a gift of two giant pandas; Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing. Fidel Castro however, preferred to give Cohiba cigars as diplomatic gifts. In 2011 during a state visit to Australia, U.S. President Obama received the highly useful gift of 50,000 Australian dollars' worth of crocodile insurance, while King Mohammed VI of Morocco rather less generously gave President George W. Bush a three dollar jar of fishing bait. Among the most absurd diplomatic gifts was a straw penis sheath given by the people of the island of Tanna in the South Pacific Republic of Vanuatu to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The prince, who also received a ceremonial club used to kill pigs is, oddly enough, worshipped by the islanders as a deity.

During the 1926 excavations at Montfort Castle carried out by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, a number of remarkable finds were made, but perhaps the strangest of these and the hardest to explain is a metre-high marble basin decorated with carved Greco-Roman mythical figures, wreaths and lion-shaped legs. To judge from the presence of copper piping and spouts, it probably originally functioned as a water fountain, perhaps in a Roman bathhouse.

What makes this find so remarkable is the fact that it was found in a thirteenth century military order fortress; in a site which, other than a few coins and locally manufactured Roman period pottery, has no other evidence for a presence in the Roman period. It is certainly not the location at which we would expect to find such a remarkable piece of Imperial Roman art. Where did it originate and what was it doing here?

There is only one other similar vessel known from the Holy Land, a marble basin that was found in the excavations at Herodium, the first century BC hilltop palace and burial place of King Herod in the Judaean desert south-east of Jerusalem. A larger and more open vessel than the one found at Montfort, it is decorated with a pair of heads of Silenus, the companion and tutor of the wine god, Dionysus. When displayed in an exhibition of the finds from excavations at Herodium at the Israel Museum, it was suggested that this vessel was a diplomatic gift from the Emperor Augustus, presented to Herod by the emperor's deputy, Marcus Agrippa when he was on a tour of Judea in 15 BCE, and installed in the bathhouse as a fountain.

Considering the similarity and uniqueness of these two objects it may well be that the Montfort fountain was also an imperial gift. Perhaps, and here we must delve into the realm of theory, it may have originally been located in a bathhouse in the coastal city of Caesarea, the city that Herod turned into the principal port of Palestine, and where he went to considerable expense and effort to create an elaborate Roman city. Although it had greatly declined by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Franks carried out much construction work in this city, and it is quite feasible that during such work finds of this nature might have been recovered. Perhaps support for the idea of a Caesarean origin can be found in the fact that the German order is known to have possessed property in Caesarea. In 1206, two decades before the construction of Montfort, the order was granted by Juliana, the lady of Caesarea some properties and houses in the city and two towers on its walls.

Whatever its origins, the questions of why it made its way to a Teutonic fortress in the western Galilee and what it was used for remain a quandary. The American excavators suggested that it may have been used as a fountain, a baptismal font or a vessel for Holy Water in the chapel which they believed was located at the western end of the castle's central building where it was discovered. However, the chapel was apparently not located there, but in the keep further to the east. Also, it seems unlikely that there would have been much use for a baptismal font in the chapel of a military order castle. And so, this strange and impressive object retains the mystery surrounding its origins, how it made its way to Montfort and what function it fulfilled in this new location.

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