When Cupid paid Israel a visit, 2,000 years ago
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When Cupid paid Israel a visit, 2,000 years ago

The mischievous imp keeps popping up throughout the Holy Land

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Details of a 2,000-year-old Cupid cameo discovered in the City of David's Givati Parking Lot excavation in 2010. (Israel Antiquities Authority)
Details of a 2,000-year-old Cupid cameo discovered in the City of David's Givati Parking Lot excavation in 2010. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

Some 2,000 years ago, Cupid, the Roman god of love, paid a visit to Jerusalem — in the form of a semiprecious gem bearing his image.

Set in onyx, Cupid is depicted with a full, round face surrounded by curly hair. The cherub’s feathered wings are hinted at by a number of incised grooves.

A 2,000-year-old onyx Cupid cameo, discovered in a Roman-era building in the City of David’s Givati Parking Lot Excavation in 2010. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

Discovered in a Roman-era building in the City of David’s Givati Parking Lot Excavation, the 1 centimeter long and 0.7 centimeter wide (0.4 x 0.28 inches) two-layered cameo made an appearance in a 2010 Israel Antiquities Authority dig conducted by Dr. Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets and funded by the Ir David Foundation.

According to Ben Ami when presenting the finding at a City of David conference, “The upper layer, into which the image of Cupid is engraved, is a striking blue color which contrasts with the dark brown background color of the lower layer.”

The archaeologist presumes the gem was used in jewelry. “The brown layer is the side of the cameo which would have been inserted into the round metal setting of a piece of jewelry, apparently an earring.” The cupid’s left hand grasps an upside-down torch “which symbolizes the cessation of life,” according to Ben Ami.

The piece, according to an IAA press release, is part of a typical “Eros in mourning” style of imagery and served as “memento mori” — ongoing reminders of the dearly departed.

Mixed media cupids have been spotted in other locations in ancient Israel. A Biblical Archaeology Review article in 2000 describes a 1st century pedestal uncovered in Beit She’an, which is decorated with reliefs on its four sides. “On one side we see a Nereid (a sea nymph) riding a sea monster led by a cupid; on other sides we see masks of Dionysus and an escort depicted above a garland, as well as a wreath held by two cupids.”

An Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) worker cleans naked cupids on a unique Roman-era sarcophagus at a warehouse in Bet Shemesh on September 3, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA)

An ongoing dig at the 5th-century CE Huqoq Synagogue near the Galilee has unearthed a trove of colorful mosaics. In 2015, the excavation revealed a Hebrew inscription surrounded by real and mythical figures — including cupids.

Also in 2015, an 1,800-year-old, two-ton, 2.5-meter (eight-foot) long sarcophagus discovered at an Ashkelon construction site was decorated with bulls’ heads, naked Cupids, and the head of Medusa.

There is no lack of the little imp’s presence throughout the Holy Land during the Roman period. Nowadays, however, the mischievous cherub is most likely to be spotted in major Israeli cities on the eponymous dating app.

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