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The original Jewish game of thrones

Almost 3,000 years before George RR Martin, the throne of King Solomon was coveted by the world's most powerful rulers

    The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, Edward Poynter, 1890. The throne, as described in the Biblical account, can be clearly seen

    “The Iron Throne… made of a thousand swords taken from Aegon Targaryen’s enemies, forged with the great fire of Balerion the Dread”.

    Game of Thrones, the wildly popular HBO drama created from the books by George RR Martin, is centred around the throne in question. Throughout the series we see people plotting and scheming, attempting to take their place on the brutal-looking seat in the throne room of the Red Keep in King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros.

    But this throne pales into insignificance when considered alongside one in Jewish folklore – the Throne of Solomon. It was a throne supposedly coveted by the greatest rulers of its day – but while the Iron Throne, is said to cut those unworthy of sitting on it, King Solomon’s Throne had a far more interesting way of preventing those undeserving of attaining its summit.

    The Biblical book of Kings 1, chapter 10, goes into great detail about the awesome wealth of King Solomon, the son of King David and the builder of the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

    It talks about incredible amounts of gold which belonged to the king. “All of the king’s drinking vessels were made of gold”, it says. “None were of silver, for silver was as nothing in the days of Solomon”. It also describes the king’s precious gems, spices, horses and chariots.

    But three verses in the chapter are dedicated to discussing something which was clearly seen as one of the wonders of its day – the throne on which Solomon sat.

    “And the king made an immense ivory throne, and overlaid it with glittering gold”, scripture says.

    “There were six steps to the throne, and… two golden lions standing beside the arms of the seat, and on the six steps [up to the throne] there were twelve golden lions, one on each side of the step.

    “No such other throne was made for any kingdom”.

    It already sounds impressive enough. But the midrash [commentary on the scriptures] goes a great deal further in its explanation of the marvellous contraption which King Solomon built.

    The midrash says, firstly, that there were far more than just one set of steps leading up to the throne. There were, in fact, six steps of steps leading up in different directions. Furthermore, there were not just golden lions on the side of the steps leading up to the throne. There were golden eagles alongside the lions, and on every step there were also kosher animals depicted in gold [for example, a lamb] opposite non-kosher animals [for example, a wolf].

    The steps to the throne were also paved with precious stones, such as diamonds, rubies emeralds and sapphires.

    But perhaps the most wonderful part of throne, as described by the midrash, was its mechanism. As the king placed his foot on the bottom step, a wheel would turn and trigger the mechanism. The golden lion and eagle on the first step would extend a golden paw and a wing respectively, which the king would hold while climbing on to the second step. And so on – on each step the golden animals would stretch out their limbs to aid the king in his climb to the summit.

    According to the midrash, when Solomon sat down on the throne itself, the golden eagles would fly by means of a mechanism to above the kings head, where they would stretch out their wings to form a canopy.

    The king would sit in judgement– and when witnesses came before the throne, all of the animals in question would roar, or shriek. This display was intended to dismay those intending to subvert justice, and make them think twice before bearing false witness.

    Understandably, all the greatest rulers of the day were said to long to possess the throne, the ultimate symbol of authority. However, there are different explanations given as to what happened to it.

    According to one opinion, it was plundered by Shishak, the Pharaoh of Egypt, during the reign of King Solomon’s son Rehoboam, but was in turn captured by the Cushites (modern day Ethiopians), before being taken back by Asa, King of Judah, where it remained in Jerusalem until the Babylonian conquest, when it was taken to Babylon.

    As different Empires rose and fell, the throne moved – first to Persia, then to Greece, and then to Rome, by which time only pieces of it remained.

    However, another midrashic commentary disagrees. The throne, it says, was indeed taken by Shishak, but then remained in Egypt until Sennacherib of Assyria, invaded Egypt and captured it. When the Assyrian King besieged Jerusalem, as recounted in Kings 2, he supposedly brought the throne with him – and when plague devastated the Assyrian camp, the throne was regained by the Judeans, and placed in Jerusalem – only to be retaken soon after by Pharaoh Necho.

    At this point, however, the throne appears to have become inaccessible to those who desired to sit on it. Whether this was for spiritual reasons or whether they were simply unaware of its mechanical secrets is not known, but according to this midrash, when Necho attempted to ascend the steps of the throne, a lion swiped him away, crippling him for life.

    The throne then remained in Egypt, untouched, until Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded and took the contraption back to Babylon with him. Like Necho, Nebuchadnezzar attempted to climb the steps of Solomon’s throne, and like Necho, he is said to have been hurled from the steps by a blow from one of the golden lions.

    Thereafter, no attempt appears to have been made to mount the throne. When the Persians conquered Babylon, Darius I, the Great King, had it moved to the city of Elam, but was said to be too nervous to try and ascend it. Subsequently Ataxerxes II, the king in the story of Purim, was warned against making the ascent, and tried to have his engineers construct a similar contraption specifically for him – an attempt which failed. Thereafter, the throne disappears from the legends.

    So, while the Iron Throne continues to captivate millions of viewers around the world, it is worth remembering that other throne, the Throne of Solomon, which supposedly captivated so many great rulers of our own world – but which did not yield itself up willingly to everyone who tried to claim it. 

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