Earlier this year archaeologists in Rome stumbled across an ancient mural of a mysterious city. The metropolitan grandeur of the scene suggested to some that it might be Rome, or one of the ancient cities of Alexandria, Antioch, or Carthage. A California scientist, however, suggests a holier interpretation in the current Nature. The city skyline and other features, he says, make Jerusalem a best fit.
The faded wall painting, discovered in a buried passageway in downtown Rome, shows an aerial, architectural view of a large city surrounded by impressive walls. The mural highlights a massive building, complete with colonnade and a grand central hall. Behind the city, a large bridge disappears into the distance. The mural's discoverers think the paint dried around A.D. 50, about the time emperor Nero's palace was erected in Rome, but no one could name the mystery metropolis.
"It bugged me," says Eric Altschuler, a physicist, and now a neuroscientist and medical student at the University of California, San Diego. So Altschuler began paging through ancient city plans at a local library. In the Encyclopaedia Judaica he found an old drawing of Jerusalem. The match "is not perfect, but its pretty good," Altschuler says.
Unlike Rome, he points out, the Holy City was surrounded by great walls at the time. The "bridge," Altschuler maintains, could be Jerusalem's aqueduct. The painting shows a tower on one side of the bridge-structure, and several on the other side, just like ancient Jerusalem. Using the towers as reference points, Altschuler says, the orientation of the large building coincides with a famous Jerusalem structure, Herod's great temple, that was destroyed in A.D. 70.
"I think it's a very bright idea," says Nicholas Purcell, an ancient historian at St. John's College at the University of Oxford, England. But closer examination of the mural may sink the idea. Details of the mural are hard to make out, but "most people who have seen it think there's a large river in the top left-hand corner," he says. "And there's no river in Jerusalem, it's as simple as that." Purcell suspects the painting was meant to depict a "fantasy city," a montage of several metropolises, perhaps Jerusalem among them. People often used such paintings to cover ugly walls in a house, he says. "They were like wallpaper."