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The Temple of Solomon
On maps drawn on parchment in the Middle Ages, Jerusalem is shown at the centre of the world. It was then, as it remains today, a city sacred to three religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For each, Jerusalem was the site of momentous events that formed the bond between God and man the first being the preparations by Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the outcrop of rock now covered by a golden dome.
Abraham was a rich nomad from Ur in Mesopotamia who, around 1,800 years before the birth of Christ, moved at God's command from the valley of the Euphrates to territory inhabited by the Canaanites lying between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. There, as a reward for his faith in the one true God, he was endowed with this land `flowing with milk and honey' and promised innumerable descendants to inhabit it. He was to be the father of a multitude of nations; and, to seal this covenant, Abraham and all the men in his tribe were to be circumcised, a practice that was to continue `generation after generation'.
This promise of posterity was problematic because Abraham's wife Sarah was barren. When she realised that she was past the age of child-bearing, Sarah persuaded Abraham to father a child by her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar. In due course, Hagar gave birth to a son Ishmael. Some years later, three men appeared as Abraham was sitting by the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day. They told him that Sarah, then over ninety, would have a child.
Abrahamlaughed. Sarah, too, took it as a joke. `Now that I am past the age of child-bearing, and my husband is an old man, is pleasure to come my way again!' But the prediction proved to be correct. Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac. She then turned against Ishmael, seeing him as a rival for Isaac's inheritance, and asked Abraham to send him and his mother away. God sided with Sarah and, ever-obedient to God's command, Abraham dispatched Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness of Beersheba with some bread and a skin of water. When the skin was empty, Hagar, because she could not bear to watch Ishmael die of thirst, meant to abandon him under a bush: but God directed her towards a well and promised that her son would found a great nation in the deserts of Arabia.
It was now that God set a final test for Abraham, ordering him to offer `your only child Isaac, whom you love ... as a burnt offering on a mountain I shall point out to you'. Abraham obeyed without demur. He took Isaac to the spot designated by God, an outcrop of rock on Mount Moriah, placed wood on this makeshift altar, and laid Isaac on the pile of wood. But just as he took the knife to kill his son, he was commanded to desist. `Do not raise your hand against the boy ... Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your son, your only son ... and because you have done this ... I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore ... All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants as a reward for your obedience.'
Did Abraham exist? In modern times, scholarly views of his historicity have vacillated between the scepticism of German exegetes who dismissed him as a mythical figure and more positive judgements made as a result of archaeological discoveries in Mesopotamia. In the Middle Ages, however, no one doubted that Abraham had existed, and almost all those living between the Indian subcontinent and the Atlantic Ocean claimed descent from this patriarch from Ur figuratively by Christians, literally by the Muslims and Jews. The Jews had a pedigree to prove it the collection of Jewish texts combined in the Torah that tell the story of Abraham's descendants.
Around 1300 BC, these records tell, famine drove the Jews out of Palestine into Egypt. There they were welcomed as guests by Joseph, a Jew, the chief minister of the Egyptian Pharaoh, who in his youth had been left to die in the desert by his jealous brothers; but after Joseph's death and the accession of a new Pharaoh, the Jews were enslaved and used as forced labour to build the residence at Pi-Ramases for the Pharaoh, Rameses II.
Moses, the first of the great prophets of Israel, led them out of Egypt and into the desert. There, on Mount Sinai, God transmitted his commandments to Moses engraved on tablets of stone. To house them, the Jews constructed a portable shrine which they called the Ark of the Covenant. After many years of meandering through the Sinai Desert, they reached the promised land of Caanan. As punishment for a past transgression, Moses was permitted only to see it from afar. It was left to his successor, Joshua, to reclaim the birthright of the Jews. Between 1220 and 1200 BC they conquered Palestine. The contest with the indigenous inhabitants was not a fair one; God took the side of the Jews. Their victory was never absolute; there were constant wars with the neighbouring tribes of Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Amalekites, Edomites and Arameans; but the Jews survived because of their unique destiny, as yet undefined.
The marriage between God and his chosen people was not an easy one. He was a jealous God, angered when the Jews turned to other gods, or broke the strict code imposed upon their behaviour demanding rituals and detailed laws that followed the Ten Commandments that Moses had been given by God on the summit of Mount Sinai. The Jews in their turn were fickle: they turned away from God to worship idols such as the Golden Calf or pagan gods such as Astarte and Baal. They misused the prophets sent by God to chastise them. Even their kings, God's anointed, were sinners. Saul disobeyed God's command to exterminate the Amalekites, and David seduced Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, and subsequently instructed Joab, the commander of his army, to `station Uriah in the thick of the fight and then fall back behind him so that he may be struck down and die'.
It was David who at the turn of the first millennium BC conquered Jerusalem from its indigenous inhabitants, the Jebusites. Below the citadel, on Mount Moab, close to the spot chosen by God for Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, there was a threshing floor owned by a Jebusite, Onan. At God's command, David bought it as a site for a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. David assembled the materials for the Temple that was finally built by his son Solomon around 950 BC.
The reign of Solomon marked the apogee of an independent Jewish state. After his death, Israel was conquered by the powerful nations to the east the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Persians. Solomon's Temple was destroyed by the Chaldeans under their king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC and the Jews transported to Babylon as slaves. The Chaldeans were in turn conquered by the Persians whose king, Cyrus, allowed them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple in 515.
In the fourth century BC, the tide of conquest ebbed in the East and flowed in from the West: the Persians were defeated by the Macedonian Greeks under their young king, Alexander the Great. After Alexander's premature death, his empire was divided among his generals and for a time Palestine was contested by the rival Ptolemies based in Egypt and Seleucids based in Mesopotamia. In the absence of a king, the High Priest in Jerusalem assumed many of his functions among the Jews.
In 167 BC a revolt against the Greeks on religious issues developed into a successful struggle for political independence. Its leaders, three Maccabean brothers, founded the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish kings who recovered most of the territory that had been ruled by David and Solomon. In the course of their constant conflicts with the neighbouring states, an appeal was made to the new and rising power of Rome. The Judaean King Hyrcanus, and his minister Antipater, placed themselves under the protection of the Roman general who had conquered Syria, Gnaeus Pompeius, or Pompey the Great.
Jerusalem was held by Aristobulus, the rival claimant to the throne. After a three-month siege, the city was taken by Pompey's legions. The Romans suffered few casualties but the conflict left 12,000 Jewish dead. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, however, this loss of life was a lesser calamity than the desecration of the Temple by Pompey.
Among the disasters of that time nothing sent a shudder through the nation as the exposure by aliens of the Holy Place, hitherto screened from all eyes. Pompey and his staff went into the Sanctuary, which no one was permitted to enter by the high priest, and saw what it contained the lamp-stand and the lamps, the table, the libation cups and censers, all of solid gold, and a great heap of spices and sacred money ...
The Romans were now the arbiters of power in the Jewish state. Pompey reinstated Hyrcanus as high priest but, seeing that he was an ineffective ruler, put political power into the hands of his first minister, Antipater. Julius Caesar, when he came to Syria in 47 BC, conferred Roman citizenship on Antipater and appointed him Commissioner for all Judaea: Antipater's eldest son Phasael became governor of Judaea and his second son, Herod, then aged twenty-six, governor of Galilee. Caesar's fellow consul, Mark Antony, became Herod's lifelong friend.
In 40 BC, the Parthians invaded Palestine. Herod escaped via Arabia and Egypt to Rome. There the Roman Senate equipped him with an army and appointed him King of Judaea. Herod vanquished the Parthians and, despite siding with his friend Mark Antony against Octavian, was confirmed by Octavian as the King of Judaea after his victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium.
Now at the height of his glory, Herod embellished his kingdom with magnificent cities and imposing strongholds, many of them named after his patrons and members of his family. On the coast between Jaffa and Haifa, he built a new city which he named Caesarea and in Jerusalem the fortress called the Antonia. He extended the stronghold at Masada where his family had taken refuge from the Parthians; and built a new stronghold in the hills facing Arabia which he named Herodium after himself.
A man of exceptional courage and ability, Herod understood that his hold on power in Palestine depended upon meeting the expectations of the Romans without upsetting the religious susceptibilities of the Jews. To the Romans, control of Syria and Palestine was considered essential for the security and well-being of their empire. It straddled the land routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and dominated the eastern Mediterranean. The city of Rome itself depended upon the regular supply of grain from Egypt, which would be threatened if the ports on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean should fall into the hands of the Parthians.
The Jews were more problematic. Culturally dominated by the Greeks since the time of Alexander the Great, and now politically subservient to the Romans, they retained their sense of destiny as God's chosen people. Their extraordinary fidelity to their beliefs and practices at once impressed and exasperated their pagan contemporaries. Pompey, when besieging the rump of Jewish resistance in the Temple,
was amazed at the unshakeable endurance of the Jews, especially their maintenance of all the religious ceremonies in the midst of a storm of missiles. Just as if deep peace enfolded the City the daily sacrifices, offerings for the dead, and every other act of worship were meticulously carried out to the glory of God. Not even when the Temple was being captured and they were being butchered around the altar did they abandon the ceremonies ordained for the day.
However, their exclusiveness their belief that they were defiled by contact with Gentiles antagonised their neighbours. By now, the Jews were no longer confined to Palestine: substantial communities existed in many of the major cities of the Graeco-Roman world and in the Persian empire beyond the Euphrates. In Alexandria, there are criticisms of Jewish exclusivity as early as the third century BC. In Rome, where they won unique exemptions from taking part in pagan cults and permission to observe the Sabbath, Cicero, in his Pro Flacco, complained of their clannishness and undue influence; and Tacitus, in his Histories, of what he saw as the misanthropy of the Jews: `Toward every other people they feel only hatred and enmity. They sit apart at meals, and they sleep apart, and although as a race they are prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; yet among themselves nothing is unlawful.'
It was in their homeland, however, that the Jews' sense of superiority to all pagan nations had grave political implications. Time and again, after being conquered by their larger and more powerful neighbours the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans they would rise against their oppressors in the belief that God was on their side. Time and again, an initial triumph would be followed by a savage repression.
Herod, although a Roman citizen and of Arab origin, was scrupulous in his observance of the Jewish Law; and to further endear himself to the adherents of his adopted religion, he announced that he would rebuild the Temple. The Jews' reaction was one of suspicion: to reassure them that he would complete this ambitious project, Herod had to promise not to demolish the old Temple until he had assembled all the materials to build the new. Since only priests could enter the Temple precincts, he trained a thousand Levites as masons and carpenters. The foundations of the Second Temple were greatly enlarged by the construction of huge retaining walls to the west, south, and east. Along the edges of the large platform, sustained by landfill or arched supports, ran covered galleries. A fence surrounded the sacred area, and at each of its thirteen gates was an inscription in Latin and Greek to warn that any Gentile who passed beyond it would be punished with death.
In the centre, framed by the colonnades, was the Temple itself. On one side was the Court of the Women and, on the other side of the Beautiful Gate, the Court of the Priests. Two golden doors led into the Sanctuary: in front of these was a curtain of Babylonian tapestry embroidered with blue, scarlet and purple designs symbolising all creation. The inner sanctum, shrouded by a huge veil, was the Holy of Holies into which only the High Priest could venture on certain days of the year. The rock upon which Abraham had prepared Isaac for sacrifice was the altar upon which kids or doves were killed: the cavity still to be seen on the north end of the rock was used to collect the sacrificial blood.
The scale of the Temple was stupendous and, where it towered above the Kidron valley, rose to a dizzying height. Its splendour could not fail to impress upon Herod's subjects that their king, despite his Arab origin, was a worthy Jew. But Herod left nothing to chance. The Antonia fortress formed part of the north wall of the Temple compound and was permanently garrisoned by a contingent of Roman infantry. During major festivals, this was deployed, fully armed, along the colonnades.
The Temple was the culminating achievement of one of the most extraordinary figures of the ancient world. Herod in his prime raised the state of Israel to a level of splendour that it had not seen before and has not seen since. His munificence extended to foreign cities Beirut, Damascus, Antioch, Rhodes. Skilled in combat, an able huntsman, a keen athlete, Herod patronised and presided over the Olympic Games. He used his influence to protect the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and was generous to those in need throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Yet he failed to establish a stable dynasty because, as his life progressed, he became possessed by a paranoia that turned the benevolent despot into a tyrant.
There can be little doubt that Herod was surrounded by conspiracy and intrigue. Both his father and his brother had met violent ends, and he had powerful enemies both among the Pharisee faction of Jews who resented the rule of a foreigner subservient to a pagan emperor in Rome, and among the adherents of Hasmonean claimants to the crown of Judaea. To placate the latter, Herod divorced Doris, the bride of his youth, and married Mariamme, the granddaughter of Hyrcanus the high priest.
Hyrcanus had been taken prisoner by the Parthians when they had overrun Palestine, but he had been freed on the intercession of the Jews living beyond the Euphrates. Encouraged by the marriage of his granddaughter to Herod, he returned to Jerusalem where he was immediately executed by Herod, not, as Josephus puts it, because he claimed the throne `but because the throne was really his'. Another potential rival was his wife's brother Jonathan who, at the age of seventeen, Herod made high priest; but when the young man had put on the sacred vestments and approached the altar during a feast, all those in attendance wept with emotion and so Herod had him drowned by his bodyguard of Gauls.
What might have been politically expedient was domestically disastrous. Herod had fallen deeply in love with Mariamme who, after his treatment of her brother and her grandfather, hated him with an equal passion. Added to her resentment was the disdain of a royal Jewish princess for an Arab upstart, which both tormented Herod and infuriated his family, in particular his sister Salome. Playing the role of Iago to Herod's Othello, Salome persuaded her brother that Mariamme had been unfaithful with her husband, Joseph. Herod ordered the immediate execution of both. His paranoia turned next to his two sons by Mariamme: convinced that they were conspiring against him, he had them strangled at Sebaste in the year 7 BC. Towards the end of his life, as he lay dying with `an unbearable itching all over his body, constant pains in the lower bowel, swellings on the feet as in dropsy, inflammation of the abdomen, and mortification of the genitals producing worms', Herod was told that his eldest son and heir, Antipater, had planned to poison him. Antipater was executed by his father's bodyguard. Five days later, Herod himself was dead.
It was not merely these domestic tragedies that turned a potentially great king into a tyrant but, more significantly, the impossible task of reconciling God's chosen people to pagan rule. At the time of a census in 7 BC, six thousand Pharisees had refused to take an oath of loyalty to Octavian, now the Emperor Augustus; and, shortly before Herod's death, around forty followers of two rabbis in Jerusalem, well known as exponents of Jewish tradition, had lowered themselves on ropes from the roof of the Temple to remove a pagan idol, the golden eagle that Herod had placed above the Temple's Great Gate. For this the two rabbis had been arrested and, on Herod's orders, burned alive.
Herod's successors were less successful than he was at keeping this incipient rebelliousness under control. Under Herod's will, which he had changed a number of times, his kingdom was to be divided between three of his sons Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Philip. The Emperor Augustus confirmed this arrangement but denied the title of king to Archelaus, making him merely ethnarch, or governor, of Judaea and Samaria until, after nine years of incompetent government, he dismissed him altogether and exiled him to the city of Vienne in Gaul. Judaea was placed under the direct rule of a Roman procurator first Coponius, then Valerius Gratus and, in AD 26, Pontius Pilate.
This settlement did not ensure the stability of Palestine. While the Jewish aristocracy and the Sadducee establishment did what they could to contain the resentment of their people, the heavy taxation imposed by the Romans and their insensitivity to the religious beliefs of the Jews led to sporadic revolts and finally to outright war. Masada was taken by Jewish insurgents and the Roman garrison killed. In the Temple, Eleazar, the son of the high priest Ananias, persuaded the ministers of the Temple to abolish the sacrifices offered for Rome and for Caesar. This gesture of defiance developed into a general insurrection: the Antonia was captured, Ananias murdered and the Romans driven back into the fortified towers of Herod's palace. In Caesarea, the Romans' administrative capital on the coast, the Gentile inhabitants attacked the Jewish colony and massacred them all. This atrocity enraged the Jews throughout Palestine, who sacked Greek and Syrian cities such as Philadelphia and Pella, killing their inhabitants in revenge.
In September 66, the Roman legate in Syria, Cestius Gallus, set out from Antioch with the Twelfth Legion to restore order in Palestine. The Jewish insurgents in Jerusalem prepared to resist. After some skirmishes outside the city, Cestius withdrew. His retreat turned into a rout. The Jews were left masters in their own land, and set about organising their defences against the Romans' return.
In view of the catastrophe that was to overwhelm them, it seems astonishing that the Jews imagined that they could defy the power of Rome. Certainly there were some `who saw only too clearly the approaching calamity and openly lamented'; but the great majority were wholly convinced that their moment of destiny had come. They were, after all, God's chosen people, and from the earliest times their prophets had promised not just deliverance but a deliverer referred to as `the anointed' or, in Hebrew, Messiah. God's promises to Abraham and Isaac had been that salvation of an unspecified kind should come through their seed, but subsequently this concept of salvation had been combined with the idea of a king descended from David whose reign would be eternal. He was to be a specifically Jewish hero ('See, the days are coming ... when I will raise a virtuous Branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise, practising honesty and integrity in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel dwell in confidence') but his sovereignty would be universal (`his empire shall stretch from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth ... all kings will do him homage, all nations become his servants'). It was the powerful sense of Messianic expectation among the Jews in first-century Palestine that emboldened them to defy the power of Rome.
The main division among the Jews was between the Sadducees and the Pharisees: the Sadducees were the establishment party which controlled the Temple and were easier-going in their interpretation of the Law; the Pharisees were stricter, more radical and more austere, using the oral tradition to impose legalistic minutiae upon every aspect of Jewish life. A major difference in the beliefs of the two factions concerned the afterlife the Sadducees agnostic, the Pharisees insisting upon the immortality of the soul, a personal resurrection and divine rewards for virtue and punishment for sin in the world to come.
It was the Pharisees who were most vociferous in their opposition to Roman rule; and among the Pharisees there were austere and fanatic sects such as the Essenes who lived in quasi-monastic communities, and the Zealots, a terrorist faction who despised not just the Romans but any collaborating Jews. They sent out assassins known as Sicarii (from the Greek word sikarioi meaning `dagger men') to mingle in a crowd and assassinate their enemies. A contingent of Galilean Zealots that took refuge in Jerusalem waged class war on their hosts.
Their passion for looting was insatiable: they ransacked rich men's houses, murdered men and violated women for sport, and drank their spoils washed down with blood: through sheer boredom they shamelessly gave themselves up to effeminate practices, adorning their hair and putting on women's clothes, steeping themselves in scent and painting under their eyes to make themselves attractive. They copied not merely the dress but also the passions of women, and in their utter filthiness invented unlawful pleasures; they wallowed in slime, turning the whole city into a brothel and polluting it with the foulest practices. Yet though they had the faces of women they had the hands of murderers; they approached with mincing steps, then in a flash became fighting-men, and drawing their swords from under their dyed cloaks ran every passerby through.
When news of the defeat of Cestius Gallus reached the Emperor Nero, he turned to a veteran general, Vespasian, and put him in command of the Roman forces in Syria. Vespasian sent his son Titus to Alexandria to fetch the Fifteenth Legion and join him at Ptolemais. This combined army moved into Galilee and with great difficulty reduced the strongholds held by the Jewish insurgents and slaughtered or enslaved their inhabitants. Each city was fiercely defended, in particular Jopata commanded by Joseph ben-Matthias who later went over to the Romans, changed his name to Josephus, and wrote an account of the conflict in his Jewish War.
In the middle of this campaign, the Emperor Nero was murdered and his successor Galba assassinated in his turn. A civil war followed between rival claimants, Otho and Vitellius, from which Vitellius emerged triumphant. In Caesarea, the legions repudiated Vitellius and proclaimed Vespasian emperor. The governor of Egypt, Tiberius Alexander, supported him: so did the legions in Syria. In Rome, Vespasian's adherents ousted Vitellius and proclaimed Vespasian the heir to the imperial throne. The news reached him in Alexandria from whence he embarked for Rome, leaving his son Titus to complete the subjugation of the rebellious Jews.
The Jews' redoubts were now only a number of outlying fortresses and the city of Jerusalem itself, already invested by the Roman legions. Resistance was ferocious: when the renegade Josephus toured the city walls, calling upon his compatriots to surrender, he was answered with derision and abuse. Yet the city was in the grips of famine and Josephus, who in his history wanted to establish that the depravity of the rebels vitiated the righteousness of their cause, relates with some relish how hunger led wives to rob their husbands, children their fathers, and `most horrible of all mothers their babes, snatching the food out of their very mouths; and when their dearest ones were dying in their arms, they did not hesitate to deprive them of the morsels that might have kept them alive'. The culmination of this unnatural behaviour was the story of a certain Mary from the village of Bethezub who killed her own baby, `then roasted him and ate one half, concealing and saving up the rest.'
The final outcome was not in doubt, but every section of the city was fiercely contested. First the Antonia fortress fell to the Romans but the Temple held out. For six days the battering-rams of the Roman legions pounded away at the Temple walls but made no impression on the huge blocks so smoothly shaped and tightly knit by Herod's masons. An attempt to undermine the northern gate was equally fruitless. Not wanting to risk further casualties on an all-out assault over the walls, Titus ordered his men to set fire to the doors. The silver cladding melted in the heat: the timber was set alight. The fire spread to the colonnades, clearing a path through smouldering masonry for the Roman soldiers. Such was their rage against the Jews that civilians were slaughtered alongside the combatants. According to Josephus who was keen to exculpate his patron in the eyes of the Jews in the Diaspora, Titus did everything he could to save the sanctuary; but his men put it to the torch. Thus what Josephus describes as `the most wonderful edifice ever seen or heard of, both for its size and construction and for the lavish perfection of detail and the glory of its holy places' was destroyed.
Such was the strength of its fortifications and the determination of its defenders, it had taken Titus and his legions six months to capture Jerusalem from March to September, AD 70. The population was all but annihilated. Those who had taken refuge in the city's sewers either died of starvation, killed themselves or were killed by the Romans when they emerged. Josephus estimated that over a million people died in the siege of Jerusalem and any survivors were enslaved. Leaving a garrison in the citadel, Titus commanded that the rest of the city including what remained of the Temple be razed. Retiring to Caesarea, he celebrated his birthday on 24 October by watching the Jewish prisoners die in the arena, killed either by wild animals, or by one another, or by being burned alive. When he returned to Rome, Vespasian and Titus, wearing scarlet robes, celebrated their triumph. Wagons loaded with the magnificent treasures looted from Jerusalem were dragged through the streets, among them the golden lampstand from the Temple, together with columns of prisoners in chains. When the procession reached the Forum, the surviving leader of the Jewish insurgents, Simon ben-Gioras, was ceremoniously executed after which the victors retired to enjoy the sumptuous banquet prepared for them and their guests.
In Palestine, bands of insurgents still held out in Herod's impregnable fortresses Herodium, Machaerus and Masada. Herodium fell without difficulty; Machaerus surrendered; but Masada remained in the hands of the Zealots under Eleazar ben-Jair, a descendant of Judas the Galilean. In this extraordinary fortress, built on an isolated mountain plateau 1,440 feet above the western shore of the Dead Sea, were a thousand men, women and children. The Roman governor, Flavius Silva, encircled the fortress with a wall and built a ramp to enable a battering-ram to make a breach in the wall.
The Zealots at first resisted but, when it became clear that the Romans would breach the wall the next day, Eleazar persuaded his followers that it was better to die at their own hands than be killed by the Romans. Having burned their possessions, each father killed his immediate family; then ten men were chosen by lot to dispatch their companions; and finally one, again chosen by lot, killed the other nine before himself falling on his sword.
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