The gold mining legend of King Solomon’s Mines

29th June 2012

Perhaps the most famous legend concerning gold and its mining is the narrative of King Solomon’s Mines in the legendary land of Ophir.

Solomon, one of the most prominent characters of the Bible’s Old Testament, was the third king of Israel and is believed to have reigned between 970 and 931 BCE. Under his leadership, Israel is said to have grown from a mere city State to a mini empire that came to dominate the Middle East for the four decades of his reign during the tenth century BCE.

Apart from his reputation as a wise king and prolific lover, Solomon is renowned for his extraordinary wealth, and the Old Testament states that he was the possessor of “gold according to all his desire”.

By the end of his reign, it is estimated that he had accumulated some 500 t of gold, which, today, would be worth well over R60-trillion. His love of the precious metal is evidenced by the fact that he had drinking cups made of pure gold and had 300 shields beaten from it, while his great throne in Jerusalem was made of ivory and gold. On the steps leading up to the throne stood 12 life-size golden lions facing 12 golden eagles.

Apart from gold, Solomon is said to also have had large quantities of silver and copper. The gold, silver and copper were used to adorn the First Temple, the main temple in ancient Jerusalem built by Solomon.

But the question that has perplexed archaeologists, historians and explorers alike for over 4 000 years is where the extraordinary amount of gold came from.

The first classical reference to Solomon’s golden eldorado is a guarded reference in the Bible to a place called Ophir. Unfortunately, the exact location of Ophir was never revealed in the Bible and, thus, its whereabouts have remained a secret all these centuries.

It is understood that Solomon, in collaboration with Phoenician King Hiram, of Tyre (in present day Lebanon), dispatched expeditions of Phoenician mariners to the lands of Ophir to obtain large tonnages of gold.

It is known that the Phoenicians were among the greatest traders and explorers of the ancient civilisations around the Mediterranean Sea. They established commercial outposts throughout the Mediterranean and were known to have ventured onto the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in pursuit of trade. According to Greek historian Herodotus, who, incidentally, is considered the Father of History, a Phoenician expedition commissioned by Pharaoh Necho II, of Egypt, managed to circumnavigate Africa in a voyage that lasted three years.

Because the Phoenicians were such experienced mariners, employing state-of-the-art deep-hulled ships which allowed them to navigate oceans of variable tides, winds and currents, and were known to have travelled and traded extensively, the location of the legendary Ophir could be anywhere in Africa, Asia or, some have even postulated, in the Americas.

Many have speculated on the location of Ophir and, over the centuries, it has been placed in Arabia, the Asian subcontinent and south-eastern Africa, with some even ludicrously suggesting Peru.

At one time, a popular theory was that the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe, once the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, was the land of Ophir. While archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe was a thriving commercial centre, conducting a lucrative international trade in gold mined in the kingdom and ivory in a network that extended as far as China, it is believed that the kingdom predominantly flourished during the medieval period, thousands of years after Solomon is said to have lived.

The city of Sofala, in Mozambique, was also at one time associated with Ophir, with particular reference being made by John Milton in his epic poem, Paradise Lost.

The theory that Ophir is located somewhere in the heart of Africa was certainly stimulated in the late nineteenth century by the publication of Rider Haggard’s popular adventure novel, King Solomon’s Mines. It tells the story of an adventurer by the name of Allan Quartermain and his quest to find his missing brother in an unexplored region of Africa. It is while they are in this unexplored region of Kukuanaland that the group of adventurers unearth the fabled treasure of the biblical king’s mines.

Modern scholars, however, place Ophir’s location on either the coast of Pakistan, southern India, northern Sri Lanka or somewhere in south-west Arabia, in the region of modern Yemen.

Interestingly, archaeological investigations of ancient copper mining sites in southern Jordan, conducted in 2008, suggest that these mines were producing the metal as early as the tenth century BCE, the time King Solomon is said to have reigned over Israel.

It is believed that these ancient copper mines could have been part of ‘King Solomon’s mines’ and were the main source of the enormous amounts of copper that was needed to build and adorn the First Temple in Jerusalem.

While the source of at least Solomon’s great copper wealth has been ascertained, the source of his immense treasure of gold and the location of the eldorado that was Ophir remain a mystery and the search continues.