Spectacular ‘Tomb of the Kings’ in Jerusalem opened by French authorities for first time in a decade

Jerusalem‘s ‘Tomb of the Kings’ — the burial site of Queen Helena of Adiabene, a Jewish convert — has been opened to the public for the first time in a decade.

Paying visitors to the French-owned archaeology-cum-holy site in the city’s eastern sector can see the tomb’s impressive courtyard which dates back over 2,000 years. 

France, which has managed the site since the late 19th century, had closed off access as part of an extensive restoration costing $1.1 million (£900,000) in 2009. 

The re-admittance of limited numbers of visitors follows several aborted attempts by the French Consulate General to re-open the tomb in the last few months.

Access to the interior burial chambers will remain prohibited, but the public can purchase tickets to visit the tomb’s courtyard and entrance. 

Despite the re-opening, tensions remain between French authorities and both Israeli nationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jews who contest the site’s ownership and entry fee.

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Jerusalem's 'Tomb of the Kings', pictured — the burial site of the Jewish Queen Helena of Adiabene — has been opened to the public for the first time in a decade

Jerusalem’s ‘Tomb of the Kings’, pictured — the burial site of the Jewish Queen Helena of Adiabene — has been opened to the public for the first time in a decade

WHAT IS THE ‘TOMB OF THE KINGS’?

The ‘Tomb of the Kings’ is an elaborate burial site located in eastern Jerusalem.

Dating back to the Roman times, the  tomb is believed to have belonged to Queen Helena of Adiabene.

The Mesopotamian monarch was a convert to Judaism.

Archaeologist Louis Félicien de Saulcy, who surveyed the tomb in 1863, mistakenly thought the site was the resting place of the Judean Kings.

He found both human remains and two sarcophogi in the tomb, which he removed to the Louvre, Paris, against the Jewish community’s wishes.

The tomb featured multi-level burial chambers, a burial stone moved by a complex mechanism, a courtyard hewn into the rock and a ritual bath. 

The Tomb of the Kings is ‘definitely one of the most elaborately decorated tombs that we have from the early Roman period in Jerusalem,’ said archaeologist Orit Peleg-Barkat of the Hebrew University.

The underground burial complex — which dates back to the first century BC — remained in the public consciousness and was a popular tourist attraction.

It featured in the writings of the Roman-Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus around 200 years later, and in the second century AD was dubbed the second most beautiful tomb in the world by the Greek geographer Pausanias.

The site featured a lowered courtyard hewn into the rock, channels that ran water into a ritual bath, a burial stone operated by a sophisticated mechanism. 

Entrance to the multi-levelled burial chambers comes via an ornate entryway that was once supported by two giant pillars, fragments of which were recovered in the 19th Century.

A search of the tomb in 1847 ordered by the Turkish governor turned up no ‘treasures’ — were there ever any present, they may have been looted previously.

As part of the first archaeological excavations in the Holy Land, France’s Louis Félicien de Saulcy was granted permission by the Turkish sultan to survey the tomb in 1863.

De Saulcy — who mistook the tomb for that of the biblical kings of the House of David — was forced to stop the dig after human remains were discovered.

Against the protestations of the local Jewish community, both the remains and two sarcophagi found inside the tomb were added to the Louvre’s collections in Paris.

As part of the first archaeological excavations in the Holy Land, France's Louis Félicien de Saulcy was granted permission by the Turkish sultan to survey the tomb in 1863. Against the protestations of the local Jewish community, both the human remains and two sarcophagi (one of which is pictured) found within were added to the Louvre's collections in Paris

As part of the first archaeological excavations in the Holy Land, France’s Louis Félicien de Saulcy was granted permission by the Turkish sultan to survey the tomb in 1863. Against the protestations of the local Jewish community, both the human remains and two sarcophagi (one of which is pictured) found within were added to the Louvre’s collections in Paris

Access to the interior burial chambers, pictured, will remain prohibited, but the public can purchase tickets to visit the tomb's courtyard and entrance

 Access to the interior burial chambers, pictured, will remain prohibited, but the public can purchase tickets to visit the tomb’s courtyard and entrance

In 1878, Amalya Bertrand — a French Jewish woman — purchased the tomb and the surrounding property for 30,000 francs from its Arab owners via the French consul in Jerusalem.

‘I am of the firm opinion that this property, the field and the burial cave of the kings, will become the land in perpetuity of the Jewish community,’ she wrote at the time.

This, she had declared, would allow it ‘to be preserved from desecration and abomination, and will never again be damaged by foreigners.’

Bertrand commissioned a guard post and border wall to be constructed around the tomb, however the burial chamber was robbed while such were being built.

Eight years later, one of her heirs donated the land to the French government.

Paying visitors to the French-owned archaeology-cum-holy site in the city's eastern sector can see the tomb's impressive courtyard which dates back over 2,000 years

Paying visitors to the French-owned archaeology-cum-holy site in the city’s eastern sector can see the tomb’s impressive courtyard which dates back over 2,000 years

France, which has managed the site since the late 19th century, had closed off access as part of an extensive restoration costing $1.1 million (£0.9 million) in 2009. Pictured, the tomb site as it appeared near the end of the 19th Century

France, which has managed the site since the late 19th century, had closed off access as part of an extensive restoration costing $1.1 million (£0.9 million) in 2009. Pictured, the tomb site as it appeared near the end of the 19th Century

Most experts now contest that the tomb belonged to the Queen Helena of Adiabene, a Mesopotamian monarch who converted to Judaism in the first century BC. 

One of the sarcophagi from the tomb, now held in the Louvre, bears an inscription that is believed to refer to either Helena or one of her relatives.

‘Altogether, I think there is a scholarly agreement that this tomb should be associated with [Queen] Helena,’ said Dr Peleg-Barkat.

Those who worship at the tomb believe it was the resting place of several prominent Jewish figures from antiquity — including Queen Helena and her relatives — and that praying there will help bring rain and good financial fortune. 

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have repeated called for the site to be opened for prayer without any form of restriction.

The re-admittance of limited numbers of visitors follows several aborted attempts by the French Consulate General to re-open the tomb in the last few months

The re-admittance of limited numbers of visitors follows several aborted attempts by the French Consulate General to re-open the tomb in the last few months

Entrance to the multi-levelled burial chambers comes via an ornate entryway that was once supported by two giant pillars, fragments of which were recovered in the 19th Century and can be seen here in this lithograph dating back to 1842

Entrance to the multi-levelled burial chambers comes via an ornate entryway that was once supported by two giant pillars, fragments of which were recovered in the 19th Century and can be seen here in this lithograph dating back to 1842

Political complexities arise in the fact that the neighbourhood surrounding the tomb — Sheikh Jarrah — is predominantly Palestinian.

French officials have expressed concern that allowing unrestricted access to the tomb — potentially encouraging large numbers of religious Jewish visitors to the neighbourhood — could increase local tensions and even spark violence.

Furthermore, they have said, the tomb could become a Jewish holy site and a foothold for Israeli nationalists to form a new settlement around it. 

This would not be without some precedent. Another ancient tomb located in in Sheikh Jarrah — that of Simeon the Just, at which ultra-Orthodox Jews pray — has attracted a surrounding enclave of Israeli homes in the Palestinian neighbourhood.

Israel occupied east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967, and subsequently passed a law annexing the territory in 1980 — a move that has not been recognised by the United Nations.

Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, whereas Israel considers the entire city its capital.

The past decade has seen a rise in Israeli nationalists buying properties in Sheikh Jarrah and other east Jerusalem neighbourhoods and evicting their Palestinian residents.

Access to the interior burial chambers will remain prohibited, but the public can purchase tickets to visit the tomb's courtyard and entrance

Access to the interior burial chambers will remain prohibited, but the public can purchase tickets to visit the tomb’s courtyard and entrance

Despite the re-opening, tensions remain between French authorities and both Israeli nationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jews who contest the site's ownership and entry fee

Despite the re-opening, tensions remain between French authorities and both Israeli nationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jews who contest the site’s ownership and entry fee

Access to the interior burial chambers, pictured, will remain prohibited, but the public can purchase tickets to visit the tomb's courtyard and entrance

Access to the interior burial chambers, pictured, will remain prohibited, but the public can purchase tickets to visit the tomb’s courtyard and entrance

Yonathan Mizrachi, head of the Israeli organisation Emek Shaveh which opposes the politicisation of archaeology, said that the tomb’s location in Sheikh Jarrah is what makes it so ‘politically problematic’ for the French authorities. 

Conflict over the site was reportedly heightened in 1997, when the consulate permitted the Jerusalem Festival of Arabic Music, organised by the Palestinian cultural organisation Yabous, which advocates for the boycott of Israel. 

Following the closure of the tomb site in 2009, protests have been staged outside the tomb’s gates by ultra-Orthodox Jews and religious nationalists. 

Israeli religious groups have also sought legal avenues with which to strip France’s ownership of the property in court.

In 2015, for example, two Israeli rabbis sued the French government in a rabbinic court for control of the site.

The Tomb of the Kings is 'definitely one of the most elaborately decorated tombs that we have from the early Roman period in Jerusalem,' said Orit Peleg-Barkat of the Hebrew University

The Tomb of the Kings is ‘definitely one of the most elaborately decorated tombs that we have from the early Roman period in Jerusalem,’ said Orit Peleg-Barkat of the Hebrew University

At its prime, the site featured a lowered courtyard hewn into the rock, channels that ran water into a ritual bath, a burial stone operated by a sophisticated mechanism

At its prime, the site featured a lowered courtyard hewn into the rock, channels that ran water into a ritual bath, a burial stone operated by a sophisticated mechanism

Political complexities arise in the fact that the neighbourhood surrounding the tomb — Sheikh Jarrah — is predominantly Palestinian

 Political complexities arise in the fact that the neighbourhood surrounding the tomb — Sheikh Jarrah — is predominantly Palestinian

That case was thrown out, but a Jewish organisation called ‘Hekdesh of the Tomb of the Kings’ has renewed the challenge to France’s ownership of the property.

In the May of 2019, Hekdesh sued the French government in the Supreme Court of France, claiming that the Bertrand family’s donation of the Tomb of the Kings was unlawful and the property should instead belong to a Jewish trust.

Last month, French Senator Gilbert Roger said that lawsuits challenging France were ‘part of a global strategy of “territorial nibbling” on the part of religious nationalists.’

‘The conflict begins when religious people […] try to claim possession over the grave because of the location in east Jerusalem,’ he added.

Those who worship at the tomb believe it was the resting place of several prominent Jewish figures from antiquity — including Queen Helena and her relatives — and that praying there will help bring rain and good financial fortune

Those who worship at the tomb believe it was the resting place of several prominent Jewish figures from antiquity — including Queen Helena and her relatives — and that praying there will help bring rain and good financial fortune

Conflict over the site was reportedly heightened in 1997, when the consulate permitted the Jerusalem Festival of Arabic Music, organised by the Palestinian cultural organisation Yabous, which advocates for the boycott of Israel

Conflict over the site was reportedly heightened in 1997, when the consulate permitted the Jerusalem Festival of Arabic Music, organised by the Palestinian cultural organisation Yabous, which advocates for the boycott of Israel

In a statement, France's Consulate General said that the reopening was the 'fruit of restoration and security work conducted by the French authorities over the past 10 years' The consulate is committed, they continued, to facilitating 'visits by small groups in accordance with the rules'

In a statement, France’s Consulate General said that the reopening was the ‘fruit of restoration and security work conducted by the French authorities over the past 10 years’ The consulate is committed, they continued, to facilitating ‘visits by small groups in accordance with the rules’

In a statement, France’s Consulate General said that the reopening was the ‘fruit of restoration and security work conducted by the French authorities over the past 10 years’

The consulate is committed, they continued, to facilitating ‘visits by small groups in accordance with the rules.’

Israel’s Foreign Ministry reportedly hailed the move as a product of ‘long and strenuous’ negotiations with France, but declined to elaborate on those talks.

Entrance to the tomb site is limited to 60 people on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

Visitors — including those intending to pray — must pre-purchase tickets online and register with a passport or ID card. 

However, some Jews have contended that the consulate’s rules are designed to deter worshippers, as many ultra-Orthodox Jews avoid Internet use and object to paying for entry to a place of worship.

‘France is doing everything to prevent there being a lot of people coming to pray,’ said Haim Berkovits, a Hekdesh representative.

The site, he added, needs to be ‘open, as it should be, like every other historic site and place of worship.’

The Tomb of the Kings is located in Jerusalem's eastern sector. Political complexities arise in the fact that the neighbourhood surrounding it — Sheikh Jarrah — is predominantly Palestinian

The Tomb of the Kings is located in Jerusalem’s eastern sector. Political complexities arise in the fact that the neighbourhood surrounding it — Sheikh Jarrah — is predominantly Palestinian

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