The ‘Tombs of the Kings’, has changed ownership several times over the past 150 years, with the current owner being the French government. However, Israel’s orthodox population regard the place as a holy site, to which they should all be given access.
Israeli Orthodox Jews continuous requests to be let inside to pray have raised quite a few concerns among the French, whose consulate is located in close proximity to the place, Haaretz reported.
Israel’s Antiquities Authority is in favor of opening the site to the public but does share the French concerns that the site might befall the same fate of many other archaeological sites in the city, which were transformed from mere archaeology and tourism sites into holy sites and then appropriated from the public’s domain. When they become places for prayer many archeologists feel that its ”antiquity” value diminishes.
What is the Tomb of the Kings?
The splendor and sheer size of the site known as the “Tombs of the Kings” was what led people to mistakenly believe that the site was the burial place of the Kings of Judea. The location, a few hundred meters north of the Old City, also seemed to point in this direction.
However, these days the site is believed to be the tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene in Mesopotamia, who converted to Judaism around 30 CE and moved to Jerusalem with her children. Jewish sources laud her for her exemplary piousness and generous spirit.
The tombs lie behind a 28-meter facade, which according to 1st century CE historian Josephus, was once crowned by three pyramids. The tombs are arranged around a central chamber, which is accessible through the outer courtyard. The antechamber then descends into the eight burial chambers.
The tombs are now empty, but once contained several sarcophagi, which were excavated by French archaeologists and transferred to the Louvre in Paris. One of the sarcophagi has an Aramaic and Hebrew inscription identifying its contents as the remains of Queen Sara (Tzara Malchata). This is believed to be a reference to Helena, who changed her name to Sara when she converted to Judaism.
The magnificent site is located on Salah ah Din Street, near the St. George Monastery and the American Colony Hotel in eastern Jerusalem.
The tomb was described by the Greek geographer Pausanias as the second most beautiful tomb in the world (after the tomb of Mausolus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world). This 9 meter wide staircase was originally paved and led to a forecourt with several ritual baths (only recently identified as such). Water collected in the baths from a channel system carved in the steps.