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Jerusalem’s Tomb of the Kings to reopen for 1st time since 2010

The Tomb of the Kings, a 2,000-year-old archaeological gem in the heart of Jerusalem owned by France, is to reopen to the public for the first time since 2010, the French consulate said Wednesday.

The elaborate Roman-era tomb with stone shelves that once held sarcophagi, considered among the largest in the region, will be opened on Thursday, and the following Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the consulate’s website said.

Visits will be limited to 15 people in 45-minute stretches, the ticket order page said, noting the need for “proper dress” at the Tomb of the Kings, which is a funeral site.

The graves themselves will remain closed to the public for conservation and safety reasons.

The vast site, located in east Jerusalem some 700 meters (yards) north of the Old City, is hidden behind a wall with a metal gate marked by a French flag.

It has been closed since 2010 due to renovations costing around a million euros ($1.1 million).

A spokeswoman for the French Consulate General said that in opening the site, France was implementing a decision and a commitment “made a long time ago”.

Jews consider the tomb a holy burial site of ancient ancestors and demand the right to pray there.

Excavations of the site began in the 1860s, with Felicien de Saulcy of France taking on the project in 1863 and seeking to confirm it was the tomb of biblical figures King David and Solomon, giving rise to the site’s name.

That theory has been ruled out, but the name has endured.

Several sarcophagi were found inside and are now in the Louvre museum in Paris, including one with an Aramaic inscription.

According to the most commonly accepted theory, it refers to Queen Helena of Adiabene, in today’s Iraqi Kurdistan, and she may have built the tomb for her dynasty.

After de Saulcy’s excavation, the tomb was purchased by the Pereire brothers, a Jewish banking family in Paris that would later hand the property over to France.

Israel and France had negotiated the site’s status and reopening, but a French consulate spokeswoman declined to give details.

“We are reopening in accordance with the rules we set for ourselves,” she told AFP.

Israel’s foreign minister welcomed France’s decision to open the tomb.

“(I) invite the public to visit the site, which has great significance to the Jewish people, and is further testimony to the deep and multigenerational connection of the Jewish people to its eternal capital Jerusalem,” Israel Katz said in a statement.

On 15th May 2019, Hekdesh, a Jewish organization (L’Association Hekdesh du Tombeau des Rois), hired Gilles-William Goldnadel, a French lawyer, and took the French government to court, hoping to prove that the site was purchased by a Berthe Amélie Bertrand, a woman involved in philanthropy. Goldnadel also contemplates the possibility of initiating a court case aiming to reclaim the sarcophagus of queen Helena of Adiabene, which is presently housed by the Louvre Museum.

From the house there is a 9 meter wide staircase (23 steps) that was originally paved and leads to a forecourt. The rain water is collected in baths, which are carved in the steps, and carried via a channel system to the water wells. At the bottom of the stairs there is a stone wall to the left with a gate. This gate leads to a courtyard that was cut from the rock at the same date. The dimensions of this courtyard are roughly 27 meters long from north to south and 25 meters wide from west to east.

The entrance to the tombs is via this courtyard. The tombs are entered via a rock-cut arch (facade) in the western side. The 28-meter facade was crowned with three pyramids, which no longer exist, and decorated with reliefs of grapes, plexus leaves, acorns and fruit, reflecting the Greek architectural style. The architrave was originally supported by two pillars, fragments of which were found in the excavations.

The tombs are arranged on two levels around a central chamber, with four rooms upstairs and three rooms downstairs. The central chamber itself is entered from the courtyard via an antechamber that goes down into a dimly lit maze of chambers. The access from the antechamber to the exterior courtyard could be sealed closed by rolling a round stone across it, and the stone still remains in-situ. In the first century C.E., a “secret mechanism” operated by water pressure moved the stone. Probably a small amount of water pressure activated a system of weights to open the tomb. Two of the eight burial chambers have arcosolia, resting places made of a bench with an arch over it. Some of the arcosolia have triangular niches where oil lamps were placed to give light during the burial process.

The two most common types of tombs in the first century CE are found in this tomb complex. Shaft tombs were long narrow shafts in which the deceased were placed and closed with a stone slab which probably had the name of the occupant inscribed on it. Channels in the center of the shafts were probably carved to drain the water that seeped through the rock.

The tombs are now empty, but previously housed a number of sarcophagi; they were excavated by a French archaeological mission headed by Louis Felicien de Saulcy, who took them back to France. They are exhibited at the Louvre.

Although no kings were buried here, one of the sarcophagi bears two Aramaic inscriptions identifying the corpse within as that of Queen Sadah (Tzada Malchata, צדה מלכתה); this is thought to refer to Helena, the Queen of Adiabene. The decorative architecture of the tomb complex is Seleucid, which would fit with this identification.

Header: Tombs of the Kings, 1842