The Tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene

Which is the queen’s sarcophagus?

Queen Helena of Adiabene lived in the first century C.E. in the semi-autonomous kingdom of Adiabene in the upper Tigris region of Assyria. She famously converted to Judaism and spent many years in Jerusalem—where her generosity and piety earned her a lasting legacy.

In “Queen Helena’s Jerusalem Palace—In a Parking Lot?” in the May/June 2014 issue of BAR, R. Steven Notley and Jeffrey P. García explore Queen Helena’s Jerusalem tomb and the recently excavated Jerusalem palace that might belong to her. In a special web exclusive (below the slideshow), they elaborate to BAR about where the inscribed sarcophagus was found in her tomb, who was buried inside of it and how the false idea that Queen Helena of Adiabene was buried inside was perpetuated.

Which sarcophagus do you think is best suited to bury a queen as regal and beloved as Queen Helena of Adiabene?


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Louis Félicien de Saulcy excavated the Tomb of the Kings—really the tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene—in Jerusalem in 1863. He discovered five sarcophagi in the tomb, as well as a broken sarcophagus lid. De Saulcy brought two of the sarcophagi—the inscribed sarcophagus (Sarcophagus #1) and another one (Sarcophagus #2)—as well as the broken lid (Sarcophagus Lid #6) with him to Paris, where they still reside in the Louvre. The other three sarcophagi are scattered around Jerusalem: one on Al-Wad Street in the Old City and the other two on the Temple Mount. The sarcophagus on Al-Wad Street (Sarcophagus #5) functions as a trough under a fountain. One of the sarcophagi on the Temple Mount is under the Qayit Bey fountain (Sarcophagus #3), while the other sits outside the Islamic Museum (Sarcophagus #4).

The best-known sarcophagus from the Tomb of the Kings features a two-line Aramaic inscription, which reads ṣdn mlkt/ṣdh mlkth and is translated as Tsadan the queen/Tsadah the queen.1 This sarcophagus was found in Chamber C of the tomb. Compared to the other ornately decorated sarcophagi from the tomb, the inscribed one appears quite plain.

Who was buried in the inscribed sarcophagus?


Is Queen Tsadan to Be Identified with Queen Helena of Adiabene?

by R. Steven Notley and Jeffrey P. García

tomb of kings

QUEEN HELENA’S TOMB. This plan shows the layout of the Tomb of the Kings—really the tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene. Upon entering the tomb, one comes into Chamber A, an anteroom around which Chambers B, D, F and H radiate. Chambers C and E are located beneath the other rooms and accessed through secret tunnels (in Chambers B and D, respectively). Chamber G was also accessed through a hidden opening in Chamber F. Credit: Vincent and Steve, Jerusalem de l’Ancien Testament, Pl. 89.

It goes without saying that de Saulcy did not identify the inscribed sarcophagus with Helena. He argued throughout his report that the tomb belonged to members of the Judahite royal dynasty, centuries prior to the Adiabenes.

This mistaken identification seems to be the product of French archaeologist Clermont-Ganneau. Although he speaks of having given a series of proofs for this identification, we have only been able to find what at best can be described as unfounded suggestions. Certainly nothing that would stand the test of scientific proofs. His most serious attempt is found in an article “Le temple de Baal Marcod à Deir el-Kala’a,” in which there is a Greek inscription from Lebanon of a woman with what seems to be a Semitic name (Sadda), as well as a Greek name.2 He thus assumes that Helena also had a Semitic name and even ventures whether or not the two women might have been related.

Essentially, the only line of argument for the identification of the sarcophagus with Helena is (a) Queen Helena of Adiabene was buried in one of the chambers in the tomb, and (b) the woman buried in the inscribed sarcophagus is called “queen.”

Lacking any demonstrable proof for this identification, we would argue that the woman buried in the sarcophagus was not Helena for the following reasons:

1) De Saulcy, Kon and Jacoby all speak of the importance of chamber G. It alone was intended for a single person—a place of obvious distinction. Kon and Jacoby both believe Helena was buried in Chamber G.3

2) Chamber G was situated to draw attention to the person in it. De Saulcy noted—and Kon and Jacoby repeated—that “if a line is drawn from the center of the arcosolium (arched recess) in Chamber G in the direction of the entrance hall, this line will pass in the middle of the space between the entrance columns and will reach the bunch of grapes and the flower rosette at the center of the decoration. I believe this connection not to be accidental, but a result of painstaking and careful planning.”4

3) The ornate sarcophagus lid from the Louvre was found in Chamber G. Note the similarity in the incised artwork on the lid and the decoration for the porch. This has been noted by Gideon Foerster in his important study on sarcophagi production in first-century Jerusalem.5 Together we think there is some reason to suggest that perhaps this lid came from the sarcophagus of Helena. Of course, we cannot be certain, but there is more to commend this identification than the inscribed sarcophagus.

4) Finally and returning to the inscribed sarcophagus is de Saulcy’s wonderful description of opening it and discovering the remains of a body wrapped in a shroud with gold embroidery, which immediately disintegrated upon being exposed to the air. He mentions that after this occurred there remained only a lower jaw, three fragments of the knee and heel of a phalanx. “All the rest has vanished in the blink of an eye (Tout le reste s’était évanoui en un clin d’œil).”6


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Fortunately, de Saulcy had the presence of mind to have these examined by the distinguished German doctor and anthropologist, Dr. Franz Ignuz Pruner (Pruner-Bey). He examined the remains and determined that it was the body of a woman who died young.

According to Josephus, Helena’s son Izates died when he was 55. He was her second son, and she outlived him. So, by any account she lived into her 70s and would not have been mistaken as a young woman.

There is some ambiguity about the chamber in which the inscribed sarcophagus was found—either in Chamber C or Chamber E. This is another example where de Saulcy’s original report has either been poorly, or not sufficiently, read. Vincent may be responsible for this particular confusion since he states that the inscribed sarcophagus was found in Chamber E.7 De Saulcy describes how he found the inscribed sarcophagus in a sealed, undisturbed chamber.

De Saulcy, of course, does not use the designations of A–G to refer to the chambers. Instead, he describes their location in reference to the interior vestibule (Chamber A). One must read him very carefully to assure that you are following his layout.

In his report, de Saulcy enters Chamber D. He speaks about the right entrance of the back wall (la partie de droits de la paroi du fond) of Chamber A, which would lead to Chamber D and further gave access to Chamber E.8 He also speaks of Chamber D having six tombs with one unfinished, which is the loculus (square cut burial niche; plural: loculi) that is very narrow compared to the others on the plan. He concludes his description of Chamber D with the account of “an inclined passage to a second lower chamber [Chamber E].” There is no hint in de Saulcy’s initial description that Chamber E was sealed.

Later de Saulcy speaks of entering a chamber with six tombs, four of which were unfinished, which fits the description of Chamber B with its four very narrow “unfinished” loculi.9 The entrance to this chamber is said to be on the left hand side of the back wall (la porte de gauche de la paroi du fond) of Chamber A. There is no mention at this point of a lower chamber (Chamber C)—the only sealed, undisturbed chamber.

Later in his report he recounts finding the entrance to the sealed chamber and describes what appears to be an arcosolium.10 The Arab worker finds a “joint in the seat” (joint dans la banquette). This is how one enters Chamber C according to Jacoby, who is probably following Kon: “Part of the stone bench along the walls of Chamber B can be lifted, exposing the descent into Chamber C which contains three arcosolia.”11

There is little doubt that Vincent (and all those who follow him) is mistaken about the chamber in which the inscribed sarcophagus was found. It is clear with a close reading of de Saulcy’s original report to be Chamber C, not Chamber E.

In conclusion, we would suggest:

1. The inscribed sarcophagus was found in Chamber C.

2. It may have belonged to another member of the royal family—perhaps an unknown wife of either Izates or Monobazus II.

3. Chamber G was the resting place of the sarcophagus of Queen Helena of Adiabene. The important nature of this chamber was underscored by it alone being for a single individual and by its position on the axis with the opening façade.

4. We may have a remnant of Helena’s sarcophagus in the ornate lid that is at the Louvre. If so, it is not an accident that its artwork matched the façade. The magnificent stonework of this lid is fit for a queen and stands in stark contrast to the “plain Jane” style of the inscribed sarcophagus. Indeed, Foerster speaks of the inscribed sarcophagus as being so plain it appears “unfinished.”


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Sealed with a Rolling Stone

rolling stone

A ROLLING STONE seals the tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene in Jerusalem. Photo: Todd Bolen/

The second-century Greek geographer Pausanias compared the tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene to the legendary tomb of Mausolus—one of the seven wonders of the world!12

Queen Helena’s tomb is entered through a small depression on the left-hand side of the porch. In antiquity a rolling stone sealed the entrance. Among the hundreds of tombs from the necropolis surrounding Second Temple period Jerusalem, only four have been found with round “rolling” stones.13

Helena’s tomb remains unsealed, and the stone is still visible. Pausanias recounts that Helena’s tomb had a magic door that opened only once a year. It may be that there once existed a mechanism that moved the rolling stone by water pressure: “A round pit that might have contained the mechanism that operated the rolling stone was cut in the vestibule floor near the entrance trench.”14 A system of weights was installed to automatically move both the rolling stone as well as a stone slab that covered the steps, which led into the interior of the tomb.15 This system was intended to keep out undesirables.

In fact, many of the underground tombs were designed to remain hidden. Apparently, the more secret the tomb, the more important the person interred.16



1 Ada Yardeni, Jonathan Price and Haggai Misgav, “123. Sarcophagus of Queen Ṣadan from the ‘Tomb of the Kings’ with Aramaic inscription, 1 c. CE,” in Hannah M. Cotton et al., eds., Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae , vol. 1.1 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), pp. 165–167.

2 Charles S. Clermont-Ganneau, “Le temple de Baal Marcod à Deir el-Kala’a,” Recueil d’archélogie orientale 1 (1886): 107–108.

3 See Maximiliam Kon, Kivre Ha-Melachim: nefesh malkey beit hadayav (Jerusalem: Dvir, 1947), pp. 71–74 [Hebrew]; Ruth Jacoby, “The Decoration and Plan of Queen Helena’s Tomb in Jerusalem,” in Bianca Kühnel, ed., The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Art: Studies in Honor of Bezalel Narkiss on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, Journal of the Center for Jewish Art (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1998).

4 Jacoby, “Decoration and Plan,” p. 462.

5 Gideon Foerster, “Sarcophagus-Production in Jerusalem from the Beginning of the Common Era up to 70 C.E.,” in Gunthram Koch, ed., Sarkophag-Studien 1: Akten des Symposiums 125 Jahre Sarkophag Corpus (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1998), p. 296.

6 Louis Félicien Joseph Caignart de Saulcy, Voyage en Terre Sainte, vol. 1 (Paris: Didier, 1865), p. 379.

7 L. Hugues Vincent and A.M. Steve, Jérusalem de l’Ancien Testament, recherches d’archéologie et d’histoire (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1954), p. 350.

8 de Saulcy, Voyage en Terre Sainte, pp. 369–370.

9 de Saulcy, Voyage en Terre Sainte, p. 370.

10 de Saulcy, Voyage en Terre Sainte, p. 374.

11 Jacoby, “Decoration and Plan,” pp. 461–462.

12 Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.16.4–5.

13 Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu, The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period (Leuven: Peeters, 2007), p. 55.

14 Kloner and Zissu, The Necropolis of Jerusalem, p. 232.

15 Kon, Kivre Ha-Melachim, pp. 60–63.

16 Jacoby, “Decoration and Plan,” p. 461.

BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Queen Helena’s Jerusalem Palace—In a Parking Lot” by R. Steven Notley and Jeffrey P. García in the May/June 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.


Learn more about Helena of Adiabene, her tomb and other tombs with rolling stones in the BAS Library:

Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2006.

Shaye J.D. Cohen, “Did Ancient Jews Missionize,” Bible Review, August 2003.

Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1999.

Hershel Shanks, “Have the Tombs of the Kings of Judah Been Found?” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1987.

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  • Ruth says

    Sorry – misprint on last post: Where can the sarcophagus of Helena of Adiabene be seen now? Is it in Jerusalem?

  • Ruth says

    Share can the sarcophagus of Helene of Adiabene be seen now?

  • Kush says

    Beautiful…remnaints of our family which is also found at Ramitha….M..Kush

  • emad says

    Was there any castels for Helena in jordan

  • ralph says

    >>Dr.H.Davis says
    >>Rolling Stones to close a tomb opening were very rare

    Nonsense. Every tomb in the Edessan royal necropolis at Sogmatar had a rolling stone. And these date from the 1st to the 3rd century AD.

    This is a pic of one. Unfortunately the stone was broken and rolled into the tomb, but you can see the recess for the stone on the left. The floor was inclined, sot that the stone would roll naturally down and close the entrance, when a chock was removed.

    And what does Edessa have to do with this? Well, Moses of Chorene, the Armenian historian, records that Queen Helena was actually the wife of King Abgarus V of Edessa. And this puts a very different spin on the Adiabene story.

    Ralph Ellis

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