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, 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.
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?
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:
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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:
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Sealed with a Rolling Stone
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.
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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