After more than a decade of renovations totaling almost one million euros ($1,100,000), the Tomb of the Kings in Jerusalem is open to the public. Medieval Europeans believed the site contained the burials of King David and King Solomon, and although this theory has been disproved, the name is still attached to the site. The tombs were originally constructed in the first century C.E. but were reused for many years afterward.
The site was initially excavated in 1863 by the French archaeologist Louis Félicien de Saulcy, who sought to confirm that the tombs belonged to David and Solomon. During this excavation, considered by some to be the first ever modern archaeological dig in Jerusalem, several sarcophagi were discovered. One of these sarcophagi, now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, was inscribed with two lines of Aramaic that read “Tsadan the Queen” and “Tsadah the Queen.”
Although Saulcy thought the inscription referred to the wife of King Zedekiah, other scholars attributed ownership of the sarcophagus to Queen Helena of Adiabene (today Iraqi Kurdistan). Josephus, the first-century Roman-Jewish historian, wrote that Queen Helena converted to Judaism and moved to Jerusalem. In the fourth century, the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea recorded that Queen Helena was buried in a tomb three stadia (about 555 m or 0.3 mi) north of Jerusalem. Although some still attribute the tomb complex to Helena and her dynasty, others assert that the tomb was built for Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great.
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In the 1870s, the Tomb of the Kings was purchased by a French national, who bequeathed it to the French government in 1886. The site is currently surrounded by a high stone wall and entered via a large metal gate marked with “Republique Française Tombeau des Rois.”
Inside the gate is a platform that extends to a 30-foot- (9-m-) wide staircase with 23 steps leading down to a forecourt with two cisterns. Rainwater flows into the two cisterns via two channels cut into the stone steps. These cisterns would have been used as ritual baths in accordance with Jewish purification rituals, which require water that has been collected naturally. Although the entrances to the cisterns are blocked with metal gates, both baths are almost entirely visible through the bars. Water still fills the cisterns and is also present in the stone channels on the steps.
North of the cisterns is a large rock-cut archway that leads to a massive square courtyard measuring 89 feet (27 m) long, 89 feet (25 m) wide, and 30 feet (9 m) deep. More than 700,000 cubic feet (20,000 cu m) of bedrock had to be removed to create the courtyard! The space is littered with many fragments of carved stone blocks, decorative elements, and columns found during excavation.
The porch containing the entrance to the tombs is located through a rectangular-shaped façade carved into the western wall of the courtyard. The 92-foot- (28-m-) high façade is crowned with a stone architrave decorated with reliefs of grapes, wreathes, acanthus leaves, and triglyphs. The architrave would have originally been supported by two pillars, whose fragments were discovered during excavation.
The tombs themselves are entered through a small hole on the southern side of the porch. Although this opening has been covered with locked metal grates, the entrance to the tombs is still visible, as well as the rolling stone that would have sealed the entrance. The subterranean tombs, more than 820 square feet (250 sq m) in area, consist of a main antechamber with three surrounding burial chambers, which are connected to four other smaller rooms. Each burial chamber contained at least six niches with stone shelves that once held sarcophagi. Access to the subterranean tombs is currently prohibited due to safety and preservation concerns.
The Tomb of the Kings is located in east Jerusalem in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, about half a mile (750 m) north of the Old City, at the intersection of Salah ad-Din Street and Nablus Road. There is no on-site parking, but some street parking is available on nearby roads, and the site is in easy walking distance from the American Colony Hotel and several public bus stops.
An online reservation is required to visit the Tomb of the Kings. The site is open only on Tuesdays and Thursdays with entry time slots from 9 to 11 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The tickets cost NIS 10 ($3.24) for each person over 12 years old; children under 12 are free. Only three tickets can be purchased for each reservation, and no more than 30 people are allowed inside during each of the two time slots. The tickets stipulate that all visitors should be “suitably dressed” for a funeral site. To be on the safe side, I advise having your knees and shoulders covered.
Those with limited mobility are cautioned against visiting the Tomb of the Kings, because a long stairway is the only access to the site, and much of the ground inside is uneven. However, for those without mobility issues, a visit is well worth it!
Is This King David’s Tomb? Can a reasonable case be made that this is King David’s tomb? Ask any ultra-modern, sophisticated archaeologist and he (or she) will most likely either express disinterest or brush off the possibility with a smile and an emphatic “No.”
What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like? According to the Gospels, Jesus died and was removed from the cross on a Friday afternoon, the eve of the Jewish Sabbath. A wealthy follower named Joseph of Arimathea requested Pontius Pilate’s permission to remove Jesus’ body from the cross.
Jerusalem Tombs from the Days of the First Temple A few hundred yards from Damascus Gate and over the wall from the Garden Tomb, magnificent burial cave lies beneath a Dominican monastery.
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