BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Tomb of the Kings in Jerusalem

New insights into the Tomb of the Kings

There is no shortage of controversial sites and monuments in Israel. Among the less well known to visitors to Jerusalem is the so-called Tomb of the Kings which remains highly controversial in two aspects: its original purpose and the site’s current ownership.

Tomb of the Kings

This photochrom image of the Tomb of the Kings in Jerusalem was taken in the late 19th century.
Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

The Tomb of the Kings is an ancient funerary monument located about a half mile north of the Old City walls. The tomb complex, almost entirely carved out of natural rock, consists of a monumental staircase, a spacious courtyard, an imposing portico, and a maze of subterranean passages and chambers that could have held up to 50 burials. There are ancient ritual baths (mikva’ot) at the foot of the staircase. Despite its traditional name, however, the tomb did not serve as the final resting place of the kings of ancient Israel or Judah. The scholarly consensus has long been that the Tomb of the Kings was the family tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene, a first-century convert to Judaism who moved to Jerusalem from her original home in Adiabene, an ancient kingdom in what is today northern Iraq.

drawing of Tomb of the Kings

The latest exploration of the Tomb of the Kings supports an earlier theory that it was once topped with three pyramid-shaped structures. Drawing: P. L.-H. Vincent & P. M.-A. Steve, Jerusalem de l’ancien testament, vol. 1 (Paris, 1954), pl. 97.

Writing in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Andrew Lawler presents a new, bold theory contending not only that Queen Helena of Adiabene was not buried in an inscribed sarcophagus found in the tomb long ago, but also that the monumental tomb itself was not originally built for the foreign monarch. An award-winning journalist and writer, Lawler draws on the recent research of French scholar and Dominican monk Jean-Baptiste Humbert to make the case. In his article “Who Built the Tomb of the Kings?” Lawler describes the ancient monument and explains why the tomb was likely designed for Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of the famed Herod the Great.

Sarcophagus from Tomb of the Kings

Removed from the Tomb of the Kings in the 1860s and now on display in the Louvre in Paris, this limestone sarcophagus bears an inscription that many believe refers to Queen Helena of Adiabene.
Credit: COYAU/CC BY-SA 3.0.

Lawler also delves into the persisting controversies surrounding the ownership of the Tomb of the Kings site. Somewhat surprisingly, the land occupied by the site belongs to the French state. Owing to the original 19th-century purchase agreement, the site is now controlled by the French government—much to the upset of some Jewish groups who consider it a holy site. In the midst of turbulent protests and lawsuits, the Tomb of the Kings remains one of the most contested sites in Israel.
To explore in detail the arguments about its original owner and to learn about the contemporary conflict regarding the ownership of the contested monument, read Andrew Lawler’s article “Who Built the Tomb of the Kings?” published in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Who Built the Tomb of the Kings?” by Andrew Lawler in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

 


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