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.
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.
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.
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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