A Royal Return

Two-thousand years after Helena of Adiabene converted to Judaism and visited Jerusalem, and nearly 150 years after her burial box was spirited away to France, the queen's sarcophagus is on display

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

Nearly 2,000 years passed between the time the coffin of Queen Helena of Adiabene first came to Jerusalem and its recent return there. In an impressive ceremony on September 21, the coffin was put on display in the reopened archaeology wing of the Israel Museum, after having been flown in from France.

Queen Helena's sarchophagus Credit: Michal Patael

In keeping with the customs of the time, the body of the first-century C.E. queen, who was a convert to Judaism, was interred in a stone coffin, a sarcophagus, weighing around 1,200 kilograms. The coffin looks massive, says the French ambassador to Israel, Christophe Bigot, who attended the ceremony, but any careless movement could damage it.

Queen Helena's sarcophagus wound up in France after it was discovered almost by accident in Jerusalem in 1863, when Louis Felicien de Saulcy was excavating the site called the Tombs of the Kings, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, not far from the U.S. consulate. On the third day of the dig - which was undertaken after the Ottoman authorities issued a firman, or formal permit, for it - one of the workers stepped on a tile in the floor of a structure. The tile moved, revealing an alcove beneath it that contained the sarcophagus.

De Saulcy, a French military man and the scion of a noble family, turned his attention to archaeological research in the Middle East in the mid-19th century. Hagit Maoz Lin, curator of the Israel Museum exhibition that features the sarcophagus, says that he traveled to Palestine after the death of his first wife, because he was searching for something of interest "in a place fraught with danger." On de Saulcy's first trip to Palestine, in 1850, he toured the Dead Sea area and, among other things, falsely identified Sodom and Gomorrah, and drew the first map of Masada and the Roman camps that surrounded it.

A pair of inscriptions on the sarcophagus, "tzaddan malka" and "tzadda malkata," led de Saulcy to conclude that the bones inside, wrapped in shrouds with gold embroidery, belonged to the wife of one of the kings of Judea from the First Temple period - Zedekiah or Jehoash. Most other scholars thought even then, however, that the bones were those of Queen Helena.

News of the discovery of human bones, and from a Jewish queen moreover, inflamed the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The community petitioned prominent figures such as Moses Montefiore and the Rothschild family, and lobbied the Ottoman authorities. De Saulcy was forced to suspend his excavation, but not before managing to send the sarcophagus and other findings to France. Since then the queen's coffin has been in the Louvre in Paris. According to Maoz Lin, the museum displayed it for a while and then put it in storage. It was brought out again in 1982, for an exhibition marking the centenary of de Saulcy's death, after which it went back into storage.

De Saulcy was adamant to his dying day that he had discovered the burial casket of one of the queens of Judea. Subsequent research proved him wrong. The construction style of the burial container he ascribed to kings from the First Temple era - including its lavishly decorated front panel - correlates to the Second Temple period.

"Today there is no doubt that the container dates from the late Second Temple period and is not related to the kings of Judea," Maoz Lin confirms.

Some believe that the word "tzaddan" in the inscription is a reference to the provisions (tzeda in Hebrew ) that Helena supplied to Jerusalem's poor and to the Jewish kingdom in general.

She came to the city of Jerusalem as the queen of Adiabene, a kingdom in Assyria, on the banks of the Tigris. In his book "The Antiquities of the Jews," Flavius Josephus wrote that the queen converted to Judaism together with her son Monobaz II, under the influence of two Jews. Another tradition has it that she met a Jewish jewelry merchant in Adiabene by the name of Hanania or Eliezer, who told her about the people of Israel and persuaded her to join them.

After her conversion, Helena went to Jerusalem to offer up sacrifices at the Temple. She arrived in the city during a drought year in the mid-first century C.E., and threw herself into helping its hungry residents. The large sums of money she invested went to buy bread in Egypt and dried figs in Cyprus. Then she donated a gold chandelier and a gold tablet to the Temple. She traveled frequently between Jerusalem and Adiabene, which is where her life came to an end. After she died, her sarcophagus was brought to Jerusalem for burial. And there it remained in the mausoleum until de Saulcy discovered it.

About a year ago, when the Israel Museum began planning the exhibitions that would accompany its reopening this summer, curator Maoz Lin contacted the Louvre about the possibility of a loan.

"The French gave me a hard time," she says. "Perhaps there were concerns that once the sarcophagus arrived in Israel, someone would want to keep it here."

Negotiations went on for about a year, at the end of which it was agreed that the Louvre would loan the coffin to the museum for four months.

"This is the first time the sarcophagus has been removed from the Louvre in 150 years," says Lionel Choukroun, the cultural attache of the French embassy, who followed the process closely. "There were no particular hold-ups. The main problems were the technical arrangements for transferring the sarcophagus. At the demand of the Jewish community in France, two rabbis came to make sure there were no human bones remaining inside."

The Israel Museum's director, James Snyder, and the French ambassador, Bigot, were also involved in the negotiations. Without their intervention, Maoz Lin notes, the royal coffin might never have left Paris. Snyder says that the French ambassador aided in the operation enthusiastically, and both Choukroun and Bigot stress the good will their country displayed in the matter.

"We have been working on this matter for a very long time, and we are very glad that the sarcophagus is back in Israel," says Bigot. "The president of the Louvre is an old friend of Israel's and he wanted to grant the request. A lot of details had to be worked out, to make sure that the casket is transferred safely, and more. So we are delighted that its transfer ended successfully."

On the Tuesday before Sukkot, a few hours after the ceremony in honor of the burial box's return to Jerusalem, Snyder entered the room where it is on display to the public, as part of the exhibition "Breaking Ground: Pioneers of Biblical Archaeology."

"I saw a young family there, visiting the exhibition," he says. "I realized that they did not understand what this object was, so I explained it to them. The return of the sarcophagus to Jerusalem makes me very happy. If the supposition is correct and it is really the sarcophagus of Queen Helena, the idea that we can look at a coffin in which a queen from the first century C.E. was buried - a woman who converted and who contributed a great deal to the people of Jerusalem - is very exciting. It opens a door to a piece of history that you would have no chance of knowing otherwise."