Excavation Near Dung Gate Unearths Ancient Mansion

Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced yesterday that the mansion it has been uncovering in Jerusalem may have been a palace belonging to Queen Helene of Adiabene.

The mansion is beneath the Givati parking lot near the Dung Gate.

Dig director Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, said the structure, unearthed across the street from the City of David Visitors Center, was of unusual proportions for the Second Temple period and may have belonged to the royal family of Adiabene, of which Queen Helene was the best-known member.

He added that the final word was not in yet, and that he would have to wait until the excavation was expanded in the coming season to securely determine the identity of the entire complex.

Helene of Adiabene, who converted to Judaism some 2,000 years ago and moved to Jerusalem, built grand residences in the area of the City of David. She was known in Jewish sources as a righteous woman, one of the queens of Adiabene, a kingdom on the upper Tigris river. The Roman-era Jewish historian Josephus mentions her in his book "The Antiquities of the Jews" and mentions her son, Monbaz II, a number of times. He relates how she converted to Judaism together with her son, under the influence of two Jews, and how the she and Monbaz assisted the Jews of Jerusalem during the Great Revolt. According to historical sources, Helene came to Jerusalem to sacrifice in the Temple after her conversion, and distributed money generously to the poor. She spent the rest of her life in one of the palaces she built in the City of David.

The Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds mention her, and the Mishnaic tractate Yoma says she continued to donate lavishly to the poor and the Temple. She also contributed a gold chandelier and a gold plaque inscribed with the biblical portion regarding the biblical treatment of a suspected adulteress. Archaeologists and historians assume that the queen was buried in the so-called Tombs of the Kings north of the Old City. Two streets in the heart of the capital's downtown are named for the queen and her son.

The excavation, carried out by the IAA in cooperation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Elad association has uncovered the complex's massive foundations; walls, some of which have been preserved to a height of five meters with stones weighing hundreds of kilograms; halls preserved to a height of at least two stories, a basement with an arched ceiling, and remnants of colored frescoes and ritual baths.

Evidence of the drama that took place in this area before the city was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. can be seen in narrow openings found in the basement through which its inhabitants attempted to flee. The IAA archaeologists say the entire structure was intentionally destroyed. Among the finds are pottery and stone vessels and coins dating to the end of the Second Temple period. Remains from the Byzantine, Roman and Muslim periods were found above the presumed palace, and from the Hellenistic and First Temple period below it.

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