In recent weeks, a small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews has been gathering alongside a locked iron gate on Nablus Road in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. They pray and protest alongside the shuttered gate, periodically squabbling with the Palestinian guard, demanding to be allowed inside to pray. The guard refuses, and refers them to the body that owns and administers the site – the French Consulate of Jerusalem.
These protests are yet another round in a long-standing historic struggle over control of one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in Jerusalem, which has been closed to the public for years. On the one side stands the government of France and on the other, Haredi and right-wing Israeli factions. Israel’s Antiquities Authority is in favor of opening the site to the public, but does share the French concerns that the site might befall the same fate of many other archaeological sites in the city, which were transformed from mere archaeology and tourism sites into holy sites and then appropriated from the public’s domain.
The Tomb of the Kings, situated between the Jerusalem District Court and the American Colony Hotel, is considered the grandest burial compound in Jerusalem. The site includes a sophisticated burial cave that has a mechanism for sealing the entrance by means of a stone that rotates on a hinge. It includes a mammoth courtyard carved into the bedrock, a staircase carved into the bedrock that is the second largest in Jerusalem – the only one larger is on the Temple Mount – stone-inscribed ornamentation, an ancient mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and cisterns.
The site has been dated to the Second Temple period, and there are various traditions and theories regarding who is actually buried there. According to one tradition, it was the place of burial of Kalba Savua, the father-in-law of Rabbi Akiva, or of Nicodemus ben Guryon – two of the wealthier residents of Jerusalem at the start of the 1st millennium CE.
The historian Josephus Flavius wrote that this was the burial place of Queen Helena of Adiabene, who converted to Judaism around the year 30 C.E., and some of the site’s investigators say it is reasonable to believe that this is indeed her tomb. An ornamented sarcophagus found here was inscribed with the legend, “Tzadan Malkata,” which is believed to refer to Queen (Malka) Helena. This reinforces the notion that buried on this site were other members of her royal family. The site gained fame in the late 19th century, and among its visitors were the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and Theodore Herzl.
The Tomb of the Kings is interwoven into the history of archaeology in Israel. The excavation conducted by Félicien de Saulcy in 1863 is considered the first modern archaeological dig in the country. It is also the first excavation to receive a digging permit from the Turkish sultan.
But along with modern archaeology, the protest against it was also born here. “This was the first official archaeological excavation, and also the first time in which the Jews of Jerusalem rose up against the excavation of ancestral graves,” writes a scholar who has studied the site, Dr. Dotan Goren.
In the wake of the Orthodox Jews’ public protests in the city and pressure from the Jews on the sultan, those excavations were suspended. To the dismay of the city’s Jews, de Saulcy managed to load the queen’s sarcophagus onto a ship anchored in Jaffa port, and it is to this day displayed at the Louvre Museum. Several years ago, it appeared as part of a temporary exhibition in the Israel Museum.
The basis for the current demand by religious and Haredi circles that the Jews ought to be granted rights over the site has to do with events that occurred following the excavation. In 1878, a woman named Berta Amalia Bertrand, a French Jew who was related to the Pereire brothers, a famous Jewish banking family, purchased the burial compound from its Arab owners. At the time of the purchase, Bertrand dedicated the site in the presence of the chief rabbi of Paris, declaring that it “will become the land in perpetuity of the Jewish community, to be preserved from desecration and abomination, and will never again be damaged by foreigners..”
Eight years later, however, one of Bertrand’s heirs granted the site as a gift to the government of France. At the time of the conferral of the gift, an agreement was signed between the French government and the family, under which France committed to meet several conditions. One was to erect a sign in Hebrew, French and Arabic saying that these are the Tombs of the Kings of Judah. The large sign, made of copper, can still be found set into the wall of the building.
A few testimonies describe how the site served for prayer and pilgrimage, although it is altogether clear that it was secondary in importance to the neighboring holy site, the cave of Shimon Hatzadik. But in any event, following the battles of 1948, the site was left behind the enemy lines, within the territory of the Jordanian kingdom. “This site was forgotten or made to be forgotten, and there was no one to tell about it,” says Goren.
Following 1967’s Six-Day War, the site continued to be administered by the French consulate in Jerusalem. Most of the time, it was open to visitors, for a token entry fee. Ten years ago the consulate held a concert there, together with the Palestinian cultural organization Yabous, which advocates a boycott of Israel.
Apparently that is what has sparked a renewed interest in the site. In 2014, the rabbinical court for “hekdesh” (sacred property) affairs appointed Yitzhak Mamo and Yaakov Saltzman as emissaries of the court in the matter of the Tomb of the Kings sacred property. Mamo is a well-known right-wing activist in East Jerusalem who for years has been engaged in the evacuation of Palestinian families and the resettlement of Jews in Sheikh Jarrah. In 2015, the two men filed a suit in the rabbinical court against the government of France, with a plea to gain possession of the site.
The lawsuit sparked outrage in Paris and in the French consulate in Jerusalem, as well as in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A letter sent to the court by David Goldfarb of the ministry’s legal department stated that according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which Israel is a signatory, consulate employees are not subject to the rulings of a rabbinical court. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also wishes to inform the honorable court that in response to bringing the lawsuit in this case, our office has received a sharply worded letter from the government of France,” Goldfarb wrote.
The Israeli attorney general also sided with the French, and in a legal opinion submitted to the court, he argued that it was not at all clear that the site can be considered a hekdesh, since the hekdesh was created by the chief rabbi of Paris and not by the Sharia court in Jerusalem, which had been entrusted with the authority to rule on sacred property issues in the city during the period of Ottoman rule. In the wake of these developments, the religious court in Jerusalem rejected the suit.
The French subsequently announced the closure of the site for renovations. In recent years, there has been practically no opportunity to visit the site. According to parties involved in the matter, the French consulate has invested about 900,000 euros (about $790,000) in a renovation that included construction of a steel apparatus to reinforce the central structure in the event of earthquake, construction of a new stairway, and preservation work.
In September 2018, the consulate informed the Israeli Foreign Ministry that the work had been completed and that it was now possible to reopen the site. However, the French imposed two conditions: one, that Israel officially recognize French ownership of the site, and two, that they be assured no new lawsuits would be brought against them. Foreign Ministry officials have reported that discussions on the matter are now underway. In the meantime, the place remains closed and the protests have begun again.
This time around, it was a group of Haredim led by Rabbi Zalman Grossman of Jerusalem that began to arrive on site twice a week and protest its closure by means of prayers and demonstrations. The protest has gained the support of the rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites, Shmuel Rabinovich, and of the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, as well as the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
The demonstrations and the demands to be able to pray on the site have kindled fears among the French that if the site is reopened, it will take on a religious nature and essentially become an Israeli land grab under the French flag in East Jerusalem. As far as France is concerned, this would engender serious political complications with the Palestinians.
The concerns of the French in this matter are shared by the Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district archaeologist, Dr. Yuval Baruch. “There is a trend of archaeological sites taking on a status of holiness, and the problem is if and when that happens, archaeology always loses out,” says Baruch.
He is concerned about other sites, mainly in the Old City, archaeological-tourism sites that have in the past few years been converted into religious sites, where visitors not coming for ritual purposes do not always feel welcome.
The phenomenon, incidentally, is not exclusive to Orthodox Jews. This has happened, for instance, in a large section of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park-Davidson Center, south of the Western Wall, which has been turned into the “Ezrat Israel,” a prayer section earmarked for the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. It is happening on the Hulda steps that ascend to the Temple Mount from the south, which have become a popular prayer site among evangelical Christians. The evangelicals have also adopted the Siloam Pool in Silwan. The plaza just outside Tanner’s Gate, not far from the Western Wall, has become the province of bar mitzvah organizers, and the archaeological site at Nebi Samuel in northern Jerusalem has become a site for prayer and pilgrimage.
“When all is said and done, there is freedom of religion and the authorities have no ability to control it, but there has to be some regulation,” says Baruch. d”As excavations in Jerusalem continue to proliferate, the more assured it is that there will be continued attempts by religious bodies, and this can be Orthodox, Conservative or Reform rabbis, or evangelicals, it matters not who, to try and take them over. The appeal of sites whose character is becoming more emphatically religious will change. I appeal to the rabbinical establishment and to the leadership of the Christian communities to show more responsibility and greater recognition of the importance of the archaeological values, as well.”
The official response from the office of the rabbi of the Western Wall in regard to the Tomb of the Kings: “In truth, the site is a holy place for Jews. To that end, the rabbi is acting with all due sensitivity in order that the site also provide free access for Jewish prayer and that its character and its holiness be preserved.”