Tombs of the Kings (Jerusalem)

By the Editors of the Madain Project

The Tombs of the Kings (قبور السلاطين) are a collection of rock cut tombs in East Jerusalem believed to be the burial site of Queen Helene of Adiabene, her son Isates and others of her dynasty. The tombs are located 820 meters north of Jerusalem's Old City walls in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood (Hebrew: שכונת שייח ג'ראח; Arabic: حي الشيخ جرّاح).

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The grandeur of the site led to the belief that the tombs had once been the burial place of the kings of Judah, hence the name Tombs of the Kings; but the tombs are now associated with Queen Helena of Adiabene. According to this theory, Queen Helena chose the site to bury her son Isates and others of her dynasty. The tomb is mentioned by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus in the first century CE He writes about Queen Helena of Adiabene who came to Jerusalem from Kurdistan, northern Iraq.



The family of Queen Helena converted to Judaism and built a palace in the City of David at the end of the Second Temple Period. Helena’s son Monobaz II had her remains and those of his brother buried “three stadia from Jerusalem.” Medieval Europeans mistakenly identified the tomb as belonging to the Kings of Judah.



Facade and the Entrance
The entrance to the tombs is via the courtyard. The tombs are entered via a rock-cut arch (facade) in the western side. The 28-meter facade was crowned with three pyramids, which no longer exist, and decorated with reliefs of grapes, plexus leaves, acorns and fruit, reflecting the Greek architectural style. The decorative architecture of the tomb complex is Seleucid, which would fit with its identification with that of Helena’s.


Burial Chambers
The tombs are now empty, but previously housed a number of sarcophagi; they were excavated by a French archaeological mission headed by Louis Felicien de Saulcy, who took them back to France. They are exhibited at the Louvre. The tombs are arranged on two levels around a central chamber, with four rooms upstairs and three rooms downstairs. The central chamber itself is entered from the courtyard via an antechamber that goes down into a dimly lit maze of chambers.


Helena of Adiabene Sarcophagus
Although no kings are known to have been buried here, one of the sarcophagi bears two Aramaic inscriptions and is thought to be that of Queen Helena of Adiabene; the one inscription which reads, Ṣaddan Malkata (Palmyrene: צדן מלכתא), and the other, Ṣaddah Malkatah (Aramaic: צדה מלכתה), interpreted by scholars to mean: "Our mistress, the Queen."

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