Last Tuesday, for the first time in ten years, the French government opened the Tombs of the Kings, a collection of rock-cut tombs in Jerusalem, to the public. The site is believed to be 2,000 years old and covers several acres. It is believed to be the burial site of several prominent Biblical figures including Queen Helene of Adiabene, Kalba Savua, the father-in-law of Rabbi Akiva, and of Nicodemus ben Guryon, wealthy residents of Jerusalem of the second Temple era. The site is truly remarkable with a courtyard hewn into the solid rock to a depth of nearly 30 feet. Some 20,000 tons of stone were removed to create it. Channels carved into the rock provide water for a mikveh (ritual bath). Three pyramids are said to have once adorned the tomb’s facade above the opening. The tomb has no fewer than 48 graves, but over the years grave robbers plundered the sarcophagi.
A Brief History
French archaeologist Felicien de Saulcy was the first foreigner to receive permission from the Ottoman Empire to excavated and in 1863 he began digging at the site. De Saulcy found sarcophagi in the tomb, one of which had a Hebrew inscription, “Queen Tzaddah,” which was perhaps Queen Helena’s name in Greek. De Saulcy was convinced that this was the sarcophagus of the wife of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah.
His discovery led to protests by the Jewish community who viewed the site as a holy site, a graveyard containing the remains of important figures in Jewish history. The Jewish community appealed to Sir Moses Montefiore to petition the Ottomans who halted the excavations. Several of the sarcophagi were illicitly smuggled out by De Saulcy and are still on display in the Louvre in Paris.
In 1864 French-Jewish banker Isaac Péreire unsuccessfully attempted to purchase the site in order to preserve it. In 1878, Amalya Bertrand, a French Jewish woman related to Péreire, paid 30,000 francs, a huge amount of money, to purchase the site from the Arab owners with the aid of the French Consul. Bertrand was born Jewish and her original family name was Levy.
At the time of the purchase, Bertrand intended to purchase it for the Jewish people as she wrote at the time a declaration to the chief rabbi of France saying: “I am of the firm opinion that this property, the field and the burial cave of the kings, 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.”
The chief rabbi accepted her gift to the Jewish people of the holy site. Unfortunately, the French Consul registered the purchase under his own name. The French Government claims that eight years later, a member of the Bertrand family gifted the site to them on the condition the site would be open for Jews to pray.
After the 1948 War of Independence, the site was in Jordanian occupied territory. After the area was conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the French Consul took control of the site.
But in 2006, a paper authored by Eyal Ben-Eliyahu of Hebrew University’s Department of the History of the Jewish People published in the bimonthly periodical of the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute cast a shadow of doubt on that claim. The study cited an array of new evidence indicating that France’s acquisition of the site in 1886 may not have been fully legal. The essay concluded that the site’s original owner may have bestowed it with the status of a trust, a step that would have precluded its subsequent sale to the French government.
“In a document written by the chief rabbi of France shortly after Bertrand’s purchase, he affirmed that she bequeathed the site to the Jewish people forever,” Ben-Eliyahu said in an interview with the JPost. “This, combined with other information that has come to light, seems to suggest that Bertrand had the Tomb of the Kings placed in trust so its subsequent sale to the French government would not have been legal”
“The legal basis for the tomb’s transfer to French government possession is extremely problematic,” the article concluded, stating that, “there needs to be a renewed examination of the site’s true ownership.”
In 2008, the site was closed to tourists and religious Jews were prevented from praying there.
In 2015, Yitzhak Mamo and Yaakov Saltzman, emmissaries of the rabbinical court for “hekdesh” (sacred property) affairs, filed a suit in the rabbinical court against the government of France, with a plea to gain possession of the site. In a disturbing decision, the Israeli attorney general intervened in favor of the French government, 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 holy site since that status was created by the chief rabbi of Paris and not by the Sharia (Islamic) 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.
Extensive renovations were carried out and in September 2018, the French Consulate informed the Israeli Foreign Ministry that the work had been completed and that it was now possible to reopen the site. The French demanded two conditions: that Israel officially recognizes French ownership of the site, and that no new lawsuits would be brought against them.
At that time, a group of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews began to protest by holding bi-weekly prayer vigils.
Their protest has gained the support of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, as well as the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
“In truth, the site is a holy place for Jews,” the office of Rabbi Rabinovich said in a statement. “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.”
The French stance has a strongly anti-Israel political basis.
In 2008, the French Consulate held a concert there in conjunction with the Palestinian cultural organization Yabous, a European Union-funded non-governmental organization which advocates a boycott of Israel.
On May 15, 2019, Hekdesh, a Jewish organization (Association Hekdesh du Tombeau des Rois), took the French government to court to prove that the site belonged to Bertrand and the Jewish People. They also hope to reclaim the sarcophagus of Queen Helena presently housed at the Louvre Museum.
Chaim Berkowitz, a representative of the association, noted the underlying motives of the French government.
“The French government does not want Jews to have any claim, religious or otherwise,” Berkowitz told Breaking Israel News. “They cannot accept our claim because they support a Palestinian State with its capital in Jerusalem.”
“But this is also religious in its basis.
The Catholic Church cannot recognize the Jewish return to the Holy Land. The Church wants to keep all holy sites, including Jewish holy sites, under its auspices.”
On June 27, 2019, the French consulate in Jerusalem reopened the site to visitors purchasing tickets in advance. The site is now open to tourists on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Visits will be limited to 30 people in 45-minute stretches and a NIS 10 entrance fee will be charged.
See a virtual tour below: