Yerushalayim’s most ancient cemeteries, the sacred venue where Yerushalayim’s Jews of old used to daven and celebrate every Lag Ba’Omer, has been transmogrified into the venue of an annual Arab music festival since 5757/1997!
A FORGOTTEN PLACE
Yerushalayim has long been famous for its ancient tombs, most of them on Har HaZeisim and Har Menuchos. They generally consist of burial caves lined with kuchim (niches) that contain lidded stone boxes (ossuaries). In ancient days people were often interred twice, once temporarily in the earth, and a second time when their bones were unearthed and permanently interred in burial caves. Among the best-known tombs are Kever Rochel, the Sanhedrin Tomb in Sanhedria, and the Tomb of Shimon HaTzaddik in East Yerushalayim. A lesser known tomb not far from the tomb of Shimon HaTzaddik is relatively unknown in our times.
To visit it, head out to the corner of Nablus and Salah ed-Din Street in East Yerushalayim if you dare, knock or ring at the street door, and perhaps a guard will admit you for a small fee. Facing you will be a giant courtyard that leads to the ancient burial cave containing about 48 graves. This two level complex, the largest such place in Yerushalayim, was hand carved out of one massive rock. Using primitive hand tools, workers quarried out about 20,000 tons of rock to create its sunken courtyard. People speculate that the place was originally a stone quarry. Near the entrance are hewn mikvehs that used to collect the winter rains.
Proudly flying over the entire panorama you may notice a fluttering French flag – France regards this place as part of its sovereign territory.
If you want, say a few Tehillim for the people interred here – their identity is a mystery that no one has ever solved. Because Arabs have always called the place Qubur al-Mulk (Grave of the Kings), many Jewish visitors assumed that this is the burying place of Jewish royalty. On the other hand, many local Jews called the place the kever of Kalba Savua, while others associated it with Nakdimon ben Gurion.
There are archeologists who connect the place with Queen Abiabene and her sons, the rulers of the ancient kingdom of Abiabene in north Iraq, basing this guess on the writings of Josephus and a second century Greek.
Josephus writes that after Helena and her sons, Izates and Munbaz, converted after learning Torah from Jews, Helena visited Yerushalayim about 115 years before the Churban, and helped the town survive a famine by importing corn and figs from Egypt and Cyprus. Her son Izates sent huge sums of money.
Josephus concludes that after the passing of Helena and Izates, “Munbaz sent her bones, as well as those of Izates, his brother, to Yerushalayim, and gave order that they should be buried at the pyramids which their mother had erected” near Yerushalayim. (Antiquities 20:3-4). Broken fragments on top of the burial caves may be the remains of these pyramids.
Further evidence for this speculation is the tomb’s huge rock door that used to swing open and shut with a special hydraulic system. This concurs with the description of a similar structure described by the second century Greek Pausanias who writes: “The Hebrews have a grave, that of Helen… in the city of Jerusalem, which the Roman Emperor razed to the ground. There is a contrivance in the grave whereby … the mechanism, unaided, opens the door…”
Nowadays, this massive gate is locked immovably in place, and visitors have to crawl inside through a tunnel.
VIOLATING THE DEAD
For long centuries, the contents of the cave remained undisturbed until 5607/1847 when a greedy Turkish governor decided to ransack the place for hidden treasure. Despite causing extensive damage, his cohorts came up empty handed, finding nothing but coffins and bones. Sixteen years later in 5623/1863, French archeologist Felicien de Saulcy showed up in search of a different kind of treasure. Among his possessions was a letter from the Turkish sultan granting him permission “to tour the land… and excavate wherever he wants, and whatever he finds from the remnants of ancient days to take them, and no one shall oppose him.”
After fruitlessly scouring Har Nevo for Moshe Rabeinu’s broken luchos, de Saulcy turned his attention to the Grave of the Kings, and was delighted to discover a number of ornately carved sarcophagi (stone coffins) still housing human bones. He was especially excited when he discovered one sarcophagi inscribed with the name “Queen Tzaddah,” and concluded that the bones within belonged to none other than the wife of King Tzidkiyahu, the 20th and last sovereign of Yehudah.
King Tzidkiyahu, the 20th and last sovereign of the separate kingdom of Yehudah, was placed on the throne by the conquering King Nevuchadnetzar of Babylon. The two previous kings had rebelled against Babylon’s rule, and so Nevuchadnetzar extracted from Tzidkiyahu a binding oath to the Hashem that he would run his domain in proper submission to Babylon’s empire. To show his command over Yehudah’s king, Nevuchadnetzar changed the new king’s name from Mattaniah to Tzidkiyahu, who rebelled against Nevuchadnetzar despite Yirmiyahu’s warning that this would lead to destruction.
Although Tzidkiyahu was hauled off to Babylon and died of old age in prison, it is possible that members of his family were buried in the cave before his exile. De Saulcy immediately began hauling the priceless sarcophagi out of the caves, throwing out unwanted bones like garbage.
His activities sparked off a furor among the local Yerushalayim Jews. In an act of unusual solidarity, the Pasha (Arab ruler) of Yerushalayim went to the cave to investigate, accompanied by the mufti (Arab religious leader), the Kadi (Arab judge), and a Jewish representative. The Chacham Bashi (Sefardi Chief Rabbi) organized an international protest, shooting off letters of complaint to Sir Moses Montefi ore, Baron Rothschild, leading Jews in France, and others. Acknowledging his error, the Turkish Sultan sent orders to de Saulcy to halt his depredations immediately, but it was too late. The archeologist still had time to rush a few sarcophagi to a ship at Jaffa, which shipped them off to France.
That is how the coffin of a Jewish queen became a prized possession of the Louvre Museum of Paris.
There was nothing to do except clear up the wreckage. Yerushalayim Jews collected the scattered bones, reburied them adjacent to the close by tomb of Shimon HaTzaddik, and declared a day of fasting and prayer.
In order to prevent such a thing from ever recurring, the French Jewish banker, Isaac Péreire tried to buy the holy site “in order that it should stay in the hands of Jews and the hands of strangers should no longer rule over them to desecrate them.” However, his attempt was an absolute failure.
A second attempt was made in the 1870’s when French Jewess, Amalya B e r t r a n d , tried to b u y the site in honor of her late parents. Because the three wealthy Arabs who owned the cave were not interested in handing it over to Jews, and it took her three years to achieve her goal, assisted by diplomatic pressure from the French consulate. Erecting a wall and guardhouse to keep out undesirables she declared: “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.”
Unfortunately, Amalya torpedoed this resolution with her own hands when, in order to secure the site from vandalism, she took the dubious step of bequeathing it to the French government on the 20th of January, 5646/1886. Although it was stated in the official agreement that “the French government commits itself hereby to not bring about in the future any change in the present purpose of this memorial monument,” it can certainly be claimed that the French government has not kept its side of the deal.
Just as Yerushalayim Jews visit the cave of Shimon HaTzaddik every year to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer and light candles in his memory, so they used to visit the Tomb of the Kings on that date to light candles and daven for the people interred there. This custom stopped during the British Mandate. Although Shimon HaTzaddik’s kever regained its popularity after it was recaptured in the Six Day War, the Tomb of the Kings is largely neglected and forgotten.
To make matters worse, since 5757/1997, the Arab Yabous Productions company has chosen this site to hold an annual “Arab Music Festival,” even though they have slightly alleviated the insult by renaming it the “Jerusalem Festival.”
As Yabous Productions boasted two years ago: “In celebration of its 10th anniversary, Yabous Productions’ eagerly awaited Jerusalem Festival at the Tomb of the Kings, which came with a special flavor last year… The Festival was organized in cooperation with the Consulate General of France in Jerusalem. Yabous’ Jerusalem Festival provided a much-needed respite from the unfortunate circumstances of the past five years that have placed Jerusalem under siege and in total isolation from the rest of the Palestinian cities.”
Sadly, this ancient Jewish tomb has now become a tool of Arab propaganda.