At the end of Salah al-Din Street in Jerusalem, just north of the Old City, a sign reads in French â€œTombeau des Roisâ€ or the â€œTombs of the Kings.â€
TheÂ funerary complex is known to Jerusalemites as the â€œTombs of the Sultans.â€Â Pausanias, a Greek author, historianÂ and geographer of the 2nd century AD, described it as the second most beautiful tomb in the world, after the Tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Tombs of the Kings was closed to visitors in 2010, whenÂ FranceÂ conducted a major restoration project that went on until the summer of 2018Â at a cost $1.1 million. The French Consulate in JerusalemÂ reopened the siteÂ in June 2019Â but soon had to close again.
The reopening was marred by aÂ disputeÂ between agents of the French Consulate and IsraelisÂ who attempted to enter the tombs without reserving the required tickets. The French Consulate condemned the scuffle, calling on the Israeli authorities toÂ maintain calm inÂ the areaÂ andÂ ensure respect for France’s control over the site.
Â â€œWe hope that the climate necessary for theÂ organization of small group visits, according to the procedures defined by the Consulate General in Jerusalem, can be established as soon as possible,â€ the consulateÂ said in a statement.Â â€œWe also hope this site, just like all French national edifices in Jerusalem, will remain available to the publicÂ in all its diversity.â€ The site was reopened again months later.
Jerusalem archeologist Abir ZiadÂ told Al-Monitor, â€œThe Tombs of the Kings is an archaeological masterpiece carved into the rock, with an area of â€‹â€‹250 square meters. This archeological gem dates back 2,000 years to the Roman era and is deemed one of the most beautifulÂ in the city of Jerusalem.â€
She described a compound featuring a stairway leadingÂ to underground vaultsÂ supported by columns. The discovery includedÂ ancientÂ coffinsÂ and aÂ rainwater catchment and storage system.
Ziad said someÂ coffinsÂ were sent to the Louvre Museum in France. â€œOne of the coffins had an Aramaic inscription engraved on it. The burial site’s facade also bearsÂ engravings of geometric shapes and inscriptions of artichokes and pyramids.â€
Visitors are allowed to enter the burialÂ site for only a few hoursÂ on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tickets must be booked online for 10 shekels ($3) for tours of no more thanÂ 30 people.
Robin Abu Shamsiyya, a researcher in the history of Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor, â€œThe unique architecture of the Tombs of the Kings shows it was constructed for an aristocraticÂ family during the Roman period. The ancient Romans believed that burying their dead inside the rocks would provide more stability for the deceased to return to another life, unlike burial under the soil.â€
He added,Â â€œThe tombs are arranged on two levels:Â the upper floor that comprises four chambers and the lower one with three. All of them contain coffins and stone slabs. The French ConsulateÂ closed them offÂ with metal meshÂ to protect and preserve them.â€
He continued, â€œInformation shows that the French government acquired the tombs after the PÃ©reire brothers bought them from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 AD. TheyÂ donated them to the French Republic, which now classifies them as a national monument.â€
Abu Shamsiya continued, â€œLarge groups of hard-line settlers frequently visit the tombs to prayÂ at the entrance. Jews believe the site contains the tombs of King David and King Solomon. They also claim one of the sarcophagus is for Queen Helena of Adiabene, who converted to Judaism and moved to Jerusalem.â€