Doubt cast on French ownership of J'lem's Tomb of the Kings

Ancient Jewish holy site has been under French control for 120 years.

An essay appearing in the latest issue of a prominent Israeli journal raises new questions about the ownership of the Tomb of the Kings, an ancient Jewish holy site in east Jerusalem which has been under French control for 120 years. The paper, which appears in Et-mol, a bimonthly periodical of the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, was authored by Eyal Ben-Eliyahu of Hebrew University's Department of the History of the Jewish People. It cites an array of new evidence indicating that France's acquisition of the site in 1886 may not have been fully legal. Based in part on research conducted by Dotan Goren under the supervision of Professor Yossi Katz at Bar-Ilan University's Department of Geography, the essay concludes that the site's original owner may have bestowed it with the status of hekdesh (a trust), a step that would have precluded its subsequent sale to the French government. "The legal basis for the tomb's transfer to French government possession is extremely problematic," the scholarly article concludes, stating that, "there needs to be a renewed examination of the site's true ownership." Located on Salah a-Din Street, the Tomb of the Kings dates back to the Second Temple period. It is considered the largest burial ground in Jerusalem, and includes a huge courtyard adjoining an entrance to several underground chambers. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, it was built by Queen Helen of Adiabene in Kurdistan, who converted to Judaism along with her family and then moved to the Land of Israel. Historians believe that it later served as a burial site for the queen and her offspring. Jewish tradition, however, identifies it as the grave of either Nakdimon ben-Gurion, a prominent Jerusalemite, or Kalba Savua, the father-in-law of Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, both of whom lived at the time of the Roman occupation over nineteen centuries ago. The site is currently run by the French consulate in Jerusalem, and a French flag flies over it. Repeated requests for comment from that consulate went unanswered. In the 1870s, an international scandal arose after the site was excavated by the French archaeologist Felicien de Saulcy, who illicitly removed Jewish sarcophagi that were millennia old and other archaeological artifacts, taking them back to France. Many are still on display at the Louvre in Paris. In the wake of the incident, a wealthy French Jewess named Amalya Bertrand purchased the tomb in 1878, along with the surrounding two-and-a-half dunam compound, in order to protect them from further harm. Several years later, after Bertrand passed away, her heirs decided to sell the site to the French government, which assumed control in 1886. However, according to Ben-Eliyahu, there are strong indications that Bertrand's aim in acquiring the tomb was to ensure that it remained in Jewish hands in perpetuity. "In a document written by the chief rabbi of France shortly after Bertrand's purchase, he affirmed that she was bequeathing the site to the Jewish people forever," Ben-Eliyahu said in an interview with the Post s "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," explained Ben-Eliyahu. If that is the case, he insisted, it might warrant revisiting the question of who is sovereign over the site, which he calls a "cultural treasure of the Jewish people."