June 28, 2019
Just this week in Jerusalem, the Tomb of Kings reopened its doors to the public The French consulate in Jerusalem announced the reopening. This funeral site, closed since 2010, is the subject of complex political and religious claims.
The re-opening to visitors of this remarkable example of Jewish funerary architecture in Roman times has given rise to tension and great confusion.
France had decided to limit access initially to 15 visitors, with reservations needed, for two mornings per week hour by hour. They intended to ensure a peaceful operation,.but had hinted that the operation could be called into question depending on events. By now, about fifteen visitors will have discovered the vast staircase leading to a huge courtyard overlooking the mausoleum architrave carved in limestone. Inside, hypogeum rooms contain 31 tombs, closed by a rare example, still in place, of rolling stone.
"The graves are no longer accessible for security reasons — declared the French consulate."
"Pay to pray"?
This is a holy place for Jews," said one of the Orthodox Jews there, David Maimon, 40 years old. "Anywhere else in the world, when Jews or people of another religion want to go to pray in a holy place, they can do it." "We should not have to pay to pray, all we want is to enter, pray 10 or 15 minutes, and leave".
Ever since, Orthodox Jews have been asking France to access and pray in this place, creating tension with the French consulate. In the early 2000s, a concert was organized by the Palestinian Cultural Center, with the agreement of France. Joel Mergui, president of the Central Consistory Israelite of France, had then judged the episode "inadmissible in a holy place".
The site, which has great significance to the Jewish people, "is further testimony to the deep and multigenerational connection of the Jewish people to its eternal capital Jerusalem," Israel Katz said in a statement.
Now imagine that your name is Christian Jeaumont, that you live in Paris in what is called ''les beaux quartiers" not far from the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Still imagine that you are passionate about history and you are particularly interested in the history of France. You learn that not far from you, there is a royal tomb where famous people are buried who, two thousand years ago, marked the history of France. You decide to go there to visit the places. But to your amazement, the place is surrounded by a high wall and a barrier that prevents access. Above the monument floats the flag of the State of Israel.
On the portal an inscription: Tomb of Kings, State of Israel. You learn that the monument is closed to the public because of restoration/work since when? It's been more than ten years. But closed to the public yes and no because it organizes from time to time music festivals; not for you...
Ah I forgot you are informed that the sarcophagi were extracted from the Tomb, dishonestly, we hid their belonging to the history of France in order to send them to an Israeli museum. Intolerable, you would say to me; impossible fiction. I assure you, you are right! This situation exists, but do not worry Monsieur Jeaumont, not in Paris not in the Tomb of a King of France or a Duc de Bourgogne, but in Jerusalem. The monument is called the Tomb of Kings.
This is how Haim Berkovits opens his lectures on one of the places where the Jews prayed the most and which today is closed and under French rule. Mandated by the Consistory of France to deal with this sensitive subject with the French authorities and make the link with Israel, Haim Berkovits has been working on it for years. He even wrote a novel, inspired by all his research and adventures: "The Tomb of Kings" (Editions Persée). He explains the history of this place, its mysteries and the diplomatic struggles that are linked to it.
Philanthropists of the time of the 2nd Temple
The Tomb of Kings is located at the intersection of the Nablus Road (Derech Shechem) and Saladin Street (Rehov Saladin) in Jerusalem, 820 meters north of the walls of the Old City, near the Damascus Gate. It is close to the headquarters of the British Consulate, the Orient House and the tomb of Talmudic sage Simon the Righteous (Shimon Hatsaddik). For centuries, Jews prayed at this place, especially to ask for parnassa. Indeed, great philanthropists of the time of the 2nd Temple are buried there, persona who have marked our history, by their generosity. Starting with Queen Helen of Abadiana — Heleni Hamalka — who converted to Judaism and settled in Israel.
"The Gemara speaks a lot about Queen Helen," says Haim Berkovits, "She offered the Beth Hamikdach a brooch that reflects the light so that the Esplanade is illuminated at sunset. She also gave food to the needy."
The other great person buried there is Rabbi Akiva's father-in-law, Kalba Savoua. He was famous for feeding all hungry people abundantly. Finally, there is also the burial of Nakdimon Ben Gurion, and "the Gemara tells us how this rich inhabitant of Jerusalem gave to drink to the pilgrims, even to commit his personal fortune".
Besides the greatness of the figures who are buried there, the Tomb of the Kings is a splendid monument, which was one of the most important places to visit in Israel. Flavius Josephus is the first to speak about it, then many other intellectuals, archaeologists and researchers were interested in it, such as Chateaubriand, Herzl or Félicien Joseph de Saulcy. It is the visit of the latter which will mark a turning point in the history of the Tomb of Kings.
The theft of sarcophagi
In 1851, the archaeologist Félicien Joseph de Saulcy went to the Tomb of the Kings for the first time. He claimed that Kings David and Solomon are buried there, before recognizing his mistake, a few years later. In 1863 he returned there and began digging. Israel being under Ottoman rule at that time he obtained official permission from the Sultan to conduct his excavations.
Chaim Berkovits tells us: "After several days of excavations, a worker makes a discovery. He spots a place where the rock has been replaced by mortar. With pickaxes, the mortar is removed thus giving access to a secret chamber where rests a royal sarcophagus for nearly 1800 years. Unfortunately no precaution was taken at the opening of the sarcophagus, and barely open, the skeleton that was there fell into dust. All that remained was the inscription in Hebrew letters engraved on the sarcophagus. The archaeological enterprise quickly takes the form of a drama: the tomb is desecrated and looted, it is stripped of its sarcophagi ".
The Jews who live in Jerusalem protest to the Pasha, but when he goes to de Saulcy, the archaeologist takes care to conceal the inscription in Hebrew. The Pasha gives in to the archaeologist. It is only thanks to the intervention of notable Jews such as Moshe Montefiore and André Cremieux that the excavations will be stopped.
But it is already too late, de Saulcy has shipped the sarcophagi on a boat to the Louvre Museum in Paris.
"It's a blow for the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Helpless, the great rabbis of Jerusalem at the time went to the Jewish community of France, to its leaders, including the chief Rabbi of France, Lazar Izidor. Warned of the situation by the Yishuv Hayehoudi (Jews in the Old City), he seeks a solution. He then finds a philanthropist who decides to buy the Tomb of kings and thus preserve it from any profanation: Mrs Berthe Amélie Bertrand ".
The Tomb saved?
Berthe Amélie Bertrand, born Lévi, becomes an orphan. losing her father at the age of one year. Her mother, Noémie, on the advice of her maid, converted her to Catholicism, in order to preserve her from anti-Semitism. It will be the frustration of her life, "describes Haïm Berkovits. She marries an archaeologist, Alexandre Bertrand.
After meeting Rabbi Lazar Isidor, she decides to buy the Tomb of the Kings. The law in force does not give him the opportunity to make the transaction directly, it gives the money to the French Consul to treat the case in its place. "The Consul will then make a mistake and not register the property in the name of Amelie Bertrand. The Tomb of Kings is entrusted to the responsibility of Hekdesh, the institution responsible for Jewish monuments. It is then thought that Amelie Bertrand saved the Tomb of Kings. But nobody knows then that the bones of Queen Helen are in the cellars of the Louvre."
After the death of Amélie Bertrand, her cousin Henri Pereire, will offer the Tomb to France. Perhaps he thought so to protect it from destruction forever?" wondered Haim Berkovits,"France had committed to preserve it ".
A diplomatic and legal battle
But France does not keep its commitments. "France has never declared that this place was that of Jewish burials. When in 1967, the part of Jerusalem where the Tomb is located was recovered by Israel, one could visit the place giving some shekalim to the guard. But in 2000 with the 2nd Intifada, France decided to close the public access, "officially because of work". This did not prevent them from organizing concerts of Arabic music! Several symposia were held at the Louvre, during which no Israeli official was invited and where they denied the fact that these are Jewish graves.
The Hekdesh has begun talks with the Consulate of France to obtain hours for visits to this place where the Jews prayed for years and secondly, the final return of the looted sarcophagi. A complaint was brought before the Rabbinical Court but France does not recognize its authority, and did not appear.
Today it is in France that the Hekdesh will file a complaint, represented by Master Gilles-William Goldnadel. The demands are clear: to recover sovereignty over the Tomb of Kings, the bones of Queen Heleni and the sarcophagi. The Hekdesh also asks, at the very least, for the management of the place. "Today, France is ready to reopen the site, provided that Israel recognizes that it belongs to France."
Haim Berkovits continues: "This is not a problem of religion, but of respect for our heritage. The donation was made to France on a legal basis that is quite questionable. And even if we accept this act, France has not respected its commitments."
Haim Berkovits wants to be optimistic about the chances of reaching an agreement. France and Israel are democracies, and legal decisions are respected. "We took a very respected lawyer, to push for negotiation. Even if the French flag remains on the spot, it is fundamental that it is the Jews who manage this place. We must write this new page of history and make known this place of the highest importance that belongs to our history."
France must therefore restore the Tomb of Kings to the descendants pf "Pereire"
In 1864, the Pereire brothers, famous Jewish bankers of the Second Empire, began pushing to buy the site on the recommendations of Félicien de Saulcy.The Pereire family — Amelie is their cousin — finally bought the site in 1878.
"To preserve it for the study and veneration of the faithful children of Israel".
The title of property is established in the name of Salvator Patrimonio, consul of France in Jerusalem from 1873 to 1881. The site is given to France in 1886. Due to the Ottoman legislation which did not recongnize the legal entity, the site was not not given to France, but directly to the French Consul in Jerusalem.
The concern of the Pereire brothers was to preserve this site in order to destine it for the Jewish community. It is for this reason that they offered it to France, to be sure that France would keep it open, exclusively for the Jewish community.
France must give back the Tombs of Kings to Israel.