A Queen's Gift to Jerusalem
Gil Kezwer : Sep 5, 2012 : Assist News Service
Two thousand years ago, Queen Helena of Adiabene donated large funds for Herod's Temple and to the Jewish community in Jerusalem. During a famine there she sent to Alexandria for corn and to Cyprus for dried figs to feed the destitute.
(Jerusalem, Israel)—Visitors to Israel are sometimes disappointed to discover that many souvenirs sold in the souq [open air marketplace] here are in fact made in China, India, Turkey or Egypt. But not all, and if you're in the market for jewelry fit for royalty, drop by the City of David gift store where painstakingly exact replicas of a pair of earrings worn by Queen Helena of Adiabene 2,000 years ago—and discovered recently at the archaeological site—are now for sale.
The original earring—only one has been found to date—was made of gold and set with pearls and emeralds. The exquisite piece of jewelry was discovered in nearly pristine condition in 2007 in an area at the northwest corner of the City of David national park known as the Givati Parking Lot Excavation. The original is now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, along with the queen's elaborate royal sarcophagus.
Who was Queen Helena, and where was Adiabene?
Adiabene (from the Greek) was an ancient kingdom in Assyria with its capital at Arbela. Today the city, called Erbil or Arbil, is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a quasi-independent part of Iraq. The area became Hellenized following the Battle of Gaugamela, sometimes known as the Battle of Arbela, in 331 BC in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia.
But Zeus and Aphrodite ultimately didn't prevail there, just as the pagan gods were no longer believed in across the Roman Empire by the time of Jesus. Judaism was one of the many Eastern religions that drew converts across the theologically bankrupt empire. The rulers of Adiabene, including Queen Helena (known in Jewish sources as Heleni ha-Malka) together with her husband Monobaz I, converted to Judaism from Ashurism around 30 AD.
The royal family including sons Izates II and Monobaz II then moved to Jerusalem where they lived in a lavish palace immediately to the south of King Herod the Great's renovated Temple Mount.
Helena died in Jerusalem about 56 AD and is buried in the pyramidal tomb which she had constructed during her lifetime, three stadia north of Jerusalem. The catacombs, known as the Tombs of the Kings, are located on Nablus Road and belong to France. A sarcophagus with the inscription tzara malchata, in Hebrew and Syriac, was found in 1863 by Louis Felicien de Saulcy. The French explorer mistakenly identified the grave complex as the Tombs of the House of David. De Saulcy believed the bones inside the royal sarcophagus, wrapped in shrouds with golden embroidery, were the remains of a wife of a king of Judea from the First Temple period, possibly Zedekiah or Jehoash. He sent the sarcophagus and other findings to Paris where they were displayed at the Louvre Museum.
According to the Talmud, both Helena and Monobaz donated large funds for Herod's Temple and to the Jewish community in Jerusalem. During a famine there she sent to Alexandria for corn and to Cyprus for dried figs to feed the destitute.
The Talmud also speaks also of valuable presents which the queen presented to the Temple: "Helena had a golden candlestick made over the door of the Temple," to which statement is added that when the sun rose its rays were reflected from the candlestick and everybody knew that it was the time for reading the Shema morning prayer. She also made a golden plate on which was written the passage of the Pentateuch which the high priest read when a wife suspected of infidelity was brought before him.
The royal palace of Queen Helena is believed to have been discovered by archaeologist Doron Ben-Ami during his excavations in the City of David in 2007. The monumental building located was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The ruins contained datable coins, stone vessels and pottery as well as remnants of ancient frescoes. The basement level contained a mikveh ritual bath. Today the site is partially open to the public. Future plans include building a new visitors center and a 500-space parking lot atop the preserved ruins.
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