06 October 2010

Queen Helena Returns to Jerusalem

At last!  Helena is back in the city where she was buried.  This is her sarcophagus and Queen Helena was once resting inside.

No, not that Helena.  

I don't mean the mother of Constantine, FLAVIA JULIA HELENA AUGUSTA, who went to the Holy Land in 326 AD, found the True Cross, and built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- and who, along with her son, became a saint in the eastern church.  Anyway, that Helena was an Empress, not a mere Queen.  She died in Rome (330 AD) and was interred in the imperial vault of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.  

Where her body isn't to be found any more; but that's another story.

There's no doubt about it.  This sarcophagus is inscribed (twice) with her name.* 

So who is our Helena and why has she been returned to Jerusalem?

Helena of Adiabene

Nearly 3,000 km [2,000 miles] from Judea, east of the Tigris River, lies the ancient land of Adiabene -- nowadays more or less Iraqi Kurdistan (upper middle of map).  In Helena's time, during the early first century CE, Adiabene was a client kingdom of the Parthians.  According to the Jewish historian, Josephus,** it was also where the remains of Noah's ark were still visible and could be shown to anyone who was interested in such things.  

Some time around 30 CE, Monobazus, king of Adiabene, married his sister, our Helena.  Brother-sister royal marriages were not uncommon in the Parthian and Persian east and no eyebrows were raised by the deed.  They had one son (also called Monobazus) and then Helena became pregnant again:

But as [the king] was in bed with her one night, he laid his hand upon his wife's belly and fell asleep, and seemed to hear a voice, which bade him take his hand off his wife's belly, and not hurt the infant that was therein, which, by God's providence, would be safely born, and have a happy end. 

This god-chosen younger son was given the name Izates (said to mean 'angel').  Despite having many other sons by a bevy of wives, the king loved his little angel best.   Naturally, Izates' half-brothers were jealous of his open affection for the last-born son.  Among Parthian princes, jealousy was not merely a private affair: the fight for the throne would be a fight to the finish.  Knowing this, Monobazus sent Izates away to the kingdom of Charax on the shores of the Persian Sea (lower-right black dot on the map) to keep him safe from the envy and hatred of his half-brothers.  The king of Charax received him gladly and gave him his daughter in marriage along with a country estate from which he received large revenues.   

Something totally unexpected happened to Izates while he was at Charax: he was converted to Judaism.

Izates, the God-Fearing Jew

Now during the time that Izates resided at Charax, a certain Jewish merchant named Ananias visited the king's wives [the harem], and taught them to worship God after the manner of the Jewish tradition.  It was through their agency that he was brought to the notice of Izates, whom he similarly won over with the cooperation of the women.

Luckily for the young man, Ananias did not insist that Izates be circumcised.  On the contrary, he said that the king could worship God without performing this rite as long as he otherwise followed the Jewish law entirely.  In short, according to Ananias, worship of God was of a superior nature to circumcision and, he added helpfully, God would forgive him this lapse.

When the aged Monobazus realized he had but a short time to live, he recalled Izates to Adiabene.  Ananias went with him.  Imagine their surprise when they discovered that a (nameless) Mesopotamian Jew had also converted Queen Helena to Judaism and that she was highly pleased with the Jewish customs.  What a happy coincidence!  Or, as we may suspect, Josephus conflated two different stories of the conversions.  No matter.  It's certain that both queen and prince became Jewish proselytes and  established close contacts with Jerusalem and Palestinian Jews.

You can't have too much of a good thing

Monobazus now gave his son the western country of Carrae (perhaps because that was where Noah's Ark had come to rest).  Izates stayed in this land until after the king's death.

On the very day that the king died, with Izates far away, Queen Helena called an assembly of noblemen, district governors, and army commanders in the royal palace at Arbela [modern Arbil]The grandees first of all paid their homage to the queen, as their custom was.  Then, she explained that Monobazus had chosen Izates to succeed him and had thought him worthy to do so.  She appealed for their support.  

The fact that the queen summoned the council and had the honour of speaking first -- rather than her eldest son --  bolsters the idea that brother-sister royal incest increases the power and status of a queen [as recently discussed in my post on the incestuous Ptolemaic queen Arsinoë II].

Meanwhile, the assembled grandees said that they confirmed the king's determination, and would submit to it.  Following protestations of joy, they advised the queen to slaughter all of Izates' half-brothers and kinsmen -- a brutal but effective way, as they pointed out, to avoid future and fratricidal civil wars.  Helena thanked them for the advice but said that the decision to murder all and sundry belonged to Izates; she agreed, however, to hold their relatives-in-law in prison until he should arrive.  Her next move was unexpected, perhaps even naive: she entrusted her eldest son, Monobazus, with the diadem and insignia of office until Izates could get to Arbela and begin his reign.  

Perhaps  Helena knew something that  cynics didn't know: Monobazus duly surrendered his temporary powers, and Izates was crowned king in 36 CE.  Inspired by his religious scruples, we are told, Izates acted with a clemency extraordinary for the age: rather than kill his kinsmen, he sent them away as hostages to Rome and Parthia.

A man's got to do what a man's got to do

Afterwards, Josephus tells us, another Jew  named Eleazar came to Adiabene from Galilee to pay his respects to the  Jewish king.  Eleazar had a reputation for being extremely strict concerning the ancestral laws.  He entered the Royal Palace, possibly at the request of the increasingly pious but hesitant Izates, and persuaded Izates to become circumcised.  When he found the king reading the law of Moses, Eleazar admonished him:
 In your ignorance, O King, you are guilty of the greatest offence against the laws and thereby against God.   How long will  you continue to be uncircumcised?
Shortly thereafter, Izates agreed.  And the deed was done.  

When his brother Monobazus and other relatives saw that the people admired Izates due to his zeal, they also abandoned the ancient Parthian gods and adopted Judaism and the Jewish way of life.  The high nobles in Adiabene reacted negatively to their conversion and made political and military moves to have them removed, but in vain.  The rebels were executed by King Izates.

Now that all was peaceful in the land and the throne secure, in 46 CE Helena decided to go to Jerusalem, in order to worship at that temple of God which was so very famous among all men, and to offer her thank-offerings there

Helena's pilgrimage to Jerusalem

When Helena reached the Holy City, she found that a terrible famine was spreading in Judea -- the same famine as mentioned in Acts xi.28 -- and people were starting to die of hunger.  

The queen immediately sent some of her servants to Roman Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of grain, and others of them to Cyprus, to bring a cargo of dried figs. The food arrived quickly and was distributed under the queen's direction.

But it wasn't her only good deed.   The queen also made offerings to the Inner Sanctuary of the Great Temple (the Kodesh).  The Talmud remembers one such item thus:
Over the doorway of the Kodesh was a carving of a golden menorah donated by Queen Helena, a convert to Judaism. The morning service could not begin before sunrise.  The Temple was surrounded by high walls, and it was not possible to see the rising sun, so a priest had to be sent outside to see if it was time for the service to begin.  After Queen Helena donated the Menorah, it was no longer necessary to send a priest outside the Temple.  As the sun rose in the east it shone against the menorah and the reflected light was cast into the [courtyard].   (Yoma 37b; Tosefta Yoma 82)

Since the queen had decided to remain for a time in Jerusalem, she built herself a palace. Its location in the lower City of David (above left) was only discovered in 2007.  Two thousand years ago, this area was home almost exclusively to the city's poor.  The palatial building is by far the largest and most elaborate structure yet discovered in the vicinity.  

Since Josephus mentions just one wealthy family living in the area -- the family of Queen Helena -- it's more than likely the archaeologists have indeed uncovered her palace.

The remains of the building (left) includes massive foundations, some walls built of stones that weigh hundreds of kilograms, halls preserved to a height of at least two stories, remains of polychrome frescoes, water installations and ritual baths (miqve’ot).  

The palace was destroyed along with the temple and the rest of the city when Roman legions crushed the first Jewish revolt against the Romans (66-70 CE). That ghastly event was still some years in the future. 

Last Act in Jerusalem

In 55 CE, Helena received news that Izates had died.  Despite the political turbulence on all sides of Adiabene (wars, rebellion, pressure from Rome through Armenia; the ups and downs of Parthian imperial rule), the king had managed to stay in power for 24 years and died a natural death at the age of 55 years.  He gave an order that his older brother, Monobazus, should be king after him.
When Helena, his mother heard of her son's death she was greatly distressed , as was but natural, upon her loss of a most dutiful son.  Yet it was a comfort to her that she heard that the succession came to her eldest son.  Accordingly she went to him in haste, and after she arrived in Adiabene, she did not long outlive her son Izates [died 56 CE].  But Monobazus [II] sent her bones, as well as those of Izates, his brother, to Jerusalem and gave an order that they should be buried at the tombs which their mother had erected.

Helena's royal sepulchre was the subject of both enthusiastic literary descriptions and archaeological investigations. Josephus tells us that Helena in her lifetime built three pyramids (which no longer exist) over the intended tomb. Pausanias (Description of Greece 8, 16, 5), mentions a unique mechanism that opened the tomb automatically at certain times and sealed it at others:
They have contrived to make the door of the tomb, which is stone like all the rest of it, so that it opens only on a certain day of the year at a particular season: at that moment the machinery opens the door on its own, holds it open for a little while, and then closes it up again.  At the time you can get in like that, but if you tried to open it at any other time it would never open -- you would have to break it down first.
The tomb was re-discovered in 1863 by the French archaeologist Louis Félicien Caignart de Saulcy who conducted the first systematic archaeological dig in Jerusalem.  De Saulcy thought the magnificent facade looked royal enough to associate the monument with the kings of Judah; hence, erroneously referred to as the Tomb of the Kings, it should, of course, be called 'The Tomb of the Queen'.  

The stone sarcophagus, weighing almost  1,200 kilograms [more than a ton] wound up in France after it was discovered almost by accident.  On the third day of the dig -- which was undertaken after the Ottoman authorities issued a firman, or formal permit, for it -- one of the workers stepped on a tile in the floor of a structure. The tile moved, revealing an alcove beneath the floor that contained the sarcophagus.  During the troubles of the Second Jewish War (132-135) it had been hidden in this small chamber. In order to bring it to its hiding place the corners of the chest were knocked off. 

Helena in Exile

News of the discovery of human bones, and from a Jewish queen moreover, inflamed the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The community petitioned prominent figures in Europe and lobbied the Ottoman authorities. De Saulcy was forced to suspend his excavation, but not before managing to send the sarcophagus and his other findings to France.  Since then the queen's coffin has languished, largely unseen, in the basement of the Louvre in Paris.

And Now She's Back 

The sarcophagus arrived at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on 21 September 2010 on special loan from the Louvre Museum.  It will be on display for four months in the Museum’s newly re-opened Archaeology Wing as the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition: Breaking Ground: Pioneers of Biblical Archaeology.

Breaking Ground revolves around the stories of three European explorers: Félicien de Saulcy of France, Sir Flinders Petrie of Great Britain (pictured on the museum wall) and Conrad Schick of Germany, who together with members of the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund, were among the first archaeologist-researchers to reach the Holy Land in the mid–late 19th century. They were the first to photograph, document and report on their excavations, laying the foundations for modern archaeological research.

Our Helena

If you have a chance to visit Jerusalem and see the show, take a walk afterwards down to the centre of Jerusalem to the street called 'Helena the Queen' (Heleni HaMalka).  In the time of the British Mandate, this street was already known by this name but it was meant to honour that Helena: Saint Helena, empress of Rome.  It has since been re-baptised (if one may put it so) in honour of a queen altogether more favourable to the Jewish people -- and another reading of history. 

* The centred fainter inscription is written in Palestinian Aramaic in a 1st C script; the second, that runs a bit across the first, is Syrian Aramaic (Syriac) perhaps of somewhat later date.  Both read Tzadda[n] Malka[ta], Sadan the Queen; that is, a Semitic transcription of the Greek 'Helena'.

** Citations and further direct quotations in the text from Josephus, Antiquities 20.17-96, unless otherwise noted.  The chapters of Josephus give us the most elaborate texts on a conversion to Judaism in all of ancient literature.  The passages are available on-line in Lawrence H. Schiffman, Texts and Traditions: a source reader, via GoogleBooks

I am grateful to Antonio Lombatti of the Pseudoscienze blog for alerting me to this exhibition of Helena's sarcophagus.

My sources for this post include: on Adiabene, Encyclopaedia Iranica; John P. Dickson, Mission-commitment in Ancient Judaism, 33-46 (partly available via GoogleBooks ); P. Borgen, Early Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism, 52-55 (via GoogleBooks).


Top centre:  Sarcophagus of Queen Sad(d)an.  Photograph (via Archeogate.org): © Ch. Larrien/Museo del Louvre

Middle centre: Aramaic inscriptions on a 1st century Sarcophagus of Queen Helene that was excavated in 1863 at the 'Tombs of the Kings' in Jerusalem and now on loan from the Louvre Museum at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Photo: Getty Images

Top left: map of Parthian Empire and eastern Roman Empire, adopted from WorldNews.com 

Middle left: Rock relief at Bātās, Iraq, depicting Izates II (r. 36-62 CE); drawing by H. von Gall.  Via WithinLandofKurda blog.

Lower left:  Aerial view of Temple Mount and City of David: Bible Places.com (Palace of Queen Helena Found?)

Still lower left: Skyview of the excavation of Helena's palace.  Photo: IAA (via Ferrell's Travel Blog)

Lower centre: Reconstructed facade of Helena's tomb (J. Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament, page 315)

Lowest left: Helena's sarcophagus in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Photo: Haaretz Daily Newspaper, by: Michal Patael


  1. This post is included at History Carnival #92. http://www.emintelligencer.org.uk/2010/11/01/a-bumper-harvest-of-history-its-history-carnival-no-92/

  2. It is her tomb but probably not her sarcophagus after all http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/the-tomb-of-queen-helena-of-adiabene/

  3. Anonymous16/2/15 15:41

    There is no such thing as "Palestinian Aramaic in a 1 C. [CE] script", since there was no Palestine at that time.
    That is anachronistic. It is Judean Aramaic, to be more accurate.
    Or is it possible to talk about a Soviet Russian inscription of the 16th C.?

  4. Dear Anonymous, ' Palestinian' would be anachronistic if it were used in a political sense but, here, it defines the language spoken by the Jews in the Roman and Byzantine period in what becomes the province of Syria Palæstina. It is the term scholars generally use to refer to the language (e.g. A Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts) but Judean Aramaic is also acceptable.


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