The site’s long restoration ended last month. It started in 2009 and cost US.1 million. Orthodox Jews claim the site and demand free access to what they consider a place of worship. French regulations provide for limited access, upon purchase of a ticket.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – A long restoration work has allowed for the first time in over a decade the reopening of the Tomb of the kings, one of the most important archaeological sites in East Jerusalem.
After several attempts, the French Consulate General reopened the Tomb last month. France, which has managed the property since the late 19th century, closed it for an extensive .1 million restoration in 2009.
After the reopening, tensions rose quickly between French authorities and Israeli nationalists backed by ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The Tomb of the Kings is “one of the most elaborately decorated tombs that we have from the early Roman period in Jerusalem,” said Orit Peleg-Barkat, a Hebrew University archaeologist.
Félicien de Saulcy, a Frenchman who excavated the site in 1863 in one of the first modern-era archaeological digs in the Holy Land, mistakenly identified the tomb as belonging to biblical kings.
Today, most archaeologists believe it belonged to Queen Helena, a Mesopotamian monarch who converted to Judaism in the first century BC.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews demand the site be open without restrictions, so that they can pray and honour several prominent Jewish figures from antiquity.
The site is located in the Sheikh Jarrah district, which has a large Palestinian majority.
Yonathan Mizrachi, head of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli organisation opposed to the politicisation of archaeology, said the tomb’s location in Sheikh Jarrah is what makes it so “politically problematic” for French authorities.
The past decade has seen a rise in Israeli nationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jews buying properties in East Jerusalem undermining the Palestinian majority.
Since its closure in 2009, Israeli nationalists have staged protests, calling for the Tomb complex to be opened, and sought to strip France’s ownership in court.
In 2015, two Israeli rabbis sued the French government in a rabbinic court for control of the site. The case was thrown out, but a Jewish organisation called Hekdesh of the Tomb of the Kings has sued the French government, challenging the legality of the Tomb of the Kings’ donation to France.
For their part, French authorities want to keep control of the Tomb to avoid it being used as a Jewish holy site and become a foothold for Israeli nationalists to form a new settlement around it.
In a statement, France’s Consulate General noted that it was committed to “visits by small groups in accordance with the rules.” Israel’s Foreign Ministry backs the stance, hailing the move as a product of “long and strenuous” negotiations with French authorities.
Entrance to the site is limited to 60 people on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and visitors, including those intending to pray, must pre-purchase tickets online and register with a passport or ID card.
Orthodox Jews contend the consulate’s rules are designed to deter worshippers. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews avoid Internet use and object to paying entry to a place of worship.
“France is doing everything to prevent there being a lot of people coming to pray,” said Haim Berkovits, a representative of Hekdesh.