Visitors to Israel are sometimes disappointed to discover that many souvenirs sold in the souq here are in fact made in China, India, Turkey or Egypt. But not all. 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 replicas are available in a variety of materials including 14 karat gold set with pearls and green agate. The latter costs NIS 2,449 ($625) – for both earrings. 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.
Sarcophagus of Queen Helena of Adiabeme, photo courtesy Wikipedia
Who was Queen Helena, and where was Adiabene?
Adiabene (from the Greek Ἀδιαβηνή, 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 B.C.E. 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 C.E.
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 C.E. 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.
Archaeological site at the City of David, Jerusalem. Courtesy Gil Kezwer for Travelujah-Holy land Tours
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 C.E. 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.
If you go:
City of David is opened Sunday through Thursday from 8 am to 7 pm nd Friday 8 to 4 pm in the summer and, in the winter from 8 to 5 pm Monday through Thursday and from 8 to 2 pm on Fridays. Closed Saturdays and holidays. English tours are available on site.
Israel Museum is opened as follows:
Sun, Mon, Wed, Thurs 10 am – 5 pm
Tues 4pm – 9 pm (*Please note the Museum is closed on Tuesday mornings and during special holiday hours – see below)
Fri and holiday eves 10 am – 2 pm
Sat and holidays 10 am – 5 pm
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Gil Kezwer is a tour guide and writes regularly for Travelujah, the leading Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land.