Queen Helena of Adiabene and the Temple Mount

The sarcophagus of Queen Helena of Adiabene is now on display at the Israel Museum.

The Sarcophagus of Queen Helena of Adiabene

This sarcophagus and others had been removed in the 15th century AD from the so-called Tombs of the Kings in Jerusalem. In fact, this tomb complex should have been called the Tomb of the Queen, as it has been identified by her name on the above-mentioned sarcophagus. After removal, these sarcophagi were used as watering troughs on and near the Temple Mount.

In 1866, the sarcophagus of Queen Helena was taken away and given to the French explorer Louis Felicien de Saulcy, who shipped it to France. Two of these sarcophagi remain on the Temple Mount, one in front of the Islamic Museum and the other at the foot of the Qayit Bay Fountain.

Herodian Sarcophagus at the Islamic Museum on the Temple Mount - Photo: Leen Ritmeyer
Herodian Sarcophagus at the foot of the Qayit Bay Fountain on the Temple Mount - Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

What interests me in these sarcophagi is their decorations. They all display rosettes, resembling flowers. These motifs are well known from the Temple Mount Excavations, where many such fragments were found. None of these fragments were large enough to inform us reliably as to the style of Temple Mount decoration. In order to make reconstruction drawings, we had to turn to the funerary monuments and sarcophagi of the Second Temple period which reflected the architecture on the mount itself.
The variation in motifs was amazing. For instance none of the rosettes on the sarcophagi and tomb friezes was the same as the next. The sarcophagus of this Mesopotamian queen with its arrangements of rosettes resembling a frieze is invaluable as an indication of the splendour and beautiful architecture of Herod’s Temple and the buildings of the Temple Mount.

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