France owns four sites of religious significance in Jerusalem.
The Roman Catholic Church of St. Anne was established by the Crusaders but was converted into a mosque after their defeat by Saladin (in 1187) and subsequently given by Sultan Abdulmecid I to Napoleon III in 1856. The building was restored and entrusted to the guardianship of the “White (robed) Fathers.”
The Benedictine monastery in Abu Ghosh, an ancient Crusader fortress that also fell to the Ottoman Empire, was given to France in 1873. The Benedictine monks constructed a monastery on the site, which has been inhabited by monks and nuns since 1976, living in two separate communities, where services are held.
The Church of Pater Noster, built adjacent to Roman Emperor Constantine’s Church of Eléona [olive grove in Greek] on the Mount of Olives, is much older and has a more turbulent history. The church was constructed by Helena, Constantine’s mother, who converted to Christianity. A convent was added in 430, built above the cave where Jesus, according to Catholic belief, taught the “Lord’s Prayer,” which includes large parts of the Jewish liturgy of Kaddish and the Eighteen Benedictions.
The building was burned down by the Persians in 614 but was rebuilt before being destroyed by Arab invaders led by Caliph Omar in 638. In 807, Charlemagne gained the protection of Caliph Harun al-Rashid for Christian holy sites and the Benedictine monks remaining in Eléona. However, in 1009, the Caliph al-Hakim destroyed the shrine. The Crusaders built an oratory amid the ruins in 1106, and the church was rebuilt in 1152 by the Danish bishop of Viborg. In 1345, under the Mamlukes, it fell into disrepair.
During the 19th century, the Latin patriarch in Jerusalem lamented its loss. French Princess Heloise de la Tour d’Auvergne purchased six hectares of the site, and in 1868 she built a cloister. Then, in 1872, a Carmelite convent was constructed, and excavations were carried out there. She gave the monastery to the French government two years later.
All of these sites are inherited properties from the Christian past and are not explicitly related to French culture.
One is from the Roman Empire, and the other two were built by French colonizers, according to current terminology. Nevertheless, a consular mass is held inside the Church of St. Anne every July 14 (Bastille Day). The French consul, who must be Catholic according to international agreements signed 150 years ago, never fails to invite a representative of the Palestinian Authority. Yet, no such invitation to Israeli officials appears on the consulate’s website.
The fourth French holy site has a fascinating, romantic history. This is the Tomb of the Kings or in French, “Tombeau des Rois,” and the kings who rest there are Kurdish Jews.
It is the tomb, hewn into the rock, of Queen Helena of Adiabene and her son Izates II. Helena, originally from Kurdistan, converted to Judaism and moved to Jerusalem around 30 CE, and she became a great philanthropist to the Temple and needy Jews. Her son also converted to Judaism, independently from his mother. His palace, burned by the Romans when they took control of Jerusalem in 70 CE, was found in 2007 slightly south of the Temple Mount, within what was a Greek fortress captured by the Hasmoneans, the Acra. Izates converted publicly when he ascended the Kurdish throne and was followed by many of his subjects.
Also buried there are 1st century figures, Nicodemus Ben-Gurion, a wealthy philanthropist, and his friend Kalba Savua, the rich father-in-law of Rabbi Akiva, who lived during the era of the destruction of the Second Temple. The site is located about 800 meters north of Jerusalem’s Old City walls.
Flavius Josephus described the mausoleum, its dimensions, the 28-meter wall, its three pyramids (since vanished), its monumental staircase, and a round stone above the door. The Greek geographer Pausanias (115-180) reported that “this door was only opened once a year like an automaton and was one of the wonders of the world.”
When French Viscount Francois-Rene Chateaubriand visited the site in 1806, he was told that according to folk memory, it was the tomb of kings David and Solomon and their descendants. According to legend, the tomb contained a hidden treasure; the greedy Ottoman governor of Jerusalem severely damaged the site (in 1847) searching for it.
Several years later, in 1851, Louis Felicien de Saulcy, a French artilleryman who became an archeologist, coin collector and close associate of Napoleon III, visited the site and was convinced that it was a mausoleum for the kings of Judea. At this time, Orientalism was very fashionable in Europe. For travelers, the wretched state of the country held an exotic charm that added excitement to their visits. During this era, there were several European consuls in Jerusalem. De Saulcy celebrated Christmas Eve with French Consul Paul-Émile Botta before visiting the site.
He brought the remains of the sarcophagi he found back to the Louvre in France, and informed the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres of his findings. This led to 10 years of furious debate between archeologists before de Saulcy returned to the Middle East. In 1863, he obtained official authorization to carry out the first archeological digs on hallowed ground. The Turkish Sultan could not refuse his ally from the Crimean War (1853-1856), which was a consequence of a conflict between French Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians over the protection of their holy places, particularly in Jerusalem.
During de Saulcy’s excavations, a secret funeral chamber was discovered containing a royal sarcophagus, the contents of which immediately disintegrated into dust, with the exception of a femur. The experts concluded that this gravesite belonged to Helena of Adiabene. However, the archeologist refused to admit this, insisting that since she was the wife of King Sedecias, he was very close to finding the tomb of the biblical kings.
The excavations aroused disquiet among the Jews of Jerusalem, who felt they were a desecration of Jewish graves. The Turks ordered the digs to stop, but when the Caliph’s messenger arrived in Jaffa, he saw the sarcophagi being shipped by sea to the Louvre. Rabbi Shmuel Salant, Jerusalem’s chief rabbi, asked Rabbi Lazare Isidor, chief rabbi of France, to demand that the French government put an end to the desecration and to rebury the bones in the nearby Tomb of Shimon Hazaddik in Jerusalem. The Tomb of the Kings site was closed.
Rabbi Lazar Isidor convinced Bertha Pereire, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, to purchase the mausoleum. As Ottoman law prohibited Jews from buying the land, she approached Salvatore Patrimonio, the French consul in Jerusalem, to obtain the area of the tomb for 30,000 francs.
In 1874, she gave her acquisition to the Israelite Central Consistory of France (French: Consistoire central israélite de France). She wrote: “I, the undersigned, Bertha Amelie Bertrand Pereire, hereby declare that when making over the acquisition of the land on which the ‘Tomb of the Kings’ is found in Jerusalem, I have no other objective than the conservation of this ancient and respected monument… It is a relic of my ancestors that I want to preserve from any further desecration of the Tomb of the Kings.”
After her death and that of her two sons, Emile and Ernes, Henry Pereire curiously gave the Tomb of the Kings to France. He was not Bertha’s grandson but her cousin. He therefore not Bertha’s heir and had no right to give away such property without first offering it to the Cosistory as its legitimate owner. One may question his motivations for doing so.
France also profited from an oversight by Consul Patrimonio, who had neglected to carry out the process of transferring the title deeds for the site to Berthe Pereire. In the contract signed on Jan. 20, 1886, by Henry Pereire, one paragraph clearly states, “The French government commits that in the future, no changes will be made to the actual purpose of this monument.” However, Ottoman law was not recognized as a legal entity, and the site was directly handed over in 1886 to the French consul in Jerusalem, Charles Ledoulx, who installed a large copper sign at the site of “the Tomb of the Kings of Judea.” The Pereire brothers had put up a different sign, dedicating the shrine to “the science and the veneration of the true Children of Israel.”
The dispute ceased, and the Jews of Jerusalem took on the custom of going to the site on Passover and Hanukkah to pray at the graves of the three revered Jewish figures buried there. An admission fee was charged for these visits, and written authorization from the consulate was required.
France took possession of the mausoleum in 1886, but did not stick to the terms of the contract, which specified that “in the future, no changes will be made to the actual purpose of this monument.” In recent years, for instance, the Consul repeatedly permitted Yabous, a Palestinian cultural society, to use the site, while for the rest of the year, access was mostly forbidden apart from a few pilgrims or tourists with written permission from the consulate.
According to Palestinian sources, “All performances of the Jerusalem Festival of Arabic Music of 1997 were held at the Tombs of the Kings, a great historical site, under French jurisdiction, with a seating capacity of 800. The report went on to state that “This festival succeeded in developing burgeoning cultural links between Palestine and the rest of the Arab world.”
The site was closed in 2010, supposedly for renovation work. It was reopened on June 27, 2019, but again with limited, paid admission, with tickets having to be reserved online.
The president of the Israelite Central Consistory of France questioned why a site in Israel under French sovereignty is forbidden to Jews, and argued that concert performances were inappropriate for a holy site. Haim Berkovits (who represents the Consistory and is in charge of the case) has also inquired as to why Christian sites in Jerusalem that are also considered as French territories are managed by Christians, while a Jewish site such as the Tomb of the Kings can’t be managed by Jews.
The Israel Antiquities Authority has attempted to calm things down, saying, “Our duty is to ensure that no one desecrates this site. We ask France to open the site as soon as possible, but to introduce the limits set by Yuval Baruch, the chief archeologist in Jerusalem, who seeks to preserve the historical character of the site rather than the holy aspect.”
France, however, is apparently bothered by the fact that the site is situated in eastern Jerusalem.
Indeed, the official French announcement of the reopening the Tomb was translated into Arabic but not Hebrew. The invitation, directed at an Arab audience, stated that it was the “Tomb of the Sultans” that was to be opened. That this was no innocent mistake is beyond doubt. In the first place the translation of “king” from French into Arabic is not “sultan,” and moreover the tomb predates the first Arab sultan by 11 centuries.
Has France hijacked this important Jewish heritage site?
Amb. Freddy Eytan, a former Foreign Ministry senior adviser who served in Israel’s embassies in Paris and Brussels, was Israel’s first ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. He was also the spokesman of the Israeli delegation in the peace process with the Palestinians. Since 2007, he heads the Israel-Europe Project at the Jerusalem Center, which focuses on analyzing Israeli relations with the countries of Europe and seeks to develop ties and avenues of bilateral cooperation.
Dr. Richard Rossin, an orthopedic surgeon, served as General Secretary of Doctors Without Borders. He is also a French writer and editorialist who wrote for French publications such as Libération, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Médiapart and Huffington Post. He has authored several books. Dr. Rossin is a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He resides today in Israel.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.