Not a king, but a queen was interred at the site known as the Tombs of the Kings, situated north of the Old City of Jerusalem (see artist’s reconstruction, next image). The 19th-century excavator L.F. Caignart de Saulcy believed that the impressive complex must have been built for the kings of Judah. Today, the site is generally identified as the final resting spot of Queen Helena of Adiabene (a kingdom on the Upper Euphrates). It remains one of Jerusalem’s most elaborate cave tombs from the late Second Temple period (first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.). Attesting to the tomb’s grandeur, a monumental stairway (top photo) leads down to the tombs. In ancient times, water collected from the stairs was conducted into two large cisterns near the foot of the steps. From the bottom of the steps, an arched entryway leads into a spacious sunken courtyard. At the western end, a 36-foot-wide entryway (photo below), originally supported by columns, opened onto the tomb’s anteroom, built in the architectural style known as distyles in antis, meaning “two-pillared porch.”

Inside, a rare round blocking stone (next photo) from the Second Temple period protected an entrance to the burial chambers. Corpses were interred in deep niches called loculi (bottom photo), carved into the chamber walls.

Queen Adiabene’s spectacular tomb was apparently a landmark in first-century C.E. Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus frequently mentions it when locating events in the history of the city: Describing the Roman siege in 70 C.E., he writes that the Jews pursued the Romans, throwing darts at them, “as far as the monuments of Queen Helena” (Wars of the Jews 5.3.119).

Josephus also recounts at great length how Queen Helena and her son King Izates came to “embrace the Jewish customs,” that is, to convert to Judaism. With her son’s permission, Helena left her home in northern Mesopotamia and moved to Jerusalem, where she lived for 20 years. According to Josephus, when Helena’s son Izates died, Helena “was in great heaviness, as was but natural, upon her loss of such a most dutiful son.” She hastily returned to Adiabene, where a second son, Monobazus, had succeeded to the throne. “But she did not long outlive her son Izates.” Apparently recognizing his mother’s love for Jerusalem, Monobazus, now king of Adiabene, “sent her bones, as well as those of Izates, his brother, to Jerusalem, and gave order that they should be buried at the pyramids which their mother had erected; they were three in number” (Antiquities of the Jews 20.4.94–95).

Helena’s three pyramids—shown in the artist’s reconstruction—have not survived.