By Matti Friedman, Associated Press Writer
Israeli archaeologists uncovered a 2,000-year-old mansion believed to have been home to Queen Helene of Adiabene, whose clan ruled a region now in Iraq.
The remains of the building were unearthed just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, underneath layers of a more recent settlement that was hidden until recently under the asphalt of a small parking lot in east Jerusalem.
A photo provided by the Israel Antiquities Authority showing Israeli archeologists at work on the 2.000-year-old remains of a building just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007. Israeli archaeologists digging in an east Jerusalem parking lot have uncovered a 2,000-year-old mansion they believe is likely to have belonged to Queen Helene of Adiabene, a minor but exceptional character in the city’s history.(AP Photo/Israel Antiquities Authority, Tsilla Sagiv , HO)
Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War. Palestinians see the eastern part of the city as capital of a future state.
The dig site is in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, built on a slope that houses the most ancient remnants of settlement in Jerusalem and is known to scholars as the City of David.
The building, which includes storerooms, living quarters and ritual baths, is by far the largest and most elaborate structure discovered by archaeologists in the City of David area, which was home 2,000 years ago almost exclusively to the city’s poor.
Jewish historian Josephus Flavius mentions just one wealthy family living there the family of Queen Helene.
There is a “high probability” the mansion belonged to Helene’s family, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Doron Ben-Ami told reporters. “This amazing structure was destroyed with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.,” Ben-Ami said.
Built when Jerusalem was capital of the Roman-ruled territory of Judea, the building was destroyed along with the Temple and the rest of the city when Roman legions quelled a Jewish revolt nearly two millennia ago, he said.
Diggers at the site said the massive stones of the second floor were toppled onto the arches of the first, causing the house to collapse. In the ruins they found ceramic shards and coins dating to the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome.
The queen came from a royal clan that ruled Adiabene, a region now in northern Iraq, and converted along with her family to Judaism. They came to Jerusalem in the first half of the first century A.D.
In texts she was praised for her generosity to Jerusalem’s poor, and for making contributions to the Second Temple, the center of the Jewish faith, near her house. She was buried in an elaborate tomb not far away.
Today she has a downtown Jerusalem street named for her.