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Archaeological Sites in Jerusalem: Burial Sites & Tombs of the Second Temple Period

The large number of burial sites and tombs in Jerusalem dating from the Second Temple period (second century BCE - first century CE) have been the subject of intensive and continuing investigation. Hundreds of tombs, elaborate and simple, were hewn into the slopes of the hills surrounding the city, mainly on the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus.

The burial caves were in continuous use for several generations by members of the same family. Simple tombs have a narrow opening, sealed with a square stone. Several dozen particularly large tombs have splendid facades, decorated with columns topped by gables with floral motifs. In primary burial, bodies were placed in niches (kuhim) or on benches (arcosolia) cut into the walls of the burial chambers. The most typical feature of the Jewish tombs of that period are the stone chests with lids (ossuaries). Thousands of these have been found in Jerusalem, some decorated and bearing inscriptions. They attest to the prevalent practice of collecting the bones of the deceased for secondary burial, a custom based on the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead. Following are descriptions of some of the more important tombs.

There are three famous tombs in the Kidron Valley:

  1. Yad Avshalom (monument to Absalom, traditionally ascribed to the rebellious son of King David), is the most complete funerary monument dating to the Second Temple period. The 20 m.- high monument is composed of a lower rock-cut square structure containing a small burial chamber. Its four outer sides are decorated with Ionic columns supporting a Doric frieze. The upper part of the monument is round and built of stones supporting a concave conical roof. The monument was probably intended to serve as nefesh (memorial) for the adjacent cave of Jehoshaphat (King of Judah, for whom this part of the Kidron Valley is named); it contains eight burial chambers and has an elaborate facade decorated with a relief of vine leaves and bunches of grapes.

  2. The Tomb of Zechariah (by tradition the Prophet Zechariah or, by another tradition, the father of John the Baptist) is a monolithic monument cut from the surrounding rock. It is a square structure of 5 x 5 m., decorated with Ionic columns and crowned by a pyramid. It probably served as nefesh for the tomb below it.

  3. The Tomb of Benei Hezir is characterized by its free-standing facade with two Doric columns, all cut into the rock. It has a long Hebrew inscription carved on the architrave above the columns, identifying it as the tomb and nefesh of several members of the Hezir family who had served as priests in the Temple and were buried in the rock-hewn tomb below. The name appears in the Priestly Roster of the First Temple: ...the seventeenth to Hezir (1 Chronicles 24:15) and again among the priests serving in the Second Temple. (Nehemiah 10:20)

  4. The Tomb of Queen Helene of Adiabene, the largest tomb in Jerusalem, is located north of the Old City. It has a long, wide staircase leading down to a large courtyard (27 x 26 m.), all cut into the rock below the surrounding surface area. The facade of the tomb itself has two Ionic columns supporting an architrave adorned with carved leaves, and above it, a frieze decorated with a bunch of grapes and acanthus leaves. The entrance to the burial cave, which contains several chambers, is blocked with a large rolling stone. One of the decorated sarcophagi bears the inscription "Queen Tseddan." The tomb is ascribed to Helene, Queen of Adiabene (in the north of modern Iraq), who converted to Judaism in the first century CE and built a palace in Jerusalem. According to Josephus Flavius (Antiquities of the Jews 20: 95; The Jewish War 5: 55, 119, 147) she died in Adiabene but her remains and those of some family members were transferred for burial in the mausoleum she had built for her family in Jerusalem.

  5. The Tomb of Jason, in the Rehavia neighborhood, consists of a courtyard and a single Doric column (instead of the usual two) decorating the porch at the entrance to the burial chamber, above which a pyramid was built. Several naval vessels were drawn in charcoal on the walls of the porch and among a number of inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic, one laments the deceased Jason: "A powerful lament make for Jason, son of P.....(my brother) peace ...... who hast built thyself a tomb, Elder rest in peace."

  6. The Tombs of the Sanhedrin are located northwest of the Old City, in the neighborhood still called Sanhedria. Above the entrance is a gable with fruit among stylized acanthus leaves. The large burial cave contains several dozen burial niches, roughly the number of the members of the Sanhedrin (120), from which the tombs' popular name derives.

  7. The Funerary Inscription of King Uzziah was found in the collection of the Russian Convent on The Mount of Olives, but there is no record of the place from which it was removed. The Aramaic inscription is incised on a stone tablet (35 x 34 cm.) and the style of the script dates it to the latter part of the Second Temple period. It tells of the reburial of the remains of Uzziah, King of Judah (769 - 733 BCE):

    Hither were brought
    the bones of Uzziah
    King of Judah
    and do not open

    The Bible recounts King Uzziah's deeds and conquests and also describes his burial: Uzziah rested with his fathers in the burial field of the kings, because, they said, he is a leper. (2 Chronicles 26:3)

    King Uzziah was obviously not buried in the royal tombs within the City of David. Josephus wrote (Antiquities of the Jews 9:10,4) that "he was buried alone in his garden". The necessity to remove the bones of Uzziah from their original burial place was probably connected with the expansion of the city during Herod's reign.

  8. The Tomb of Simon the Temple Builder is a simple tomb located north of the Old City. One of the ossuaries found in the tomb bears an inscription in Aramaic which reads "Simon the Temple Builder." The ossuary presumably contains the remains of a man who participated in the building of Herod's Temple in Jerusalem. It seems that this was a source for pride, which he wanted recorded for posterity.

    Among the bones stored in another ossuary were two heel bones pierced by a large iron nail, indicating crucifixion. This rare find was widely publicized and is of particular interest in view of the New Testament description of the crucifixion of Jesus.

  9. The Tomb of Abba was uncovered north of the Old City. On the wall above the repository is an Aramaic inscription in ancient Hebrew letters (very unusual in the Second Temple period) which reads:

    I, Abba, son of the priest
    Eleaz(ar), son of Aaron the high (priest),
    I, Abba, the oppressed
    and the persecuted (?),
    who was born in Jerusalem,
    and went into exile into Babylonia
    and brought (back to Jerusalem) Mattathi(ah),
    son of Jud(ah), and buried him in a
    cave which I bought by deed.

    This intriguing inscription caused much speculation as to the identity of the person buried here. One theory is that the remains in the decorated ossuary are those of the last king of the Hasmonean dynasty, Mattathias Antigonus who, in an attempt to restore the former independence of the Hasmoneans, had sought the help of the Partians. He was defeated and killed by the Romans in 37 BCE.

  10. The Cave of Jehosef Son of Caiphas is a small tomb located south of Jerusalem. The most elaborate of the ossuaries in it bears the Hebrew inscription "Jehosef bar [son of] Caifa [Caiphas]." The name Caifa appears here for the first time in Hebrew and in an archeological context. It was a nickname, as related by Josephus Flavius: "Joseph who is called Caiaphas" (Antiquities of the Jews 23: 35, 39) It is also the name of the High Priest mentioned in the New Testament (Matthew 26: 3, 57) from whose house in Jerusalem Jesus was delivered to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilatus who ordered his crucifixion.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry

* - Tomb No. 5 was excavated by I.Y. Rahmani; tombs Nos. 8 and 9 by V. Tzaferis and tomb No. 10 by Z. Greenhut, all on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The rest of the tombs are above ground, or were scientifically published decades ago.