Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Jewish Queen's Digs

When I was writing The Other Zions, I devoted a chapter to Adiabene, a kingdom in the Parthian Empire whose royal family, headed by Queen Helene, converted to Judaism some time before the first revolt against Rome. While I was writing this chapter, I did not realize that a piece of evidence from her life was being dug up beneath a parking lot in east Jerusalem.

Queen Helene and her sons converted to Judaism and eventually she settled in Jerusalem. There is much legendary material about her; in a time when Judaism was on a crash course with Rome, wealthy and powerful monarchs converting to Judaism would have caused people to notice. She was also generous with the poor and made donations to the temple. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in Greek, told tales of these monarchs. And on the other side of the first century Jewish spectrum, the rabbis who would be quoted in the Talmud used the Abidabene monarchs as examples of exemplary piety and adherence to the Torah.

So, there may well be a kernel of historical truth behind the tales told of these people. Encrusted by layers of legend, there appears to be some hard layer of fact in the center. Now, the ruins of a stately home have been uncovered. Again, we rely on Josephus : he claims she lived in this part of Jerusalem, in a large home among mostly poor people. The stately proportions of the ruins have led archaeologists to tentatively identify it as her house.

Is it her house? Shy of an inscription or some written evidence at the site, I can't see how this conclusion will ever be anything beyond conjecture. But that has always been Queen Helene's status: a figure poised between reality and legend. That said, there is a street named after her in Jerusalem, sure enough evidence of some kind of existence.

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