Tombs of the Sanhedrin
Burial niches in the main chamber
|Year established||1st century A.D.|
|Number of graves||63|
Tombs of the Sanhedrin (Hebrew: קברי הסנהדרין, Kivrei HaSanhedrin), also called Tombs of the Judges, is an underground complex of 63 rock-cut tombs located in a public park in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sanhedria. Constructed in the 1st century A.D., the tombs are noted for their elaborate design and symmetry. They have been a site for Jewish pilgrimage since the medieval period.
The Tombs of the Sanhedrin have been known by different names among Jews and Christians. In 1235 Rabbi Jacob the Emissary called them the "Tombs of the Righteous", writing that the tombs housed the remains of "many wise men". They were first called the Tombs of the Sanhedrin by Rabbi Joseph Halevi in 1450, and have been known by that name among Jews ever since.
In Christian literature, Joannes Cotovicus mentioned the tombs, without naming them, in 1598. In 1611 English traveler George Sandys called them the "Tombs of the Prophets". They were named "Tombs of the Judges" – referring to the "judges" of the Great Sanhedrin – by Franciscus Quaresmius in the early 1600s. This is the name they are known by among non-Jews.
In the absence of identifying plaques or other indications as to the ownership of the tomb, historians speculate that the name "Tombs of the Sanhedrin" was applied because the tombs contain nearly as many burial niches as the number of members (71 to 73) of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court in the era of the Second Temple. However, many archeologists refute this correlation. In Durchs Heilige Land (Basel, 1878), a journal of travel in the Holy Land, Swiss theologian Hans Konrad von Orelli said he believed that the Tombs of the Sanhedrin and the Tombs of the Kings (Kivrei HaMelakhim) were not necessarily connected to the names people associated with them. Instead, this could have been a burial cave for a wealthy Jewish family.
The Tombs of the Sanhedrin have been a site for Jewish pilgrimage and prayer since the thirteenth century. Since medieval times, Jews considered the tombs holy and would not pass by them without stopping to pray there. In the mid-1800s, the tombs were demarcated by a huge boulder that guided pilgrims to the site.
Location and size
The Tombs of the Sanhedrin are located at the head of the Valley of Jehoshaphat in northwest Jerusalem. They are part of a giant necropolis situated to the north and east of the Old City of Jerusalem and dating to the Second Temple period. Archeologists have surveyed close to 1,000 burial caves within 3 miles (4.8 km) of the Old City dating to this period. Graves were most likely placed at great distances from the Old City in order to preserve the special laws of purity incumbent on priests serving in the Temple in Jerusalem. Rock-cut tombs like those of the Tombs of the Sanhedrin were typically commissioned by wealthy Jewish families of the era, with monumental facades carved with floral and geometric motifs.
The underground complex covers an area of approximately 10 dunams (0.010 km2; 0.0039 sq mi). In the 1950s the Jerusalem municipality planted pine trees around the site, which is in close proximity to several other 1st- and 2nd-century rock-cut tombs, and created a public park called Sanhedria Park. The adjacent Jewish neighborhood of Sanhedria was also named for the tombs.
The tombs were constructed on the site of an ancient quarry, with a forecourt at one end and the burial caves excavated out of the other end. The forecourt has benches hewn out of the rock for the benefit of visitors. The forecourt opens onto a small courtyard, walled on three sides. An elaborately carved Grecian pediment above the large, square entrance is decorated with plant motifs, including acanthus leaves entwined with pomegranates and figs, representative of Judeo-Hellenistic burial art of the 1st century. The inner entrance to the tombs is topped by a small pediment and was originally sealed by a stone door.
The facade of the tomb appeared differently in medieval times. One report describes a "beautiful structure" containing "caves within caves". A 1659 drawing shows an entrance with a grand, arched colonnade.
Inside are four burial chambers on two levels. The largest chamber, just inside the entrance, contains 13 arched loculi (burial niches) arranged on two tiers, one atop the other, with arcosolia dividing the niches into pairs. Each niche measures 50 centimetres (20 in) by 60 centimetres (24 in). A further 9 burial niches are located in a second chamber off the first, and 10 to 12 more niches can be found below-stairs from the main chamber in a chamber on the second level. A fourth chamber on a third level appears as an independent entity with its own entryway. The burial niches are arranged differently in each chamber, although each chamber is designed with an eye to symmetry. Stone ossuaries were found in rock-cut vaults within the complex. All told, there are 63 burial niches in the tomb, along with several cubicles and niches for bone collection.
In his 1847 book, The Lands of the Bible Visited and Described, English archeologist John Wilson describes his exploration of the Tombs of the Sanhedrin:
"From the Tomb of Simeon the Just, I proceeded further on, to the Tombs of the Sanhedrin. These, like the former, are under ground, hewn in the solid rock. The entrance here is still lower, and I was obliged, in some parts, to lay flat down and slide in; but when once inside, I found large vaulted chambers. I counted sixty-three niches where sarcophagi had formerly been placed. In each of these three tombs there were numberless names written on the walls by devout Jews who had visited them".
Opinions differ as to how the bodies were placed in the niches. According to Har-El, Jews placed their deceased either in stone sarcophagi in the niches or in ossuaries in vaults. Williams and Willis quote an archeologist who opines that the bodies, swathed in burial clothes, were placed directly into the niches, which were then closed or sealed with a stone slab.
In 1867 a French archeologist investigating the tombs discovered a sarcophagus inscribed with the name Yitzchak (Isaac) in Hebrew. Over the protests of local Jewish residents, the archeologist took the sarcophagus back with him to France, where it was displayed in the Louvre Museum.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, the Old City of Jerusalem was captured by the Arab Legion and was only reconquered by the Israelis in the Six-Day War of June 1967. Throughout that 19-year period, many ancient graves were off-limits to Jewish visitors, and the Tombs of the Sanhedrin became an oft-visited site as a result.
Through the 20th century, the tombs were open to the public. In the 1930s, a young Shlomo Moussaieff claimed he found ancient coins in the caves and sold them to support himself after his father threw him out of the house. In the 2000s, access to the Tombs was restricted due to vandalism and a gate was placed across the entrance. The tombs have been defaced by graffiti and the forecourt is often clogged with garbage and filth. Several clean-up efforts have been mounted by civilian volunteers.
In popular culture
- "Tombs of the Sanhedrin". JLife. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
- Ben-Arieh, Yehoshua (1979). עיר בראי תקופה: ירושלים החדשה בראשיתה [A City Reflected in its Times: New Jerusalem – The Beginnings] (in Hebrew). Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Publications. p. 39.
- Wilson, John (1847). The Lands of the Bible Visited and Described 1. White. p. 492.
- קברי הסנהדרין [Tombs of the Sanhedrin] (in Hebrew). Jerusalem Municipality. 2008. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
- "Sanhedriya – 'Tomb of the Judges' or 'Tomb of the Sanhedrin'", in Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, Volume 1: Jerusalem, Part 1, 1-704. Cotton, Hannah M. et al, eds. 2010: Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3110222205, p. 79.
- Barclay, James Turner (1858). The City of the Great King. Arno Press. pp. 186–187. ISBN 0405102259.
- "Ancient Jerusalem's Funerary Customs and Tombs: Part Three Ancient Jerusalem's Funerary Customs and Tombs: Part Three, L. Y. Rahmani, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Winter, 1982), pp. 43–53.
- Hirshfeld, Tzofia (23 December 2009). לכלוך בקברי הסנהדרין? נסגור אותם [Garbage in the Tombs of the Sanhedrin? Let’s close them] (in Hebrew). BeChadrei Charedim. Retrieved 19 October 2012.
- Ben Arieh (1979), p. 38.
- Robinson, Edward; Smith, Eli (1841). Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petraea: A Journal of Travels in the Year 1838. Murray.
- Negev, Avraham; Gibson, Shimon (2005). Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 268. ISBN 0826485715.
- "From the Sanhedrin Tombs to Jason's Tomb". Jerusalem Municipality. Retrieved 10 October 2012.
- "Sanhedriyya – Archeological Appendix". Jerusalem Municipality. Spring 2002. Retrieved 18 October 2012.
- Jacobs, Daniel; Eber, Shirley; Silvani, Francesca (1998). Israel and the Palestinian Territories: The Rough Guide. Rough Guides. p. 367. ISBN 1858282489.
- Hasson, Nir (14 January 2010). "As state slumbers, volunteers step in to rescue neglected Sanhedrin Tombs". Haaretz. Retrieved 10 October 2012.
- Har-El, Menashe (2004). "Golden Jerusalem". Gefen Publishing House. pp. 107–108. ISBN 9652292540.
- Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome (2008). The Holy Land:An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700. Oxford University Press. p. 139. ISBN 0191647667.
- Williams, George; Willis, Robert (1849). The Holy City: Historical, Topographical and Antiquarian Notices of Jerusalem, Volume 2. pp. 152–156.
- "A Man of Good Fortune". Haaretz. 10 October 2001. Retrieved 10 October 2012.