France reopened a revered but long-closed archaeological site in the heart of Jerusalem on Thursday, but a dispute over access immediately disrupted its reopening and France said it would shutter the site again.
France, the owner of the site known as the Tomb of the Kings, reopened it to visits after having kept it closed since 2010.
But concerns that it would become more of a religious pilgrimage site than an archaeological one immediately reemerged.
Around 15 people who had pre-registered online as required were allowed to visit, but a group of more than a dozen ultra-Orthodox Jews who consider the site holy pressed to enter and pray there despite not having followed procedures.
They were prevented from entering since French officials had limited visits to 15 people at once during set times due to the sensitivity of the site. Online registration was required, but many ultra-Orthodox Jews do not use the internet for religious reasons.
The first group of visitors was initially blocked inside and eventually exited through a second gate, accompanied by police.
France’s Jerusalem consulate said in a statement that due to the scuffle the site would be closed to the public until further notice.
“We deplore the violent incidents that took place today at the entrance of the site, during which agents of the consulate general of France in Jerusalem were assaulted,” it said in a French-language statement.
“We hope that the climate necessary for the organization of small group visits, according to the procedures defined by the consulate general in Jerusalem, can be established as soon as possible,” it said.
“In the meantime, we regret to have to suspend the planned visits.
The incident highlighted concerns over the site and may bring into question whether it will remain open to the public.
France’s Jerusalem consulate had said in advance that the reopening would take place under prearranged rules.
The 2,000-year-old archaeological gem, located in East Jerusalem north of the Old City, had been closed since 2010 due to renovations costing around a million euros ($1.1 million).
It is a remarkable example of a Roman-era tomb, with stone shelves that once held sarcophagi, and is considered among the largest in the region.
Its unique status, Jewish veneration of the burial site and its location in the disputed eastern part of the city added to complications in reopening it.
Archaeological sites in East Jerusalem are often freighted with religious significance and questions linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel captured East Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by most of the international community.
Israel sees the entire city as its capital, while the Palestinians view the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
There has been a challenge at Israel’s rabbinical court — which rules on matters related to Jewish law and holy sites — over access to the tomb and France’s ownership.
Before reopening the site, France sought guarantees from Israel it would not face legal challenges as well as commitments on how visits would be managed.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews describe the tomb as a holy burial site of ancient ancestors King David and King Solomon.
Excavations of the site began in the 1860s, with Felicien de Saulcy of France taking on the project in 1863 and seeking to confirm it was the tomb of the biblical kings. That theory has been ruled out, but the name has endured.
Several sarcophagi were found inside and are now in the Louvre museum in Paris, including one with an Aramaic inscription. According to the most commonly accepted theory, it refers to Queen Helena of Adiabene, in today’s Iraqi Kurdistan, and she may have built the tomb for her dynasty.
After de Saulcy’s excavation, the tomb was purchased by the Pereire brothers, a Jewish banking family in Paris that would later hand the property over to France.
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