Dispute disrupts reopening of revered Jerusalem archaeological site

Jerusalem (AFP) –


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.

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 site of religious pilgrimage 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.

Ultra-Orthodox denied access pressed toward the gate when it was opened to try to enter.

The first group of visitors was initially blocked inside and eventually exited through a second gate, accompanied by police.

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 pre-arranged rules.

The 2,000-year-old archaeological gem 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, considered among the largest in the region.

Its unique status, Jewish veneration of the burial site and its location in the disputed city added to complications in reopening it.

Archaeological sites in east Jerusalem, where the tomb is located, are often freighted with religious significance and questions linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel occupied mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.

It 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.