Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, is usually the first stop especially among foreign tourists and pilgrims. No wonder – it is one of the oldest cities in the world where several of the famous holy sites in the world can be visited.
Several key events in the life of Jesus Christ, as related in the Bible’s New Testament, took place in Jerusalem. One of them is the Mount of Olives, a mountain ridge adjacent to a walled historical area called the Old City. It separates the Judean Desert to the east from Jerusalem. It was once covered with lots of olive trees, hence the name.
In the foot of the Mount of Olives lies the Garden of Gethsemane where, immediately after the Last Supper, Jesus prayed to His Father and was arrested later. Jesus went there regularly with his disciples and spent many evenings there. Because of its association with Jesus Christ and His mother Mary, the Mount of Olives has been one of the most visited sites for the devout Christians.
On the Mount of Olives, you can find world’s largest and most ancient Jewish cemetery, simply named The Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery. Located on the slopes of Mount of Olives, the cemetery contains about 150,000 graves. It has some tombs that are believed to be 3,000 years old dating back to King David’s era. The cemetery is thought of as a holy place of prayer among Jews. Tradition states that the bodies that are buried there will be the first to be resurrected during the Armageddon.
It also includes the Silwan necropolis, which is considered the most important cemetery in ancient Judea and is thought to have been used by high-ranking officials who resided in Jerusalem.
The Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery is the final resting place by notable figures in Israel, including rabbis, religious scholars, businesspeople, politicians, celebrities, journalists, as well as victims of infamous terror attacks. There are also very few Christians buried there – notably, Boedil Thurgotsdatter (the queen consort of Denmark) and Princess Alice of Battenberg (“Princess Andrew” of Greece and Denmark, mother of Prince Philip and mother-in-law of Queen Elizabeth II).
The cemetery is split in two by a highway that leads to Jericho. On the west of the highway, visitors can find the earlier and older sections of the cemetery that stretches as far as the tombstones of the Kidron Valley. The newer section, on the other hand, is located on the Mount of Olives’ southwestern slopes.
The Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery is divided into several sections, each of which belonging to a different Jewish sect or community.
After the Six-Day War of June 1967, interment ceremonies were held in this cemetery for the soldiers and civilians who were residents of the Old City and who were killed in the 1948 War of Independence.
During the years of Jordanian rule, the cemetery suffered extensive damage. Many of the headstones were destroyed and removed by the Jordanian army, who then used them to construct military camps. Since after the Six-Day War ended, major reconstruction work has been carried out at the cemetery, and the highway that used to pass through the cemetery in the southern part of the Mount of Olives has been closed.
The Silwan necropolis
A distinctive chapter in the history of the Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery concerns the early graves in the village of Silwan (or Siloam, or “Shiloah” in Hebrew).
The existence of these tombs had been known since the 1800s, but data about them were limited because of the hostility of the Arab villagers in Silwan, thus preventing the scholars from accessing the graves. It was only in 1968 when Israeli scholars were finally allowed to visit the graves and carry out detailed surveys on them.
The Jewish graves in Silwan are unique – they are diverse in shape and design. Some of the tombs are monolithic, such as the Tomb of the Pharaoh’s Daughter (also known as Monolith of Silwan). Other tombs feature huge roofs and an unusual design, the latter being considered as “un-Jewish” compared to other Jewish graves in Israel. Most of the tombs were carved on the cliff face. From a distance, they look like small windows or high hatches, thus making access to the graves quite difficult.
Sadly, the Silwan necropolis is left in a sorry state. Over many centuries, many of the tombs have been extensively destroyed, mostly due to quarrying and conversion for use as housing. Some of them were damaged by monks during the Byzantine period (who used them as cells and even churches).
However, most of the damage are inflicted by the Arab Muslim villagers. They have used (and continue to use) the graves as their homes, shelters for farm animals, garbage collection sites, and other functions that have led to the site’s degradation. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Silwan necropolis – the very important section of the Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery – is not included in most tourists’ itineraries.