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Cemeteries in East Jerusalem

June 28, 2011

It occurred to me this morning that I don’t know where the municipal cemetery for East Jerusalem is. The largest active Jewish cemetery is on the western edge of town, near Givat Shaul. The largest historical cemetery is on the slopes of the Mount of Olives: Jews have been buried there since the 10th century BCE, making it perhaps the oldest existing Jewish cemetery in the world. Soldiers are buried on Mount Herzl. Then there are various small cemeteries: in Sanhedria, for example, or the Greek Orthodox one on Mount Zion, next to the Armenian one. There’s a tiny cemetery from 1948-50 tucked into the hillside next to the Knesset, but almost no-one knows it’s there.

But where are the Arabs buried? Some, obviously, are buried in the Muslim cemetery outside Lions’ Gate, along the eastern wall of the Old City. But that can’t be large enough for a community of 270,000 people? In spite of living here most of my life, I’d never asked myself, and never answered, either. So I e-mailed my friend Abed and asked him.

Abed answered cheerfully: first of all, Yaacov, we aren’t in any hurry, so we don’t need cemeteries. When we do, however, the residents of the Old City and Silwan are buried in that cemetery outside the wall that you mentioned, but only they. The rest are buried in neighborhood cemeteries; each neighborhood has one.

 – Is this a problem, I asked? Is it yet another subject where the Israeli authorities are making life harder than necessary?

– No, actually it isn’t really. The cemeteries are the business of the Waqf, not the Israeli authorities. In each neighborhood the local residents collect the necessary funds for the upkeep and occasional expansion of their own cemetery.

– So are you saying that on a prioritized list of all the things that need to be addressed, the cemeteries are near the bottom; but if everything else were to be resolved, this too could be a deserving issue to be treated?

– Yep, Yaacov, that’s it.

There are new things to be learnt every day.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. David E. Sigeti permalink
    June 29, 2011 1:05 am


    My memory is that Muslims in general (unlike observant Jews) do not expect cemeteries to remain inviolate for all time. I believe that, once the bodies have all decayed (“turned to earth” is the phrase I remember), and as long as there are no monuments to which living people are attached, the land can be used for other purposes. Certainly, Muslims bury their dead in relatively shallow graves and in a shroud, not a coffin, ensuring rapid decay of the body. (Yes, I know that Jews in Eretz Yisrael are also buried in shrouds.) You might ask Abed about the general attitude among Palestinian Muslims toward cemeteries and when, if ever, the land can be reused.

    • Silke permalink
      June 29, 2011 11:21 am

      I remember that not long ago there was a spat, when Israel wanted to build something on a lot that turned out to have been a Muslim cemetery and “they” yelled desecration. But then it turned out that “they” themselves had planned to or turned it into a parking lot.

      Can it be that “they” tend to adopt Jewish customs as there own wherever it suits their purpose.

      • June 29, 2011 11:47 am

        David is right that it’s a worthy and relevant subject for investigation. I doubt Abed is the right person to ask: he’s just a guy, not an authority or scholar.

        Silke is referring to Mamila, where there indeed was a Muslim cemetery, part of it is still there, part isn’t, and the Wiesenthal Center wishes to build a museum on its edge. And yes, there was a claim that the Waqf authorities themselves had intended to build a university campus on the same grounds. I don’t know how reliable that report was, or what its significance. Something to investigate someday.

  2. boldface permalink
    June 29, 2011 3:54 pm

    yaacov, Elder of Ziyon did some research on the Mamilla cemetery a while back, including some stuff about the Waqf’s plans. IIRC it included some old Palestine Post or Jerusalem Post articles (I don’t remember if they were from before or after 1948). You might want to check with him.

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