Grave neglect

Many ancient graves are disappearing or disintegrating unnoticed in the Mount of Olives cemetery.

mount of olives 88.298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mount of olives 88.298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
At 2 p.m. on a weekday earlier this week, the cemetery on the Mount of Olives was completely abandoned. But this reporter had a goal and a mission: to find the grave of Shai Agnon, Israel's Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, who was buried at this holy site. Armed with the map I had downloaded from the Internet I wandered through the cemetery for hours, finally finding the site more by luck than by intent. Broken tombstones were scattered around, the graves neglected and unkempt with weeds and thistles growing wild. I thought of the cemeteries located in two other world cities - the Pere Lachaise in Paris and the City of the Dead in Cairo. The first is well-maintained, groomed to perfection and easy to navigate. The other is unmarked, abandoned, and completely disorienting, an exciting, if somewhat tiring, experience. Which example should Jerusalem follow? A midrash teaches that the branch carried back to Noah's ark after the flood, marking the "renewal of life" and the return of humanity to the surface of the earth, was plucked from the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Since the ancient times, Jews have regarded this mountain as one of their most sacred sites, and it has been used as a burial site from antiquity to today. Over these 3,000 years, the mountain has changed ownership many times - Jews, Romans, Arabs, British, Jordanians and Israelis. And it has borne witness to wars, revolts and natural disasters. But the 20th century has been especially unkind. The fast development and growth of Jerusalem has been both a blessing and a curse - a city with more living also has more dead, and so the pace of burial on the mountain has grown by dozenfolds since the beginning of the previous century. Between 1947 and 1967, when the Jordanians controlled the cemetery, many of the graves were desecrated and tombstones were used for construction. The pollution and the accelerated construction in the vicinity of the Mount of Olives have also had their effects. Israeli authorities have made sporadic efforts to restore the cemetery since 1967, especially in 1997, but with little long-term improvement. Visitors to the graves of relatives and friends and those who wish to pay respect to learned rabbis or famous leaders find it difficult to walk through the cemetery and almost impossible to identify some of the graves, even with the help of a map. Some of the graves are tended by still-living relatives. But there is no one to take care of the old and ancient graves. Tombstones, many of them centuries old, disappear or disintegrate. The situation is little better even in the most historical parts of the cemetery, where prophets Zechariyah, Haggai and Malachi are thought to be buried. George Horesh, a professional tour guide who has worked in Jerusalem for over 20 years, says that these sites could definitely become part of an interesting tourist route, but he rarely brings his clients to this place of abuse and the neglect. According to the Jerusalem Municipality, this situation will soon become old history and renovation will soon begin at the Mount of Olives. A year ago, the government approved a plan to conduct a massive face-lift of the holy site, initiated by Mayor Uri Lupolianski and the then-prime minister's director-general, Ilan Cohen. The total cost of the project comes to $100 million, and the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) will be responsible. Funding will come from two different sources - the budget that was approved by the government and donations, mainly from Canada. Ezri Levi, CEO of the JDA, told In Jerusalem that a group of experts is currently formulating a master plan and detailing the first stages of the renovation. Says Levi, "Our first priority will be the most neglected sites. Some of the graves on the Mount of Olives are in terrible condition. Therefore, after we complete the evaluation and come up with a detailed plan, we will begin with these spots." According to Levi, the project is expected to take seven years to complete and will entail restoration of thousands of graves and tombstones, improvement of security at the site and erection of a massive stone wall around the compound, as well as mapping and marking to make it easier for visitors to find their way around. He further promises that the information about the location of the graves will be computerized and that teams of guides will be available. Furthermore, he emphasizes, all of the work will be performed in full coordination with the Hevra Kadisha burial societies, to avoid any possible religious confrontations. Levi concludes that the dignity of a nation is displayed through the dignity it accords its dead. Since the Mount of Olives is the last resting place for prophets, dignitaries, writers, rabbis, prime ministers and simple Jews murdered in the riots of 1936-39 and buried in mass graves, it should be the pride of Jerusalem and not one of its forgotten backyards.