Gravely in need of restoration

The neglected Sambusky Cemetary on Mount Zion is Jerusalem's "potter's field."

mount of olives 88.298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mount of olives 88.298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Over the centuries, more than 900 indigent Sephardim and orphans who didn't have the means to be buried on the Mount of Olives have been buried in Jerusalem's historic Sambusky Cemetery on Mount Zion. They were destitute during their lifetimes and today their graves are desecrated by villagers who graze their animals and throw garbage there. Doron Herzog is a Jerusalem-born tour guide and amateur historian who has been researching the 17th-century graveyard for nearly three decades and has written an unpublished monograph on the site. He charges that the desecration continues because squabbling government agencies have been unable to resolve how to fence off and restore the neglected site. The graveyard is no longer in use. According to Herzog, the last burial there took place in 1943, when 30 small stones that had been dislodged from the Western Wall during restorations were buried in the Sambusky "geniza" (burial site for holy texts). After the War of Independence, the graveyard remained on the Jordanian side of Jerusalem, out of reach for Israelis. Like the Mount of Olives and Mamilla cemeteries - respectively the main Jewish and Muslim graveyards in the divided city, both of which fell under enemy jurisdiction - the site was desecrated. Since 1967, the inactive Mount Zion cemetery has been under the control of the State Custodian for Abandoned Property. The site was designated for preservation under the city's 1975 urban master plan. Currently, the area is zoned to become part of the National Park Around the Walled City (also called the Jerusalem Archeological Park), which was established in 1974 and is being expanded piecemeal to the west, south and east of the Old City by the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority. The origins of the name Sambusky are obscure, says Herzog. The name may be a corruption of sambusak, an oval-shaped Middle Eastern pastry which vaguely resembles the irregular, steeply sloped site that can be compared to a half pita. Wadi Rababa, the adjoining Arab village whose residents continue to use the hill as a grazing pasture, reflects a more ancient tradition, he says. In biblical times, the Hinnom Valley below the Sambusky Cemetery was the location of the tophet (pyre), where children were sacrificed alive to the pagan god Moloch (2 Kings 23:10). According to tradition, the plaintive screech of the rabab, the one-stringed Beduin violin, echoes the horrific screams of the children burned to death there. This is also the source of the Greek name Gehenna, from Hinnom, which means hell in English. According to Gadi Wexler of Yad Ben-Zvi, Sambusky may reflect the Talmudic word burski (tannery), suggesting that a hide curing industry was located there in antiquity. More recent history has been only slightly less polluting, Herzog continues. For decades villagers from Wadi Rababa, opposite the Hakeldama Monastery, used the site as a garbage dump and grazing field for their domestic animals. As in much of east Jerusalem, Herzog accuses, there is inadequate municipal garbage collection in the vicinity. The road to the site and the village remains unpaved. Nearly all the stone grave markers have been destroyed or looted for secondary usage. While a 1910 photo shows the site covered in tombstones, a recent casual look at the weed-filled, garbage-strewn site revealed only a few broken shards with Hebrew inscriptions. In 2000, the Religious Affairs Ministry - which became part of the Prime Minister's Office a year later - allocated NIS 400,000 to restore the site. In 2002, a concrete foundation, approximately 30 cm. high, was constructed by the East Jerusalem Development Company (EJDC). But the government agency never completed the fence. Parts of that enclosure have since been stolen or vandalized. EJDC spokesman Moshe Bahagon says that he is unfamiliar with the Sambusky Cemetery and the incomplete stump of a fence his company ostensibly had erected. In a series of e-mails, he wrote to In Jerusalem, "In the past the East Jerusalem Development Company carried out fencing and the expulsion of squatters. Subsequently, local residents began demolishing the fence. As a result, we are preparing additional planning for an enclosure and the creation of parking places outside of the cemetery grounds. The East Jerusalem Development Company is waiting for funding for the project in 2006 which will, we hope, follow the convening of the Knesset and passage of the [national] budget." Asked why the wall was only built to the height of 30 cm. - too low to keep out either animals or humans, and whether NIS 400,000 was actually needed to build such a minimal structure, Bahagon replies, "NIS 400,000 was used for other issues, such as restoration and conservation of graves, cleaning, etc." Menachem Fried, the director of the National Park Around the Walled City, throws up his hands in frustration. Compounding the problem, he adds, is the lack of a single government agency responsible for cemeteries. Thus, on the Mount of Olives, there are 11 different burial societies, representing the spectrum of Jewish ethnic and religious communities. "What can you do?," Fried asks. "I have no budget. There is no problem with planning. The problem is money." When will something be done about the Sambusky Cemetery? "These are questions to which I have no answer," he responds. His last unresolved meeting with Elisheva Farkash of the General Custodian's office regarding the cemetery was 18 months ago. But in response to In Jerusalem's questions, Farkash refers comment to the Justice Ministry's spokesman, who is "unavailable for comment." Fried deflects the interview toward the Hinnom Valley, where the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority recently paved a roadway and landscaped the site. Shuweik Abd, 48, who lives beside the site, is pleased that some progress has been made. "It's good that they're cleaning up," he says about the crews that have infrequently visited the site. Gesturing to his neighbors higher up the hill above the cemetery, he says, "They've given reports to the people throwing garbage and grazing horses. They live above with horses, sheep and goats." Herzog suggests several solutions to protect the site, but all have drawbacks. One potential solution would be to carry out the wishes of the Hassidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810) to be buried on Mount Zion. Under the Soviet Union, his grave in the city of Uman was closed to the public. Since the fall of Communism in 1989 and Ukrainian independence two years later, the site - at which 20,000 Jewish martyrs were buried after the Haidemack massacre of 1768 - has become a flourishing and lucrative pilgrimage center. Upwards of 25,000 Jews from all over the world visited the site before Rosh Hashana last year. It is likely that at least some of the Bratslaver Hassidim who make a profit from the site, as well as the local authorities, are loath to lose the potential, Herzog admits. Another solution would be to resume burials at the Sambusky Cemetery, given the acute shortage of space for graves in Jerusalem. But Fried is skeptical that Jews would be willing to be buried there. "In my opinion," says Herzog, "we need to hire one of the Arab families that live there to be the guards. That would stop the theft and the garbage." At minimum, a sign should be erected declaring the place a holy site, and a municipal garbage bin provided for the Arab residents, he adds. NIS 100 million was reportedly recently allocated to restore the Mount of Olives Cemetery, concludes Herzog. "We would like to get five percent of that budget to restore the Sambusky site. Otherwise it would be a crime."