The Mamilla Cemetery in West Jerusalem: A Heritage Site at the Crossroads of Politics and Real Estate

Location and Significance

The Mamilla neighborhood is situated west of the Old City of Jerusalem, across from the Jaffa Gate/Bab Al-Kahlil.  It was built along one of the tributaries of the Kidron stream, and is inseparable from the historical basin of ancient Jerusalem.  Mamilla is home to the largest and most important Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.  The cemetery stretches from Agron St. in the south to the Mamilla Mall in the east, the Nahalat Shiv’a neighborhood in the north, and King George St. and the old Plaza Hotel in the west.  As with the Jewish cemetery at the Mt. of Olives, this was where religious and political leaders, high-level bureaucrats, men of letters, the wealthy and other notables were buried, in this case all of them Muslim.  At the center of the cemetery, we find the Mamilla pool, shallow rectangular pool that originally served as a drinking water reservoir.  The distribution of graves surrounding the pool testifies that it is prior to the cemetery, but scholars disagree whether the pool originated in the Hellenistic, Roman or Byzantine era. Archaeological digs in the area show burials from 11th-12th Centuries CE to the 20th Century.

mamilla cemetery   mamilla pool

Among those interned here we find Kebekiyeh dia A-Din Aidughdi, governor of Safed in the Mamluk Sultanate (13th Century), whose tomb is the largest and most opulent in the cemetery; the Dajani family – among the richest of Palestinian Jerusalem families in the 20th Century, and more[1].  Furthermore, written sources testify that Al-Wasiti, a leader from the Salah A-Din era, was buried in Mamilla though evidence of the grave has yet to be found.

Changes in Cemetery Grounds

In the early 20th Century, the Palace Hotel was erected at the cemetery’s southern edge, and graves uncovered there were removed so they would not impede construction.  In the course of renovating the current-day Waldorf Astoria and during its construction, workers unearthed more graves.  After the establishment of Israel, a public park, schools and a municipal parking garage were raised on cemetery grounds[2].  There was no systematic excavation, research, or preservation in the process, and as a result many graves were destroyed without trace or any record whatsoever.  The cemetery shrunk from 200 dunam to 20, mostly surrounding the pool.  In recent years the Jerusalem Municipality and the State of Israel have been developing building and landscaping plans for the area, the best-known of which is the plan to build a Museum of Tolerance on much of the cemetery’s grounds.  Archaeological digs at the site intended for the museum revealed hundreds of Muslim graves.  Archaeologists responding to the findings recommended ceasing the excavations for construction, and preserving the cemetery as a heritage site.  Despite the public debate that ensued, at the end of the legal battle Israel’s High Court approved the construction of the museum.  A hasty archaeological dig, assembly-line style, was conducted at the site.  Speedy work on a very large area made proper research and investigation impossible[3].  Some 1000 skeletons were taken out of the cemetery and some areas were damaged, but today one can still find tombstones from many periods and a great variety of designs.  Some of the graves have been identified as Crusader graves.  The excavation points to about 1000 years of burials in four stratums.  The styles and tombstones bear witness to the vibrant and colorful nature of Jerusalem’s Muslim communities over the past millennium.

mamilla grave2   mamilla grave3

In recent years, the Islamic Movement has been renewing and renovating the remaining grave sites.  Since many tombstones have been moved over the years, and quite a few have been found lying around the site, the Movement is working to attach tombstones and inscriptions to the graves.  This work continues though there is no way of knowing if the tombstones are assigned to the correct graves.

Political and Economic Challenges

In the course of the 20th Century, the cemetery was damaged due to its location at the heart of West Jerusalem’s central business area.  Businessmen’s drive to use the land for construction, as in the case of the Palace Hotel, along with the paving of roads and the construction of a school for the purposes of development, notably shrank the cemetery’s area.  In the 1950’s, the Independence Park was built over cemetery land.  The decision to build the Tolerance Museum at the site is the present and final stage of a consistent trend.

Policy makers and the Israeli public do not view the cemetery as a significant heritage site testifying to the city’s rich genealogy, but as vacant and prime real estate.  A combination of political and economic interests, ignorance, and disregard for the local legacy have led to the approval of the construction of the Tolerance Museum.  The cemetery offers the most substantial evidence of Muslim history in west Jerusalem; it appears that the desire to eradicate this history from the western part of the city was among considerations leading to the resolve to build here.

Options for the Cemetery’s Future

Now that so much of the cemetery has been either destroyed or built over, the only area left relatively unharmed is that surrounding the Mamilla Pool.  This area can potentially be preserved by the authorities rather than by private organizations (such as the Islamic Movement).

It is vital that landscape development and construction work in the Indpendence Park, which covers large parts of the cemetery, will be conducted in tandem with preservation of any graves unearthed there.  Furthermore, development must not extend the damage, as it did during construction for the Tolerance Museum.  The Jerusalem Municipality’s plans to build a café and public center raise the challenge of taking the site’s legacy into serious consideration.

In our opinion, after the great destruction undergone by the cemetery, it is imperative to preserve and cultivate what remains of it.  Integrating the cemetery into Jerusalem’s urban fabric would give back something of the city’s Muslim past to its residents, thus strengthening all of them – regardless of religion or belief systems.  The cemetery’s location creates a unique opportunity for the city’s Israeli residents to discover and learn something about Jerusalem’s magnificent Muslim past, and to recognize this past as part of the regional heritage that belongs to us all.  The continuity of burials in the cemetery teaches a great deal about the city’s evolution over the millennium.  It is vital to conduct proper preservation here and put up signposts that will allow the presentation of one of Jerusalem’s intriguing burial grounds to the wider public.

[1]  Jerusalem, Local outline plan, archaeological attaché 39 and T. Daadli, “Mamluk Epitaphs from Mamilla Cemetery”, Levant  Vol 43 No 1, 2011, Pp. 78-97

[2]  A. Nagar, “Jerusalem Mamilla“, Hadashot Arkheologiyot, 122, 2010

[3] Nir Hasson, “Museum of Tolerance Special Report,” Haaretz, May 18, 2010

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