The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ancient Cemetery and Modern Politics

A portion of the Mount of Olives cemetery
Among cemeteries still in use one of the oldest in the world is located in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. Its earliest graves date as far back as 1,000 B.C. and Jews are still being buried there 3,000 years later. For many believing Jews it is a very special cemetery, for tradition and prophecy in the Book of Zechariah tell of the Messiah entering Jerusalem from the mount and dividing it in two:
"On that day God’s feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is opposite Jerusalem to the east. The Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west by a very deep valley, and half of the mountain will move to the north and half of it to the south." [Zech 14:4]
Many therefore believe the estimated 150,000 people buried there will be the first to rise from the dead -- prime real estate indeed.

Although the cemetery contains only Jewish graves, the Mount of Olives is also home to several Christian churches built to commemorate events in Jesus' life. And these churches have crypts and cemeteries of their own. One can even find the graves of a few of Europe's royals on the Mount. The mother of Britain's Prince Phillip, Princess Alice of Battenberg, is buried there along with some members of the last czar's family.

The Jewish cemetery, however, has apparently been long neglected and is littered with all kinds of ancient and recent rubble in the midst of many crumbling headstones. It has also been subjected to much vandalism by Arab youths. (Click here to read a recent story on this vandalism.)

One Jewish group has taken on the task of making a digital map of the entire cemetery, a task that will include recording the name on every grave and eventually making the finished product available online. To date, the group has mapped over 40,000 of an estimated 100,000 headstones. After that, the problem becomes more complex since many of the older graves cannot be easily deciphered or lie under several layers of more recent burials. The task was made especially difficult by the Jordanians who, during the 19-year period they controlled the area (1948-1967), built a road right through the cemetery, using Jewish headstones as pavers and letting the rest of the cemetery fall into disrepair.

Not surprisingly the project has encountered both religious and political resistance. First of all, the cemetery is located in East Jerusalem, that section of the city which Palestinians claim as the future site of their capital. It is literally surrounded by Arab neighborhoods. Another issue relates to Elad, the group performing the mapping. Elad is affiliated with the settlement movement, Jews who strive to increase Jewish presence in East Jerusalem in order to prevent any future division of the city. As you might imagine, they're not very popular among the local Muslims who hope to one day claim Jerusalem as their own.

Personally, I think it's great this work is being done. To date the mappers have made many interesting and some remarkable finds. If you'd like to read more about this effort, click here: Mapping Mount of Olives Cemetery.

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