The Mamilla Cemetery in downtown Jerusalem

If there is one thing you will stumble upon in Jerusalem, for sure, it’s graves.
Beneath its surface is buried a vast and diverse history of over 3000 years of long-forgotten dwellers.
Historically, Jerusalem was roughly confined to the area known today as the Old City. The city residents reserved the territories outside the walls for the dead, farms, and inns. Adjacent to the roads leading to and from the city was a vast necropolis, the city of the dead. Here, generations upon generations of Jerusalemites and visitors rest in their final dwellings.
Today, passing the ornate limestone streets and allies in downtown Jerusalem, amidst the bustling restaurant and bar areas, one of which we might visit in this post, is located one of the most important cemeteries of Jerusalem, The medieval Muslim Mamilla Cemetery.

Night bar hopping and Mamilla tour in downtown Jerusalem. Photo by: Jonathan Kremer Schoenbrunn Decktor

The Mamilla Cemetery

Once covering an extensive area of about 130 dunams, a small portion of it remains today, a reminder of its former glory. The cemetery rests in downtown Jerusalem, between the Mamilla mall in the east, Agron and Hillel streets fencing it in the south and north accordingly, and Menashe Ben Israel street in the west, with additional remains of the graveyard in the Independence park built on top of it during the ’50s.
Its story begins somewhere in the late Roman and Byzantine eras. The graveyard’s size peaked throughout post-Crusader time, serving as a Muslim pilgrimage center in the Mamluk period through the 13th to the 15th centuries and continued to serve the Muslim population during the Ottoman period until the beginning of the 20th century.

The Lion’s Cave

The lion cave in Gan Ha’atzmaut

While most fairy tales tell of a dragon guarding a cave full of treasures, we have a motif more suitable to Jerusalem. The story of a magical lion guarding a cave of bones.
Across the street from the cemetery, you will find the Lion’s Cave.
Monks, travelers, and historians all tell a morbid tale about a mass grave within a cave. Inside, there are countless bodies of fallen victims, gruesomely murdered in one of the city’s massacres. Something that happened quite often in this bloody town. Some stories claim they were Christians, while others say they were Jews and others claim they were Muslims. Yet one thing they all have in common is that a magical Lion there cares for the dead. One night he brought their slaughtered bodies to the cave and guards its gate ever since, or at least that’s what they say. If you wish to read the whole story regarding this cave, you can read about it in one of my previous posts here.

The Mamilla Pool

In the middle of the Mamilla cemetery lies a huge pool. We don’t have actual historical documents recounting its origin. However, it seems that this pool was dug thanks to a generous donation made by a Roman woman citizen named Mamilla or Maximilia.
Neglected and barren during the year, this pool turns into a marsh on rainy winter days. Besides its marshy nature, this pool is soaked with the blood of thousands of victims slaughtered in the 614 Persian massacre. An account by a monk named Antiochus Strategus elaborates on the Christian massacre. During the Persian invasion, the conquered population was brought to the pool and slaughtered on the spot. Later, a magical lion carried their bodies to a church named Mamilla, which might give us another clue to the cemetery’s name origin. The account by Strategus and others tells of about 4000 – 25000 men, women, and children slaughtered here, filling the pool with their blood.

From Salah al-Din to Suleiman the Magnificent and the British Mandate – The Muslim graveyard

A grave in the cemetery

The Medieval and Muslim history in the area started somewhere around the 11th century, with the crusaders. Later the Ayubbid reconquered Jerusalem by Salah al-Din in 1187 and used it. The Muslim historian Mugir al-Din, writing about Jerusalem in the 15th century, tells that the earliest grave in the cemetery dates to 1189. The Muslim Palestinians account that around 70,000 Salah al-Din warriors were buried in Mamilla. Excavations conducted in the graveyard revealed a similar sequence of events.
The cemetery reached its peak in the 13th-15th century, during the Mamluk period. It became an important center on the pilgrimage road housing graves and Zawiyas of various important Sufis, leaders, warriors, and personalities. Back in its’ glory days, the center of the cemetery was in the area, where today stands the Waldorf Astoria hotel, built at the beginning of the 20th century during the British mandate.
As described by various historical documents, it seems that there was an important Zawiya, called El-Kalandria, built around the grave of an important Sufi Sheik Ibrahim Al-Kalandri. From here, a road led west, through the mausoleum of Al- Kubaki and other important men and women, taking the pilgrims to the old city. Inside, the pilgrims continued via the Shalshelet (chain) street, where many important Mamluk buildings and Madrasa were standing, some of which stand to this very day, to the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque.

The slaves that rose to power – The Mamluk Graves

A mamluk grave and a friend that kept me company as I explored the area

On the eastern part of the remaining cemetery, you can still notice remnants of the rich Mamluk graveyard, with various tombstones adorned with the typical writings used during the Mamluk period. I like to take a tranquil walk among them, looking at the elaborate details and adornments and enjoining a nice afternoon walk. If you are lucky, you can also meet a little friend who will ensure you won’t feel lonely.

Admiring a Mamluk period tombstone. Photography: Sarel Rich

Merchants, Sheikhs, and Generals – The Ottoman Graves

Hassan al-Nashashibi grave across the Waldorf Astoria Hotel

As the area was conquered in 1516 by the Ottoman Empire, life and death in Jerusalem continued as usual, and the cemetery continued to serve the city’s Muslim population. Even as the city’s population declined, its’ importance continued to shine between the tombs. People of all classes were buried here, from poor to rich, children to elders, merchants, leaders, and generals. Around the cemetery, you can find tombstones of many important Palestinian families, such as Al-Nashashibi, Almi, Al-Dejani, and many more.

From Governor to Jail and Exile – The story of Al-Kubaki

The Kubakiya

The most beautiful relic in the Mamilla cemetery is this mausoleum of a turba type, also called a Kebekiyeh. Erected for Emir Aidughi Kubaki, the governor of Safed and Aleppo. Like any other Mamluk, his story began in servitude in the courts of an Ayyubid high-level officer. When the Mamluks seized power in Cairo from the Ayyubids in 1260, Kubaki transferred to serve the great Sultan Baibars, who had defeated the Mongols. Under his rule, Kubaki climbed the ladder of leadership to become the governor of Safed, the capital of Galilee in Bilad a-Sham, and later on the governor of Aleppo in Syria. After Baibars mysterious death in 1277, Kubakis’ story becomes vaguely mysterious, and he finds himself thrown in jail. While Kubaki was behind bars, he was blinded, and when released, exiled from Safed to Jerusalem. However, savvy in climbing the social ladder, he found himself governing over two of the important sanctuaries, Haram el-Sharim (el-Aksa mosque) and Haram el-Halili in Hebron (Abraham and the fore-fathers graves). Here, in Jerusalem, he lived his final years and died in 1289 at 60 years old.

Biratenu – Craft beer and Delicious food

Biratenu. Photo courtesy of Biratenu

If you are in the area and looking for a place to eat and enjoy a nice beer, I have just a place for you at Biratenu – Jerusalem beer center. Here, next to a large selection of craft beers from around the globe, you can find a wide variety of Israeli craft beers along with a good hearty meal. The restaurant offers a menu of tasty and unique hamburgers, sausages, and much more, with veggie and vegan options as well, all suited to go great with your beer. And if you are an enthusiastic carnivore with Viking blood in your veins (0.000001% counts as well), they hold a Viking feast once a month. The restaurant is run by my good friends Lion (not the lion from the cave) and Shmulz, the founder and manager of the place and an avid foodie, beer and mead enthusiast, and a brewer, who always loves to experiment with different tastes and ingredients. The place is Kosher (Tzohar) and is open on the weekdays from 11 AM – 11 PM, on Fridays from 10 AM-3 PM, and Saturday nights after the city comes back to life again following the Shabbat.

Photo courtesy of Biratenu


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