The ancient and most important cemetery in Jerusalem is located on the Mount of Olives. Both because it is situated outside the boundaries of the ancient city, and because the Mount of Olives is made up of chalk rock that is easy to chisel out, it was a natural location for a burial ground, and was used by the Jews of Jerusalem from as early as the First Temple Period. The cemetery is still in active use today.
On the southern slopes of the Mount of Olives, dispersed between houses of the village of Silwan, are ancient burial caves from the First Temple Period. A little to the North, along the Wadi, are the magnificent monuments of the Second Temple Period, that constituted part of the burial area of Jerusalem during those times. Higher up on the Mount of Olives on the grounds of the Dominus Flevit Church and in "the Cave of the Prophets" there are more burial caves.
The Mount of Olives was not used as a Jewish burial site in all periods of history. In the Middle Ages, the Jews of the city were buried on the eastern slopes of the Temple Mount. Later the cemetery spread along the Kidron Valley and to its east, to the foot of the Mount of Olives. The earliest dated tombstone from this period is from 1636.
At first, members of all the different communities were buried in one cemetery at the bottom of the hill. In the middle of the 19th century, with the fast growth of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, primarily the Ashkenazic population, an additional area was purchased further up the hill (today – west of the Seven Arches Hotel), and a separate Ashkenazic cemetery was established there. The Sephardic community continued to be buried in the original site, but later purchased areas south of the Ashkenazic area (Hatzur and Helkat Miriam). The split in the Ashkenazi communities brought about the purchase of an additional area, Prushim, above the first Ashkenazic plot and to its south. Later a further plot, Hassidit, was acquired and then another "Prushit", so that by the middle of the 20th century most of the western and southern slopes of the Mount had become a Jewish cemetery.
Under Jordanian rule (1948-1967) the cemetery was desecrated. The tombstones were destroyed or uprooted and some of them were used as paving stones for the new hotel and for Jordanian army camps. During this period a new road was paved from the top of the Mount of Olives southward and the main road to Jericho was widened, both on top of graves. After the Six Day War a comprehensive but slow restoration operation of the various plots was launched. The cemetery started being used again and has even grown over the years.
Many famous names from the Torah world and from the Zionist leadership are buried on the Mount of Olives. They include: the Ohr Ha-Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Ben-Attar and Rabbi Yehuda Alcalay who were among the heralds of Zionism; Hassidic rebbes of various dynasties and Rabbis of "Hayeshuv Hayashan" (the old – pre-Zionist - Jewish settlement) together with Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Askenazic Chief Rabbi, and his circle; Henrietta Szold, the founder of the Hadassah Organization and the poetess, Elza Lasker-Schiller; Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, S. Y. Agnon, the Nobel Laureate for Literature, and Boris Schatz, the founder of the Bezalel School of Art; Israel's sixth Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, the victims of the 1929 and 1936-39 Arab riots, the fallen from the 1948 War of Independence, and Jews of all generations in all their diversity.
The Mount of Olives Information Center – Tel. 972-2-6275050 may be contacted to assist in locating graves and for help in organizing memorial ceremonies.