Muslim Tomb Found During Jerusalem Roadwork Deemed 'Not Ancient,' Will Be Paved Over

Tomb said to contain at least six skulls, large number of bones not protected by law that guards antiquities dating from before 1700

Skeletons are seen inside a Muslim tomb found during roadwork in Jerusalem's Mamilla neighborhood, December 10, 2017.
Chaim Poko

A tomb containing skeletons was discovered during roadwork in central Jerusalem’s Mamilla neighborhood. The tomb is part of a large Muslim cemetery, part of which has been destroyed and built on over the years, including by the Supreme Muslim Council in the 1920s.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has determined the structure is relatively “modern,” from the late 18th or early 19th century at the earliest, so it is not protected by the law guarding antiquities dating from before 1700. A rescue archaeological excavation will be performed, after which the tomb and the skeletons will remain in situ and the road will be built above it as planned.

The square structure was discovered in the course of work to repave and install new infrastructure on Ben Sira Street. A person who entered the underground space said it contained at least six skulls and a large number of bones. An anthropological examination of the skeletons revealed they were women.

The Israel Antiquities Authority was called in and they also found a gravestone inscription that dated the tomb to the late 18th or early 19th century. Because it is not legally an “antiquity,” the tomb does not have to be preserved. The structure was partially damaged by the roadwork, and it was decided to leave the tomb and the skeletons in their original location under the new road.

The Mamilla Cemetery was the largest Muslim burial ground in Jerusalem, and thousands of people were buried there over the centuries. It is located in the middle of modern Jerusalem, not far from the Old City, between Agron, Hillel and Ben Sira streets.

The area of the cemetery has shrunk over the years because of a number of projects built over parts of it. In the 1920s, during the British Mandatory period, the Supreme Muslim Council, headed by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, built the luxury Palace Hotel (the site of today’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel) on top of part of cemetery.

Later, parts of Independence Park and a parking lot were built on some of the cemetery. Eight years ago, large-scale excavations were conducted in the parking lot in preparation for the construction of the Museum of Tolerance by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Hundreds of skeletons were uncovered and the work on the museum was delayed for months when the Islamic Movement and other bodies petitioned the courts against the construction of the museum on the site. In the end, the Supreme Court allowed the work to continue, in part because the Supreme Muslim Council had plans in 1945 to build a business center on the same site and also because many Muslim leaders had considered that part of the cemetery to be abandoned and without sanctity.

Graves were also found in exploratory excavations on the grounds of the nearby Jerusalem Experimental High School.

The Jerusalem municipality said that as part of the roadworks, a tomb was found. The Israel Antiquities Authority was aware of this and dealt with the site, as did Atra Kadisha, an ultra-Orthodox organization dedicated to the preservation of ancient Jewish burial sites. The location of the tomb does not interfere with the project so it was left in place and handled according to the instructions of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The IAA said it was “aware off the existence of the tomb, which is located on Ben Sira Street. Examinations conducted by experts from the authority show the tomb is from the 18th or 19th century, at the earliest. So it is not an ancient tomb.”