What do a women’s rights activist from Australia, Anwar Sadat’s personal chef, an American showgirl murdered under mysterious circumstances at the foot of the Mount of Olives in 1933 and the only non-Jew to sail on the Exodus have in common?
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They – and about 400 more of their neighbors for eternity who came here from all over the world – are buried in the Alliance Church International Cemetery on south Jerusalem’s trendy Emek Refaim Street. Established by the American Presbyterian Church in the late 19th century, the cemetery was originally known as the American Protestant Cemetery. Its current owner, the Christian Alliance Church, took over in 1927, and renamed it in the 1990s.
For many years, the cemetery was all but abandoned and almost impossible to visit. But several years ago, a new caretaker and guide began working there: Meir Aharony, whose knowledge of the cemetery and its occupants can only be described as encyclopedic. During the spring and summer months, Meir gives tours of the cemetery, telling the extraordinary stories of people from all over the world, most of them Protestant Christians, who linked their lives with pre-state Palestine.
Among the cemetery’s "occupants" are Rene Sagaesser, Sadat’s personal chef, who came to Jerusalem later in life, ran the kitchen of one of its most prestigious hotels and gave classes in the culinary arts till the day he died in 1984. There’s John Nwankwo, the young Biafran man who came to Israel as a medical student in the 1960s, but was cut down by a sudden illness in the midst of his studies.
There’s Rolla Floyd, an American man from Blue Hill, Maine, who in the late 19th century ran a network of stagecoaches along the Jerusalem–Jaffa road and became known as Israel’s first tour guide. (His home can still be seen in Tel Aviv.) There’s a Japanese photographer, a couple from Finland, a prominent British archaeologist whose initials are P.L.O. and a United States Navy seaman. There’s Charles Winters, the American businessman who spent eighteen months in prison for smuggling three B-17 bombers to Israel during the War of Independence (he was pardoned posthumously). The cemetery’s most famous occupant is arguably Rev. John Stanley Grauel, the American Methodist minister who sailed on the Exodus and, defying the British, broke its story to the world press.
Several Jews can be found there as well. Dola Ben-Yehuda, the daughter of Hebrew reviver Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, is buried there with her husband, German businessman Max Wittmann.
Tour the cemetery with Meir and he’ll tell you their stories. Or you can go there on your own – the cemetery is open most days – to walk among the gravestones and learn some of modern-day Jerusalem’s lesser-known lore.
Recently, an artist named Patricia Ann began painting a vivid and beautiful mural, entitled the Jerusalem Wall of Life, on the cemetery wall. As is fitting for art created in and for a Protestant cemetery, Patricia Ann’s mural depicts stories from both the Pentateuch and the New Testament.
The Alliance Church International Cemetery is located at 41 Emek Refaim Street, at the intersection of Emek Refaim and Rahel Imenu Streets in Jerusalem.