The Mount of Olives rises across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem’s Old City. On the mountain slopes is the most sacred and largest Jewish cemetery in the world. It has been in use since King David made Jerusalem his capital 3,000 years ago. The cemetery holds about 150,000 graves, but there may even be more. Prominent Biblical figures, great statesmen, creators, and religious leaders are buried on this sacred ground. Many Jews want to be buried in Jerusalem, but the Mount of Olives holds even more significance as a Jewish burial site.
What Makes the Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery so Special?
Jewish writings (midrash) state that the resurrection of the dead will start on the Mount of Olives when the Messiah arrives. The risen dead will then cross Kidron Valley to Temple Mount. Today Temple Mount is home to the Dome of the Rock. But Solomon’s Temple stood on Temple Mount until 586BC, and the Second Temple stood there until 70AD. According to Jewish tradition, a third Temple will occupy Temple Mount when the Messiah comes. The bodies on the Mount of Olives are buried with their feet facing Temple Mount so they can simply rise and walk straight ahead to the Temple.
There may have been more practical reasons for the site of the cemetery. People of ancient Jerusalem would have buried their dead to the east. This would prevent west-blowing winds from bringing the smell of death into the city. The topography of the mount meant that a graveyard was more practical than trying to build or cultivate the land, and the relatively soft rock made it easy to dig graves. The location, not too far from the city, offered a peaceful resting place.
Interesting Graves in the Jewish Cemetery on the Mount of Olives
The Christian prophet Zechariah is buried in the Mount of Olives cemetery. Zechariah mentioned the Mount of Olives as the place where the resurrection of the dead would begin. Other graves include one of King David’s sons, 15th-century rabbis, and the former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1913-1992). The cemetery holds the graves of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), father of modern Hebrew, and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), Zionist and Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate. Buried here is Judah HeHasid (1660-1700), who led a large group of Jewish immigrants to the Holy Land in the 17th-century. The grave of famed Hebrew fiction author and Nobel Prize laureate, S.Y. Agnon (1887-1970) is in the Mount of Olives cemetery.
More recent Mount of Olives graves belong to British Jewish businessman Robert Maxwell (1923-1991) and American businessman Sheldon Adelson (1933-2021). You can even find Christian royalty buried on the Mount of Olives. 12th-century Danish queen, Boedil Thurgotsdatter and Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1869), the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, are both buried here. Abraham Zelmanowitz (1945-2001), an American victim of the 9/11 tragedy, is buried on the Mount of Olives, as well as several Israeli terror victims.
The Mount of Olives Cemetery Today
The Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery is still in use today. It costs an average of $30,000 or more to be first in line for resurrection. Space is rapidly running out, and soon there will be no room for new graves on the Mount of Olives. But you can still stroll among the graves, old and new, as you consider the incredible history “buried” here.