On a Much Disturbed Place of Rest
Updated: May 26, 2020
The grass in the cemetery is knee high and has already turned to white gold. Above the black trunks of carob trees and peppercorns, in the masses of dark green foliage sparrows dart between the branches. The air is full of their chirping. The tombstones struggle to be seen. They seem to oppose any attempt at order. They are scattered about and vary in their forms and sizes. There are stepped shrines and box-shaped ones, lesser versions of Hiram’s Tomb, and others with pillars rising on either side like two slim stone guards watching over the dead. Some are decorated with carved, circular geometric patterns of the type found over the doorways of old houses and a few have inscriptions in beautiful Naskh script. But most give no clue as to whom their subterranean residents might be. They are like so many unknown soldiers - honoured but forgotten. What was their history? No one will ever know and their bones lie cloaked in oblivion beneath the memorials that should have spoken of them. Their random scattering in the gently sloping field, the informality of this place is so unlike most cemeteries, and I think this is part of its charm. In the grass one might almost miss them, but then they pop up. Here is one on its own, here a group gathered as if to talk over the day's events, and all but a few notable dissenters are swung, as if by some powerful, hidden magnetic force into a north-south alignment so that their long-forgotten tenants might face another Holy City far away in the desert to the south.
There are a couple of boys here cutting the beautiful grass down to stubble. It seems a shame, but they have their work to do and appear to have little interest in the picturesque scene that they are desecrating. They regard the tombs as nothing more than obstacles to be avoided by their machines, and there is no one other than me to regret the irreverence. There are no visitors and I wonder if there ever are.
The cemetery is just a short distance from the Jaffa Gate. Nobody truly knows when it was established. The large, empty reservoir around which it lies is believed to have Byzantine origins, but I doubt if that is more than speculation. A twelfth century pilgrim, Rorgo Fretellus recorded a tale connected to this place that was later repeated by other writers through the twelfth and into the thirteenth centuries. It is perhaps the cemetery's foundation legend, and it relates to an event that supposedly occurred here nearly five hundred years before the First Crusade.* In the medieval versions of this legend the place is known as the Charnel House of the Lion or the Lion's Graveyard. A battle is said to have taken place between the reservoir and the nearby city walls. A large number of Christians were killed (12,000 according to Fretellus), and before the victors could burn the bodies a lion collected them and buried them here in a cave or ditch. The origins of this myth go back to a contemporary account of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 written by the monk, Strategios. He recorded that the Persian general Razmiz detained thousands of survivors of the battle in the reservoir and subsequently 4,518 bodies were found there and were buried in nearby caves.** Some suggest that the origins go back even further. In the Middle Ages this location was shown to travellers as the site of the Massacre of the Innocents, the slaughter of male children by King Herod that is related in the Gospel of Matthew (2:16-18), although that should have been located close to Bethlehem. The nineteenth century French scholar and sometime resident of Jerusalem, Charles Clermont-Ganneau suggested that this idea of a lion burying the slaughtered probably originates in a "phonetic blunder", and that seems likely to be the case.*** But it is a good story (in another version, rather than a lion it is an old woman and her female dog) and a miracle is always so much more interesting than a phonetic blunder.
The Jerusalem born magistrate and historian Mujir ed-Din (1456-1522) recorded that the cemetery at Mamilla, which in his time was the largest of the cemeteries in Jerusalem, contained the graves of warriors as well as pious men and those who were famed for their learning.**** Some of these dead were buried reusing earlier Frankish tomb-markers. In the Crusader period the cemetery is recorded in the cartulary of the chapter of the Holy Sepulchre and apparently it had served as the burial place of Augustinian canons and church officials of the Holy Sepulchre.***** In the nineteenth century Clermont-Ganneau saw among the Muslim tombs "quite a number of carved and moulded blocks of stone...hewn into a prismatic shape, with a shelving ridge, sometimes connected with a base" noting that "they all show the medieval tooling with oblique strokes", as indeed do the monumental stone sarcophagi that I have written about in an earlier post - On the Forgotten Dead, 25 October 2018), identifying them beyond doubt as Frankish. Today these stones are mostly buried in the soil. It almost seems as if they are attempting to sink down to join the human remains beneath them, an admirable nonpartisan act for the Frankish tombstones if these are indeed Muslim dead - rather like Isaac Rosenberg's sardonic rat in Break of Day in the Trenches that crossed the "sleeping green" between the English and German lines. But it is not at all certain that there are any human remains below and these tombs seem to have undergone quite a bit of disturbance over the years, not only when after the fall of Frankish Jerusalem many of them were reused for Muslim burials, but again, much more recently when in the 1950's several were move away from their original positions during municipal work aimed at turning a large part of the cemetery into a public garden.
* Rorgo Fretellus, Liber Locorum Sanctorum Terrae Sanctae Ierusalem, LXVIII, ed. P.C. Boeren, Rorgo Fretellus de Nazareth et sa description de la Terre Sainte, Amsterdam, 1980, p. 39. See also Janet Shirley, trans. Crusader Syria in the Thirteenth Century. The Rothelin Continuation of the History of William of Tyre, Aldercroft and Burlington, 1999, p. 20.
** Strategios, La Prise de Jérusalem par les Perses en 614, Latin trans. G. Garitte, in Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Louvain, 1903-, vol. CCIII (Scriptores Iberici, vol. XII), 16-18, pp. 50-52.
***Charles Clermont-Ganneau, Archaeological researches in Palestine, vol. 1, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London 1899 , pp. 279-90. A very thorough account of the sources is given in Denys Pringle, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Cambridge 2007, pp. 217-20.
****Mujir al-Din, Histoire de Jérusalem et de Hébron, depuis Abraham jusqu'à la fin du XVe siècle de J.-C., trans., H. Sauvaire, Paris, 1876, pp. 413-14.
*****G. Bresc-Bautier, Le Cartulaire du chapitre du Saint-Sépulcre de Jérusalem, DRHC, vol. XV, Paris, 1984, p. 234.