Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives is a mountain ridge in East Jerusalem with three peaks running from north to south

Sunset aerial photograph of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem
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The highest, at-Tur, rises to 818 meters (2,683 ft). It is named for the olive groves that once covered its slopes.

The Mount of Olives is associated predominantly with Jewish and Christian traditions but also contains several sites important in Islam.

The mount has been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years and holds approximately 150,000 graves.

History

From Biblical times until today, Jews have been buried on the Mount of Olives. The necropolis on the southern ridge, the location of the modern village of Silwan, was the burial place of the city's most important citizens in the period of the Biblical kings.

Mt. of Olives, circa 1899
pinterest button Mt. of Olives, circa 1899 unknown, Public Domain

There are an estimated 150,000 graves on the Mount, including tombs traditionally associated with Zechariah and Avshalom. On the upper slope, the traditional Tomb of the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi‎ is situated. Notable rabbis buried on the mount include Chaim ibn Attar and others from the 15th-century to present.

Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, olive harvest
pinterest button Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, olive harvest Berthold Werner, Public Domain

Roman soldiers from the 10th Legion camped on the Mount during the Siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. The religious ceremony marking the start of a new month was held on the Mount of Olives in the days of the Second Temple.

After the destruction of the Temple, Jews celebrated the festival of Sukkot on the Mount of Olives. They made pilgrimages to the Mount of Olives because it was 80 meters higher than the Temple Mount and offered a panoramic view of the Temple site. It became a traditional place for lamenting the Temple's destruction, especially on Tisha B'Av.

View of Mount of Olives and churches (Church of All Nations, Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene)
pinterest button View of Mount of Olives and churches (Church of All Nations, Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene) Gilabrand, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1481, an Italian Jewish pilgrim, Rabbi Meshulam Da Volterra, wrote:

Tomb of Absalom
pinterest button Tomb of Absalom Eman, Public Domain

In the mid-1850s, the villagers of Silwan were paid £100 annually by the Jews in an effort to prevent the desecration of graves on the mount.

During the Islamization of Jerusalem under Jordanian occupation from 1948 to 1967, Jewish burials were halted, massive vandalism took place, and 40,000 of the 50,000 graves were desecrated. King Hussein permitted the construction of the Intercontinental Hotel at the summit of the Mount of Olives together with a road that cut through the cemetery which destroyed hundreds of Jewish graves, some from the First Temple Period. After the Six-Day War, restoration work began, and the cemetery was re-opened for burials.

Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery
pinterest button Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0

Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin asked to be buried on the Mount of Olives near the grave of Etzel member Meir Feinstein, rather than Mount Herzl national cemetery.

Religious significance

Old Testament references

The Mount of Olives is first mentioned in connection with David's flight from Absalom (II Samuel 15:30): «And David went up by the ascent of the Mount of Olives, and wept as he went up.» The ascent was probably east of the City of David, near the village of Silwan.

The sacred character of the mount is alluded to in the Ezekiel (11:23):

According to the Old Testament, Solomon built altars to the gods of his wives on the southern peak (I Kings 11:7–8). During the reign of King Josiah, the mount was called the Mount of Corruption (II Kings 23:13).

Frontal view of the Church of all Nations in Jerusalem's Gethsemane
pinterest button Frontal view of the Church of all Nations in Jerusalem's Gethsemane Karsten Müller, Public Domain

An apocalyptic prophecy in the Book of Zechariah states that Yahweh will stand on the Mount of Olives and the mountain will split in two, with one half shifting north and one half shifting south (Zechariah 14:4).

The biblical designation Har HaMashchit derives from the idol worship there, begun by King Solomon's Moabite and Ammonite wives «on the mountain which is before (east of) Jerusalem» (Kings I 11:17), just outside the limits of the holy city. This site was infamous for idol worship throughout the First Temple period, until king of Judah, Josiah, finally destroyed «the high places that were before Jerusalem, to the right of Har HaMashchit,...»

New Testament references

The Mount of Olives is frequently mentioned in the New Testament (Matthew 21:1;26:30, etc.) as the route from Jerusalem to Bethany and the place where Jesus stood when he wept over Jerusalem.

View, from the Temple Mount, on the Church of Mary Magdalene
pinterest button View, from the Temple Mount, on the Church of Mary Magdalene Sustructu, CC BY-SA 3.0

Jesus is said to have spent time on the mount, teaching and prophesying to his disciples (Matthew 24–25), including the Olivet discourse, returning after each day to rest (Luke 21:37), and also coming there on the night of his betrayal (Matthew 26:39).

At the foot of the Mount of Olives lies the Garden of Gethsemane. The New Testament, tells how Jesus and his friends sang together – «When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives» Gospel of Matthew 26:30. Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mt of Olives as recorded in the book of Acts 1:9–12.

Useful Information

The Mount of Olives
also Mount Olivet
Hebrew: הר הזיתים‎
TRanslit: Har HaZeitim
Arabic: جبل الزيتون, الطور‎
Translit: Jebel az-Zeitun

Status since 1948

In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan occupied East Jerusalem, including the Mount of Olives, and held it until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. During this period, Jordan annexed its part of the city, but this was recognized only by the United Kingdom and Pakistan. Jordan had obligated itself within the framework of the 3 April 1949 Armistice Agreement to allow "free access to the holy sites and cultural institutions and use of the cemeteries on the Mount of Olives,". While Christian pilgrims and non-Israeli Jews were allowed to visit the Mount, Israeli citizens were barred from entering Jordan and therefore were unable to travel to the area. This was in direct violation of the agreed-to armistice.

By the end of 1949, and throughout the Jordanian occupation of the site, some Arab residents uprooted tombstones and plowed the land in the cemeteries and an estimated 38,000 tombstones were damaged in total. During this period, four roads were paved through the cemeteries, in the process destroying graves including those of famous persons. Buildings, including the Seven Arches Hotel (formerly Intercontinental Hotel) and a gas station, were erected on top of ancient graves.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, along with the rest of the West Bank in the 1967 Six-day War and has occupied those territories since. In an act condemned as a violation of international law and ruled null and void by the UN Security Council in UNSC Resolution 478, Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980.

Landmarks

The Arab neighborhood of at-Tur is located on the mountain's summit, and the Mount Scopus campuses of both the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center abuts the mount on the north.

Landmarks on the Mount of Olives include%

  • Yad Avshalom,
  • the Tomb of Zechariah,
  • the Church of all Nations,
  • the Church of Maria Magdalene, 
  • Dominus Flevit Church, 
  • Chapel of the Ascension, 
  • Gethsemane, 
  • Mary's Tomb, 
  • Church of the Pater Noster,
  • the Seven Arches Hotel, 
  • Orson Hyde Park and Beit Orot.

At the foot of the mountain lies Emek Tzurim National Park and the Temple Mount Antiquities Salvage Operation.