JERUSALEM – A Jewish group in Jerusalem is using 21st-century technology to map every tombstone in the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives, a sprawling, politically sensitive necropolis of 150,000 graves stretching back three millennia.
The goal is to photograph every grave, map it digitally, record every name, and make the information available online. That is supposed to allow visitors to find their way in the cemetery, long a bewildering jumble of crumbling gravestones and rubble surrounded by Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. Beset for many years by neglect, it is among the oldest cemeteries in continuous use in the world.
Around 40,000 graves have been mapped so far by the team, which began work in 2008. They expect to finish recording all of the intact gravestones -- an estimated 100,000 in total -- by the end of next year. The rest are either so old they are unrecognizable or lie underneath later layers of burial.
Mappers look at aerial photographs, consult handwritten burial records dating back to the mid-1800s, walk along the rows of graves and dig through piles of dislocated tombstones, noting names and dates.
"This place has been used for burial since there have been signs of life in Jerusalem," said Moti Shamis, a member of the mapping team. "The cemetery is a mirror of the city -- in wartime, we see more graves. When new groups of Jews reach the city, the names on the graves change."
Like so much in Jerusalem, this project is linked to the city's fraught politics. The mappers are from an organization called Elad, affiliated with the settlement movement, which also works to move Jews into east Jerusalem in an attempt to prevent the city's division in any future peace deal.
Elad has made it its business to develop sites of Jewish importance in east Jerusalem, reinforcing the Israeli presence in the part of the city the Palestinians want as their capital.
Jews began burying their dead on the hill that later became known as the Mount of Olives about three millennia ago. It was a convenient site a short walk from the city walls. Over the centuries, burial here became linked to a prophecy in the Book of Zecharia according to which the Messiah would approach Jerusalem from the mount, splitting it in two. Those interred on the hill, this belief posited, would be the first to be resurrected.
The mount became, and remains, a sought-after place to be buried for Jews in Israel and abroad.
"As a place of burial it differs from almost every other on earth, in being, as no other is, a witness to a faith that is firm, decided and uncompromising until death," wrote Norman Macleod, a missionary, after a visit in 1864. "It is not therefore the vast multitude who sleep here, but the faith which they held in regard to their Messiah, that makes this spectacle so impressive."
Numerous churches were also built here, associated with events in the life of Jesus. In Christian burial grounds and crypts on and around the mount visitors can find the remains of people like Princess Alice of Battenberg, mother of Prince Phillip of Britain, and Russian Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, killed during the Russian Revolution with the rest of the czar's family.
The project is mapping only the Jewish cemetery, which includes several burial monuments from the time of the second Jewish Temple, about 2,000 years ago. Among the oldest graves that still bear names is one of a medieval scholar, Ovadia of Bartenura, an Italian who came to Jerusalem and died here around 1500.
The work of the mappers has solved several mysteries, one of them that of the missing grave of Shmuel Ben-Bassat.
Ben-Bassat was a soldier who died in combat in the war that surrounded Israel's creation in 1948. He was buried on Jan. 14 of that year, before Jewish forces lost the cemetery, along with the rest of east Jerusalem, to the Jordanian army.
For the next 19 years Jordan controlled the cemetery, paving over part of it to build a road, using gravestones to pave paths in a nearby military camp and abandoning the rest to disrepair. When Israel recaptured the Mount of Olives in 1967, the soldier's family could find no trace of him.
Going through old burial records as part of the new project, the mapping team discovered a note saying he had been interred "next to Gader Gurjis and in front of Deborah, the widow of Reuven Mirabi." Those graves still existed. Ben-Bassat now has a military gravestone.
Sometimes the graves recount small tragedies, like that of Joseph Almozig, a Jewish conscript in the Turkish army in World War I who was charged with desertion in 1916.
Almozig's broken gravestone says he was "executed by hanging at the hands of the Turkish government." Next to him is his mother, Hanina, whose tombstone from more than three decades later notes that to her right lies Joseph, her only son.
Elsewhere in the cemetery lies Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man responsible more than any other for reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, and a national hero in Israel. He was buried here in 1922. Nearby is Menahem Begin, buried in 1992 in a modest grave that makes no mention of the fact that he was Israel's prime minister.
Begin requested burial here, rather than in the country's national cemetery alongside other Israeli leaders, because he wanted to be close to two fighting comrades who killed themselves with grenades moments before they were to be hanged by the British in a Jerusalem prison in 1947.
Some see the new mapping work in the cemetery as part of what might be termed Jerusalem's "grave wars," by which Israelis and Palestinians use their dead to bolster their claims to the holy city.
Last year, Israeli authorities accused Israel's Islamic Movement of manufacturing about 300 graves as part of what was supposed to be a restoration of a Muslim cemetery in west Jerusalem. Elsewhere in the same cemetery, an Israeli initiative to build a Museum of Tolerance on land that contained human remains has drawn fierce criticism from Muslims. More recently, Palestinians have sparred with Israeli officials and archaeologists over use of part of a different Muslim cemetery just outside the walls of the Old City.
"On the Mount of Olives, we have a cemetery that is undoubtedly important to the Jewish people, but we also have a battle over land," said Yonathan Mizrahi, an archaeologist whose group, Emek Shaveh, is critical of much of the Israeli activity in east Jerusalem as heedless of Palestinian residents.
"The cemetery is identified as Jewish and thus as Israeli and there is an attempt to say -- this is a place that needs to be under Israeli control," he said.