The Ma’man Allah (Mamilla) Cemetery was the oldest Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem with graves dating back to the seventh century, comprised of 33 acres and tens of thousands of graves. After 1948 the Israeli ministry that maintained the site reassured world leaders that this important religious site would be cared for in perpetuity.
Less than fifteen years later, in the 1960s a park was built in part of the cemetery and a parking lot covered another part. These were followed by a school, football field, underground parking garage, and road. Electrical wires were laid in other sections.
The final few acres were dug up just before the beginning of Ramadan, in the middle of the night (as can be seen on the CNN video: http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/world/2010/08/13/vo.cemetery.demo.cnn.html) so that Israel can build the Museum of Tolerance in conjunction with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the United States.
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An enormous amount of knowledge was lost with the destruction of the Mamilla Cemetery, according to St. Paul based archaeologist, John E. Landgraf, Ph.D., because the era since the end of the Byzantine period and the beginning of the Islamic conquest (around 638 CE) up to the present day is the least known period of history in the Middle East generally. There is much to be learned by examining skeletal remains, headstones, and tombs. However, the Israeli Department of Antiquities, which has recently been taken over by the Orthodox Rabbinate, does not allow any human skeletal remains to be examined; Jewish remains must be re-interred as quickly as possible out of respect, whereas non-Jewish remains at the Mamilla Cemetery were disposed of along with tombstones and other debris in construction dumpsters.
Dr. Landgraf, who participated in a number of archaeological digs in Israel and the West Bank between 1965 and 1980, said that the Israeli Department of Antiquities was seldom interested in the preservation of remains or artifacts from the Islamic period. In the late 1960s the discovery of Muslim graves at Tell Gezer did not interest the American head archaeologist at the time, and so bulldozers were used to push remains, artifacts, and debris back into the graves.
Archaeological excavations are a way of learning about the past in an orderly fashion. One exposes history a layer at a time, and by careful examination knowledge can be gained of the various eras and cultures. When Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 Israeli archaeologists used bulldozers to excavate the Western (Wailing) Wall area down to the late Roman period, destroying the homes of Palestinians living there at the time, and along with them the 1500-year history of the people who had lived there since the Byzantine period. “Thus there is a loss of continuity in our understanding of the past,” said Dr. Landgraf.
It is ironic that in the midst of mass hysteria over an Islamic center to be built in lower Manhattan, because some people feel that this would be disrespectful to the dead, that a genuine desecration of a sacred place occurs, unreported in most mainstream media. “The unfortunate reality is that Indigenous populations live in a world in which we are never safe from colonizer assaults – even when we are dead,” says Wazayatawin, Ph.D., Indigenous Peoples Research Chair and Associate Professor, Indigenous Governance Program, University of Victoria, someone who has worked on behalf of Indigenous peoples in this hemisphere for many years, and sees many parallels with the experience of Palestinians. “The ongoing desecration of Indigenous burial sites, including the Mamilla Cemetery in West Jerusalem, reflects a deeply embedded colonizer mentality that views subjugated peoples as fundamentally inferior and unworthy of even the most basic dignities afforded other human beings,” she says.
Dr. Wazayatawin continues, “The act of erasing a people’s memory from the landscape is a necessary element in the colonization process. In order for the colonizers to legitimize their occupation of another’s land, they must eradicate all memories of the colonized, including even the human remains that demonstrate a deep and powerful connection to the land itself.”
Everywhere in Israel are the eradicated memories of the dispossessed Indigenous people. Old mosques are transformed into bars and nightclubs, so that patrons drink alcohol where Muslims used to pray. The history museum in Jaffa (more of a tourist site than an educational institution) is inexplicably silent about the existence of people in the city between the Roman times and Napoleon’s invasion. Street names are changed from their ancient Arabic names to new Hebrew ones. Golda Meir’s famous comment “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” reflected her desire, not a reality, but it has been repeated so often that many Israelis believe it. The destruction of a cemetery shows starkly how little regard Israel holds for the humanity of the Palestinians. As Dr. Wazayatawin says, “There is something terribly wrong with a culture that digs up the dead of others. The societal justification for such a crime reveals its own sickness.”