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Un-inventing the Bab al-Khalil tombs

Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 11.01.2008:

Between the magic of legend and historical fact

Yusef Said al-Natsheh

Jerusalem Quarterly

Issue 22/23

This essay is part of an ongoing series of reviews of Jerusalem’s cemeteries.

The city of Jerusalem holds a prominent position in Islamic dogma and belief. While a thorough examination of the city’s standing is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting the Islamic tradition that Judgment Day will be staged in Jerusalem. This tradition is visible in the architectural development of the city, and perhaps explains why it became the preferred burial site for many of the Prophet’s Companions, saints, sufis, and other prominent personalities.

Possibly the most distinctive manifestation of this tradition is found in the wide variety of funerary edifice styles and names preserved in historical sources of sites in Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif that are closely tied to the literature of asceticism and Judgment Day. For example, al-Awash Dome [the Dome of the Spirit in the Dome of the Rock terrace], Awash Well [the Well of the Spirit positioned in the cave of the Dome of the Rock], al-Sirat [the bridge to paradise in Muslim tradition], “al-Bawa’il” scales [Arcades, a group of arches supported by piers and columns], Jehennam valley [Valley of Hell, southwest of the Old City], al-Sahirah [term referring to the Land of the Resurrection, found in many Jerusalem place names], Bab al-Rahma [Mercy Gate cemetery, many of the prophet’s sahaba are believed to be buried here] and Bab al-Tuba [the Golden Gate, where the Messiah will enter Jerusalem on the Day of Judgment in Muslim tradition] are all sites directly connected to this belief.

Jerusalem’s burial sites, ranging from humble tombs to large architectural complexes, grew in number during its Islamic eras. This rich diversity led the late Kamel al-‘Asali to devote an entire book to the topic: Our Forefathers in the Soil of Jerusalem.1 There is no need to quote from al-‘Asali’s work here; most of the tombs he mentions are well-known. Still, a few are in need of study, and among these are the Bab al-Khalil tombs. New documents shed additional light on the origin of these legendary structures and their possible occupants.

The Bab al-Khalil tombs lay twelve meters to the east of Bab al-Khalil (Jaffa Gate) on the northern side of Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab Square, which opens from Bab al-Khalil, and opposite the northeastern section of the Jerusalem Citadel. Bab al-Khalil is the only gate in the western side of Jerusalem’s walls. It was ordered built by Sultan Suleiman al-Qanuni in 945/1538-1539.2 The tombs are bordered on the west and east by two modern two-story buildings. The ground floor of the western building is today a store that sells jewels and antique bric-a-brac, while the ground floor of the eastern building serves as a tourist information center. To their north, the tombs are bordered by a wall comprised of five courses of masonry. South of the tombs runs a public street and open square.

The tombs themselves consist of two stone graves constructed upon an exposed stone base of uneven form (the height of its flanks differs: the eastern flank is 440 cm, the northern flank is 520 cm, the western flank is 380 cm, and the southern flank is 540 cm). The base sits 1.3 meters higher than that of the public street, thus compensating for the low foundation of the two graves. Each grave consists of one course of stone topped by a cylindrical mortar support holding up the grave’s two ‘crowns’, one on each end of the grave. Stone graves within closed tombs typically consist of three to four courses of dressed stone.

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