The Samboski Cemetery is located on the eastern side of Mount Zion, just above the Valley of Hinnom. For hundreds of years, it was used as a burial site for the poor of Jerusalem whose money could not afford to buy a grave plot on the Mount of Olives.

The Samboski Cemetery’s beginnings are unknown. Kushans or unequivocal findings indicating the purchase of the area and the beginning of the burial there have not been found, and the circumstances of its establishment are not clear. What is known is that there are centuries-old testimonies referring to the existence of the cemetery, and it is a place where mainly the poor and destitute of the city were buried.

Sambosky Cemetery. Photo: Gil Mazumen
Sambosky Cemetery. Photo: Gil Mazumen

“Old, from ancient times”

We find the first evidence of the existence of a Jewish cemetery on Mount Zion in the words of Rabbi Mordechai of Roistitz who came from Moravia to Jerusalem in 1616. Rabbi Gedaliah of Simiatitz, another traveler who came after him in 1700, tells of a cemetery “old from ancient times” located in the south of Jerusalem with caves . Apparently this is Samboski, since no other cemetery has been found in the south of Old Jerusalem where caves are found.

One of the founders of Petach Tikva, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Fromkin, lived in Jerusalem for a time. He became aware of the existence of the Samboski. In his book, he noted that some of the graves in the cemetery are unrecognizable because there is no marking on them, which made it difficult for him to know how old the place was. However, he said that the oldest grave identified  is the grave of old Moshe Ben Yakir who died in 1637.

After the Six Day War, additional gravestones were found in Samboski with a date on them, the oldest of which date back to 1785 and 1792. This evidence shows that Jewish burials on Mount Zion probably existed at least from the 17th century and certainly in the 18th century, even though the area was outside the defined boundaries of the city.

Decades of continuous neglect

Evidence of severe neglect of the cemetery have been found in reports of the Sephardic Community Committee during the days of the British Mandate, especially after the events of 1929. Many tombstones were destroyed, and the residents of the area used the tombstones to build fences and houses.

Even during Jordanian rule, the destruction of the cemetery continued, and many tombstones were used by the Jordanian army for building blocks. The residents of the area continued to use the area as a shortcut to their homes, trampling on the dignity of the dead buried there.

The Sambosky cemetery is full of waste before the restoration works
The Sambosky cemetery is full of waste before the restoration works

After the Six Day War, the Samboski Cemetery was transferred to the legal responsibility of the General Custodian. Unfortunately, due to various changes in the area, since the 1970s, there were many invasions of the cemetery. Among other things, the residents of the area began to use it for parking, vehicle body shops. Horse stables were set up there, roads projected into it, illegal buildings were erected, and the neglect continued.

An opening for hope: extensive restorative efforts

Starting from the first decade of the 2000s, extensive operations were carried out to restore the cemetery on several occasions, but the neglect of the place had not yet stopped.

The turnaround happened about two and a half years ago when the City of David joined the restoration efforts, and began operations to improve the place together with the Jerusalem Municipality, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Israel Tradition, the Sephardic Burial Society, and the General Custodian. Among other things, the City of David took care of the removal of construction waste, regular removal of the garbage from the place, thorough cleaning of the area, orderly fencing of the cemetery, collection and restoration of gravestones scattered throughout the area, placing of new tombstones to mark the cemetery, and carrying out engineering support works.

The recognition of the importance of the Samboski Cemetery and the importance of the works to restore it reached its peak in February 2023: for the first time since the establishment of the State, a state memorial ceremony was held there in memory of the unknown deceased who were buried there. The ceremony was held in the presence of the Minister of Jerusalem and Tradition, the Mayor of Jerusalem, and with the participation of hundreds of people.

It is important to mention the late Doron Herzog, a Jerusalem guide and researcher who worked almost singlehandedly for decades to restore the cemetery.