I went to school to learn philosophy and I work as a tour guide. It may seem as though these two fields are totally unrelated; but, sometimes philosophical ideas can be played out in archaeology. One of my particular areas of interest is perhaps the oldest philosophical question – what happens after we die? Humans grieve. It is one of the things which separates us from the vast majority (if not all) of the animal world. And because we care about those who leave us, we naturally wonder where they are going, and if they will be treated well there.
Burial rituals can be seen in the physical world through archaeology and writings, and provide a window to the philosophies of the past. Finding a burial place leads to questions of what the people living at the time believed.
In the Ben Hinnom valley outside of the Old City of Jerusalem there are many burial caves and structures. The oldest piece of biblical text was found in a burial cave there from the First Temple Period. Also found was a building called the “House of Bones” which dates to the Crusader time. Built into the mountainside adjacent to today’s Greek Orthodox St. Onuphrius Monastery, was found a large vaulted Crusader building used as a Charnel house. Although open today through the archways, the main entrance in Crusader times was through an opening in the ceiling.
Through this hole, passed Christian pilgrims who died in Jerusalem during the Crusader period. Many pilgrims, especially the poor, did not arrive in Jerusalem in the best of health after their long trek through Europe and the Middle East. The Knights Hospitallier constructed a hospital with 2,000 beds in the area of today’s Muristan and operated it at the highest standards of the day. Even so, many poor pilgrims died, an average of 50 per day. A burial structure was needed in Jerusalem to handle the large number of dead people, so this hall was built outside of the city.
Because of the religious pilgrims buried here, this became viewed as a holy place, and continued as a propitious place for burial until the beginning of the 20th century, until the vault was practically full of the remains of the faithful. Pilgrims believed that in 24 hours, the body would disintegrate and the soul would ascend to heaven. The soil located around this site took on holiness because of the multitude of pilgrims buried here and took on the status of a holy relic which was gathered and taken back to Europe. The Ottomans, desirous of curbing the expropriation of holy relics out of the Holy Land would stop Christians leaving through the port of Jaffa who were carrying this soil from the House of Bones in Jerusalem.
The vaults were emptied at the beginning of the 20th century and the remains were moved to another cave from the 2nd Temple Period in the Ben Hinnom Valley. One interesting recent skeleton found there took researchers by surprise and gives an insight into a development in the philosophy surrounding burial. Madame Galushkina was a pilgrim from Russia who died in Jerusalem around the year 1900. Along with her skeleton, still donning her scarf, was found a booklet with names of children and their ages at their death. Madame Galushkina was not a young woman and it is thought that she came to Jerusalem to die. But she wanted to extend the honor of dying in Jerusalem to her already dead relatives in Russia. So she brought their names with her in a Russian commemoration book in order that they would also merit as if they were buried in the Holy Land.
It seems to be that these pilgrims didn’t just believe that living well is important for this world; but more importantly, dying well protects you in the next. If you’re interested in the intersection between philosophy and archaeology, and want to know what people thought in the past about “What happens when we die?” I highly suggest a visit to the many different cemeteries of Jerusalem, including this unique one from the Crusader time.