Massive Newly-built Catacombs in Jerusalem Set to Open in October

In this Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019 photo, workers are busy at the construction site of a massive underground cemetery in Jerusalem. Under a mountain on the outskirts of Jerusalem, workers are completing three years of labor on a massive subterranean necropolis comprised of a mile (1.5 kilometers) of tunnels with sepulchers for interring the dead. (Oded Balilty/Associated Press)

Under a mountain on the outskirts of Jerusalem, workers are completing three years of labor on a massive subterranean necropolis comprised of a mile (1.5 kilometers) of tunnels with sepulchers for interring the dead.

Up above, the Har Hamenuchot Cemetery dominates the hillside overlooking the main highway leading into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. But in October, the cemetery’s management plans to open the first section of a sprawling catacomb complex which, when completed, will provide 23,000 gravesites for an increasingly crowded country.

“People will die probably forever,” said Arik Glazer, chief executive of Rolzur Tunneling, the company building the tunnel tombs, “so you have to get space for that.”

Land is in short supply in Israel, and Jewish and Muslim burial customs require interring the dead in the ground and prohibit cremation. The hilltop cemetery is almost at capacity, with nearly a quarter million graves. The first underground section opening in October will have capacity for 8,000. The remaining sections are slated to open in the coming years.

Like other increasingly crowded metropolises, Tel Aviv has embraced vertical cemetery structures to accommodate growing demand, but now Israel is looking for solutions below ground.

Even in the blazing summer heat, the labyrinthine vaults maintain their steady year-round temperature of 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit).

The limestone walls are lined four-high with tombs that resemble small Japanese capsule hotels. Giant flame-hued polyhedron light fixtures designed by German artist Yvelle Gabriel dangle at intersections between the avenues and streets deep in the mountain.

The entire project cost an estimated $50 million and took just over three years to complete. The tunnels take up just 5% of the total subterranean area of the mountain available for future tombs, Glazer said.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Ilan Ben Zion and Isaac Scharf | AP