Located on Windmill Hill near the southern entrance to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, Jews’ Gate Cemetery includes the earliest known Jewish burials in Gibraltar. Also known as the Windmill Hill Cemetery, it is the burial site of a number of Gibraltar’s Chief Rabbis, with the earliest known dating as far back as 1746. The cemetery was actually closed for burials just over a century later, on the 6th May 1848.
Jews’ Gate Cemetery can be found along Queen’s Road, where it connects with Engineer Road, right next to the monument of the Pillars of Hercules, depicting “The Ancient World”, around fifty yards from the entrance to the Nature Reserve. Today the graveyard is protected by the law of Gibraltar.
A raised pathway leads over the graves, which are mainly laid out in a horizontal Sephardic (Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East) style. Unfortunately, due to being exposed to the elements for such a long a time, many of the gravestones have lost their inscriptions or have become illegible. Others have literally just crumbled away over the centuries.
The graves best preserved were until recently in fact covered by a thick layer of peat and mud. Thankfully this has enabled much insight into the past Jewish history of the Rock. Having said this, a lot more research remains to be done as many of the graves in this old cemetery remain to be identified.
To date, nobody knows for certainty the reason behind the Jewish community burying members of their dead at this specific location. It seems the origins of Jews’ Gate Cemetery are still an unsolved mystery.
The most probable theory that exists, is that during that era, the most noticeable and accessible cemetery in use by Christians, was right on the border of Spain. This sort of no-man’s land between British and Spanish soil is today the area now covered by the airports runway. Spain at the time were heavily subject to the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, a mandate regarding the expulsion of all Jews, hence the need for this alternate location.
Either way, the dilemma ended on the 31st May 1848 after the Colonial Secretary stated that: “The Governor has given conclusive orders that no more interments shall take place at the former Burial Ground above Wind Mill Hill but that all future Hebrew dead shall be deposited in the allotted portion of the New Cemetery.”
For half the year during winter to spring months Jews’ Gate Cemetery appears neglected, with shrub and plants left to grow freely. The cemetery can actually get to the point of looking totally overgrown and rather unsightly. The reason behind this lies with the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society.
The cemetery’s exact location has become the preferred mating and nesting ground of the very rare Barbary Partridge. During this time of the year, vegetation is totally abandoned until after the bird’s nesting season. Thereafter all excessive plant growth is cut back, giving back the cemetery it’s proper and virtuous appearance.
Lag BaOmer, a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, draws a traditional annual pilgrimage to the Jews’ Gate Cemetery tombs. By this time of the year though the shrubs and excessive plant growth have generally been cut back and cleared away.
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