A royal grave on the Mount of Olives

During Easter, as always, all Christian eyes turned to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives where Jesus spent his last night as a free man. Few people, though, realise the connection of the Mount of Olives with the British and Russian royal families.

The coffin of the mother of Prince Philip has rested there for 27 years. Marked “Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece, Princess of Battenberg”, it lies in a crypt under the onion-domed Russian Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene, owned by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia which has its headquarters in New York. It would be assumed that as the mother-in-law of the Queen of England and grandmother of the future King of England, it would be assumed that many family members would have paid their respects. But Prince Philip has visited just once, in 1994, and the only other member of the British royal family to have made the journey was Prince Edward in 2007. Prince Charles is said to long to visit the convent, but politically it has been difficult.

Alice lies in Jerusalem because her dying wish in 1969 was to be buried beside her aunt, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, a Russian saint as well as a cousin of the Tsar and sister of the Tsarina. However, fulfilling her wish was full of complexities. Ever since the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, the church has been in occupied East Jerusalem (an occupation opposed by the international community). Additionally, there were the problems of burying a Greek Orthodox princess in a Russian Orthodox church. So it wasn’t until 19 years after Alice’s death that she was transferred from the royal vault at Windsor.

Anyone visiting Alice, a nun who was born deaf and who risked her life in Nazi-occupied Athens to save Jews, will be surprised. The convent and its grounds on the hilly and rocky ground are breathtakingly beautiful – as is its spectacular view of the Old City and the Golden Gate. It is a special place with a rare tranquillity. The Mount of Olives is holy not just for Christians, but also for Jews, and just up the road from the Russian Church are the graves of over 150,000 Jews (including that of Robert Maxwell). According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will come through the Golden Gate on Judgment Day and bring about the resurrection of those in graves opposite on the Mount of Olives. Jews have been buried there for more than 3,000 years so space is tight. It now costs over £15,000 to secure a small burial plot.

By chance, my visit coincided with the publication of rumours that the remains of some of Alice’s relations, Tsar Nicolas II, Empress Alexandra and three of their daughters, may be exhumed from their graves in the cathedral in St Petersburg for further DNA tests. After being shot dead in Yekaterinburg by the Bolsheviks in 1918, their bodies had remained unidentified until DNA sequencing was carried out in 1978. Now it seems that President Putin’s government is going along with the scepticism of the Russian Orthodox Church about the conclusions.

When I climbed the steep path to the church I was greeted by Abbess Elizabeth, the convent’s lively superior. Standing under the lofty Aleppo pines, she told me how, as well as running their school for 400 Arab children in nearby Bethany, the 40 nuns restore icons, embroider vestments, make prayer ropes and incense run a gift shop and look after the increasing number of pilgrims and tourists. With obvious pleasure she added: ‘‘We’re very proud to have Princess Alice here.’’

As it happens, DNA is the subject of an exhibition that opened at the Science Museum in London on March 25. “Richard III: Life, Death and DNA” shows how DNA sequencing needs to be through an all-female or an all-male line. As Richard left no legitimate descendants, the University of Leicester, using genealogical research, traced a line of matrilineal descent from Richard’s sister, Anne of York. They then compared the DNA of two of her living descendants with the DNA taken from the remains discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012. This led to the conclusion “beyond reasonable doubt” that the remains were those of Richard III.

If the Tsar and his wife are exhumed, the curious question is: whose DNA will be chosen? Last time, Prince Philip’s DNA was matched with that of the Tsar. Top candidates today are the hundreds of descendants of Queen Victoria – grandmother of the Russian empress.

Victoria was survived by six children including Edward VII; 40 grandchildren including the future George V and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth; and 37 greatgrandchildren including Edward VIII, Lord Mountbatten and Alice. They, and all their descendants, are closely related to the Russian royal family, but an unbroken matrilineal link must be discovered to obtain reliable identification using mitochondrial DNA sequences.

As the DNA from Alice could be the key to confirming the identity of four of the five Russian royal bodies, it’s fitting that she lies under a Russian church and is cared for lovingly by Russian nuns.

CATHOLIC HERALD, APRIL 17 2015