Cave of the Patriarchs (or The Cave of Machpelah), Hebron

(Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs)


Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite a field and a cave at Mamre, Cave of Machpela in Hebron, where he buried his wife Sarah. "I will give thee money for the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there. And Ephron answered Abraham, saying unto him... the land is worth four hundred sheqels of silver... and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver..." (Gen 23:13-17). 

During the Second Temple Period Herod built a structure (Haram) on the Cave of Machpelah, providing a place for gatherings and prayers. 

The walls of the Cave of Machpelah are constructed in an interesting manner. Each course of stone blocks (the largest 7.5x1.4m) is set back 1.5cm on the one below and the upper margin is wider than the others. The surface of the wall is broken up by calculated irregularity of the joints and by the finely trimmed bosses (similar to those at the Western Wall in Jerusalem). The paved area within the wall is also Herodian. By the sixth century porticoes had been built around the four sides.

In the tenth century, a building, housing a cenotaph of Joseph, blocked the original entrance; the present entrance was then cut in the east wall. The existing building dates from the reign of Baldwin II (1118-1131). [The Augustinian Canons discovered the Cave of Machpela in 1119 beneath the Herodian pavement]. Jews, Christians and Muslims visited the underground area until the middle of the thirteenth century. 

Hebron and the cave of the Machpela were always important sites for the travelers to the Holy Land. Benjamin of Tudelah writes about his trip to Hebron in 1173: "And in the valley is the Cave of Machpela, if a Jew should pay the Ishmaelite watchman, he will open for him an iron gate. From there one descends stairs with a candle in hand. Upon reaching the third cave one will find six graves. These are the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and opposite them Sarah, Rebecca and Leah". 

The Mamluks (1260-1517), who expelled the crusaders finally from Palestine, made Hebron their district capital (c.1260), at which time the Jewish settlement apparently began to be perceptibly renewed. 

It appears that the tolerant Muslim attitude toward the Jews, which had existed in pre-crusader times, did not continue with the return of the Muslims to Palestine. In 1266 it was decreed that the Jews were not to enter the Cave of Machpela, and this decree was strictly enforced till 20th century. Jews were not allowed past the seventh step of the staircase outside the building. 

Saladin added four minarets to the structure, of which only two remain. 

Entering the building by the Mamluk stairway (1), enable to see the different stones of the wall that leads to the Djaouliyeh mosque (2) built in 1318-1320. The passage through the Herodian Wall (3) dates back to the beginning of the tenth century, the time when the original entrance was blocked. The tomb of Sarah (6) is straight ahead. To the left is the entrance to the mosque. Tankiz, the Mamluk governor of Syria, decorated the walls with geometric sheets of marble. He is responsible for the present form of the cenotaphs of Isaac (16) and Rebecca (15). The marble frieze with the decorative script is also from the same period; and the slope of the pavement goes towards the Herodian rain gutter (17). Due to the presence of this rain gutter we know that the place was once without a roof. On the right side of the mihrab (the niche in the wall facing Makkah) (18) stands the minbar (stepped pulpit), originally made for a mosque in Ashkelon in 1091, but when Saladin burnt the city, he sent the minbar to Hebron. A door leads to the women mosque (10), from which you can see the ninth century tomb of Abraham. The entrance to the Jewish part is through the mosque (11). The entrances in the Herodian wall to the tomb of Joseph (12) and the mosque, date from the fourteenth century. The courtyards are made in the Mamluk style and they define the form of the cenotaphs of Jacob (5) and Leah (4).

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