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Archeology in Israel

by Jacqueline Schaalje

Although the town of Hebron is a bit dangerous now for tourist visits, it is a city that should be visited. For archeology lovers, there is the marvelous wall that King Herod (37-4 BCE) built around and on top of the natural cave that is the Cave of the Machpelah (the Cave of the Patriarchs).

The cave plus the field adjacent to it was bought by Abraham from Efron the Hittite, in order to bury his deceased wife Sarah (Genesis 23). Its location lies across from the city of Hebron, which had not encroached upon the cave in those days as it does now.

The cave was a double one, as is mentioned in many texts; the mention of it is seen in the Hebrew word, Machpelah. The root of Machpelah is 'kafal' (double) in the Hebrew word.

The Canaanite city of Hebron, then called Mamre, dates back about 4000 years. Apart from Sarah, Abraham himself was buried in Hebron, followed by Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, whose cenotaphs can be seen today, in addition to the one of Joseph (according to Jewish tradition Joseph is buried near Shechem (Nablus). Jewish tradition also believes that Adam and Eve were buried in Hebron. Rachel, on the other hand, Jacob's second wife who also counts as matriarch, was buried near Bethlehem.

Because of these graves, which are also important for the Christian and Muslim religions, whose functionaries have ruled over the Cave of the Machpelah for centuries, Hebron is the oldest holy place in Israel; even older than Jerusalem.

When the Israelites divided the land, in the time of the Judges, Hebron was given to Caleb of the tribe of Judah (14:6-15), but further down in the text it is mentions that only the agricultural fields were given to Caleb and the city itself became one of the Levitical cities, belonging to the tribe of Levi (Joshua 21:9-13).

View of the Ceiling

Later Hebron became King David's capital, this was before he moved to Jerusalem. According to II Samuel 2: 11 David reigned in Hebron over the house of Judah for 7 years and 6 months.

Six sons were born to David while residing in Hebron: Amnon, Kileab, Absalom, (who later staged his rebellion against his dad from Hebron (II Samuel 15-18:15)); and three other sons; all from other wives. When the extended royal family moved to Jerusalem, they were pretty much complete.

Nothing is known about the fate of the Cave in Hebron during the First and Second Temple periods, but Jews kept residing in Kiryat Arba, the old name for Hebron (Nehemia 11:25). Then King Herod built his fine edifice on top of the cave, which sits like a miniature Temple, and has the same rectangular proportions as the Temple. It is perfectly preserved.

With the advance of the Arabs, and later the Crusaders, some changes were made. The Cave of the Machpelah served alternately as church and mosque. The Muslims call Hebron el-Khalil, which means the friend or the loved one; it refers to Abraham who was the friend of God, as Hebron is said to come from the Hebrew word 'haver,' which also means friend.

During all this time Jews continued to visit the shrine, in addition to the Christian pilgrims, and by the 6th century CE this had led to a partition being installed in the central area to keep the two apart. Also colonnades were built next to the outside wall, and still later, in the 10th century, the original west entrance was blocked by a new building which supposedly housed the cenotaph of Joseph.

View from Inside

A new entrance was hewn in the east wall, dated to 918. From this time dates a description by the traveler/geographer Mukaddasi of Jerusalem that there was a mosque in the southern half of the area, and he also describes the six central cenotaphs in the position they are now.

The building, which was originally unroofed, got its magnificent vaulted roof during the reign of Crusader king Baldwin II (1118-31). The Latin Priests of Kiryat Arba in Hebron had discovered the Cave of the Machpelah under the Herodian building in 1119, which was the last time the underground area was mapped; however, their investigation was not completed. According to these priests there is a labyrinth of underground chambers in which they at last discovered the "double cave" with the tombs.

The underground cave was visited by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike until the 14th century. But soon after it was closed first for Jews and Christians and then by 1490 Muslims were also forbidden to enter it. In 1859 the Italian Pierotti succeeded in descending some steps and according to him the cave spans the whole length of the Herodian building aboveground. The site is still controlled by the Muslim Waqf and no scientist has received permission in the last centuries to enter the underground area.

View Looking Upwards on the Outside Wall

Although contemporary Jewish sources exist of the underground area, the most complete description is of Ibn Batutah, a Muslim travel writer: "The Haram [the Muslim name for the Cave of the Machpelah] is said to have been built by Solomon aided by Jinns. Within is the holy cave, where are the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; opposite lie the tombs of their wives. To the right of the pulpit, and close to the southern outer wall, is a place where you may descend by solidly marble steps, leading to a narrow passage, and this opens into a chamber paved with marble. Here are the cenotaphs of the three tombs. They say that the bodies lie immediately adjacent beneath, and hereby was originally the passage down to the blessed cave. At the present time, however, this passage is closed. To the first chamber I myself descended many times." The marble plaza that Batutah speaks of is the original Herodian pavement.

Saladin added four minarets to the building, which help to make it look like a fortress; of which two remain. After that, the Mamluk sultans gave the cenotaphs of Leah and Jacob their current form. No further significant changes have been made.

Jews continued to live and survive in Hebron and they built a synagogue and other official buildings. As a result of the Arab pogrom of 1929, in which 67 Jews were killed, the rest of Hebron's Jewish residents fled, and they returned only after 1967 when Israel had conquered the West Bank. In more recent years, Hebron has been the scene of bitter violence for a number of times.


The Cave of the Machpelah is open every day, except for the times of Muslim prayer. It is divided into a Muslim section (closed on Friday) and a Jewish section (closed on Saturday). However, on the respective holidays of each religion the whole building is open for its own adherents only.

The Herodian wall can be studied from the outside. The largest blocks, in the corners, measure 7.5 by 1.4 meters. Yet the building as a whole does not look heavy, because of some visual tricks: each course is set back one and a half centimeter from the one below, and the upper margin is wider than the others. The stones themselves are beautifully dressed, with the bosses lending a faint shadow. They are laid in an irregular pattern to further enliven the massive walls. Finally, the pilasters have elegant seven-faced ground stones. Some stones have a knob, which all the stones initially had, these were used to carry the stone into its place.

The Jewish entrance is to the right, through a small mosque, leading first to the 14th century cenotaph of Joseph. The entrances through the Herodian wall date to the same, Mamluk era. In the left room are the cenotaphs of Leah and Jacob. Abraham's and Sarah's are on the right, which is actually in the center of the building. These two monuments are the oldest, dated to the 9th century.

The Muslim entrance is via the stairs outside, through the Djaouliyeh mosque, built in the 14th century. This leads to the passage in the north-east wall from the 10th century. Muslims enter in the central room first, with the cenotaph of Sarah straight ahead, and behind it Abraham's.

Between Abraham's cenotaph and Joseph's, there is a door to the rectangular mosque of the women. In the corner, next to Abraham's cenotaph, a small shrine contains Adam's footprint, according to legend Adam prayed here so often that his foot left a mark in the stone.

The other two cenotaphs, of Rebecca and Isaac, are in the Muslim section on the east side of the building. The Mamluk viceroy of Syria further adorned the two monuments and also covered the walls with geometric sheets of marble and the decorative Koranic script on the marble frieze. Next to the back wall, at the other end of Isaac's monument, the pavement slopes down into the Herodian rain gutter, which proves that the building was first uncovered.

Next to Isaac's cenotaph is a finely carved pulpit of walnut wood, which was donated by Saladin in 1191 when he destroyed Ashkelon; it was made for a mosque there a century earlier. On the left of the pulpit is the marble-and-mosaic mihrab.

On the right, under the small roof is the entrance to the underground area, which was still in use in the 14th century. Visitors would find themselves in a hallway made of Herodian stones, followed by a small rectangular room at the end, the roof of which is pierced through to meet the cupola next to Abraham's cenotaph in the area above ground. There is another mihrab in the south corner and an entrance to the cave below.

There are also excavations of the ancient city of Hebron on Tel Rumeida, next to the Cave of the Machpelah, but the finds have been limited due to the area being inhabited by Israeli settlers. An 18-century BCE city wall has recently been uncovered, and two rooms containing silver jewellery, bronze axeheads, two scarabs and the handle of a dagger. It is difficult to say anything about whether Abraham and his family dwelled here, as some claim; the finds are typically Canaanite. Another layer of earth yielded some Israelite royal seals from the First Temple period, which make it certain that this is indeed the site of biblical Hebron.

Hebron does not have other architectural remains of note, but there are many old tombs scattered round the city. There is also a famous oak tree 2 kilometers west of the city that is believed to be the place where Abraham pitched his tent (see Genesis 18:1). Excavations in 1926-8 revealed that there is a well underneath with a Herodian enclosure. The oak stands on land that is owned by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has protected its trunk with steel braces against pilgrims who used to scratch pieces off for good luck.


from the November 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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