Hebron PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Seeking Mamre
Tombs of Patriarchs
Byzantine Mamre

Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs

According to three passages in Genesis, Abraham had his camp at Mamre, which was "at" or "near" Hebron. After Sarah died, he negotiated with Ephron the Hittite, in the gate of Hebron, to buy a cave in which to bury her (Genesis 23). This cave was in the field of Machpelah before Mamre. He too was buried there, as were Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah (Genesis 49: 28-33 ).

hebron-temenos2.jpgIn the heart of today's Hebron is a magnificent stone enclosure, a temenos. The elements of design and masonry are identical with those found among the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem, which is confidently dated to Herod (a conclusion based on both Josephus and the archaeological finds). But in Hebron we need not speak of ruins. This is the structure itself, complete. It is the land's only intact monumental building from the Roman period. Beneath its floor are chambers, including a burial cave. Byzantine pilgrims referred to the structure and identified the cave as the one from Genesis 23.

Curiously, we cannot say the same for an earlier source: Josephus. In the Jewish War  he writes of Abraham and his descendants, with regard to Hebron: "Their tombs are pointed out to this day in the little town, of the finest marble and beautifully fashioned. Three quarters of a mile from the town can be seen an immense terebinth, said to be as old as creation." That is all he says on the topic.

Josephus was writing a century or so after Herod had built the temenos. Why doesn't he mention it? There are various theories: He never visited the area. Or this: he only names the Herodian structures that would have interested his Roman audience. Or there is a suggestion by archaeologist Itzhak Magen: Herod built the temenos for his fellow Edomites, Hebron's main inhabitants; Josephus ignored the sanctuary because it was Edomite.

Whatever the reason for the omission, the temenos must be Herod's work. Apart from the stylistic similarity with the Temple, no other local ruler ever had the interest, the opportunity or the money to erect such structures, using huge blocks of stone. The "interest" in question was to awe his subjects, as in Mark 13:1-2. Knowing he had no divine right in their eyes, Herod sought to inject his own evident power into buildings honoring their God.

We see that each wall has two sections, lower and upper. The lower presents a smooth surface, in which the great size of the stones is indicated by their margins. The upper is organized as a series of pilasters like those found among the ruins of the Temple.

If we want to use the Hebron temenos as an aid in imagining the walls of the Jerusalem Temple, we only need bracket the later additions, restore the whiteness of the limestone and enlarge the scale: the Temple walls soared about 100 feet above the street level and contained an area of 35 acres, whereas the walls of the Hebron temenos are about 60 feet high and contain half an acre.

We may picture the situation leading to the choice of this spot. Hebron was deserted from the late 6th century BC until the 3d. During this time, there was a settlement on the hill just north of the tell, at a distance of one kilometer (the same distance as the tree mentioned by Josephus above). The Arabs would later call the site Nimra, which may preserve the name Mamre.  (See satellite image below.)

Herodian design of wall in Hebron

Alexander of Macedon took the land from the Persians in 332 BC. Some time later, a new Hebron arose, not on the tell, rather in the valley to its east. The inhabitants were mainly Edomite. (This is evident from tomb inscriptions: some names are formed with the name Cos, the chief Edomite god.) In the centuries after the fall of Jerusalem in 586, the Edomites had spread north to the Hebron area and west into the Shephelah. When the Persians established provinces, therefore, they set the southern limit of "Yehud" (Judah) at Beth Zur, giving the rest of the range to Idumea (Edom).

The Hasmoneans learned the cost of this loss during their struggle for independence. The Seleucids were able to ascend the mountain unopposed through Idumea in 163, bringing war elephants and defeating the Hasmoneans near Beth Zur. It was vital, then, to control Idumea in order to benefit from the mountain's natural defenses. Judah Maccabee conquered Idumea by 161.

The Judean claim on the Hebron area could take heart from Genesis 23, which stressed the fact that Abraham had purchased the burial cave, rather than accepting it as a gift. The significance was that he, a nomad, thereby established a first legal hold on a piece of the promised land. Given the fact that Jacob too was buried in the cave, this hold would extend to Jacob's descendants (and not to Esau's, the Edomites!). The land claim is reflected in the careful, legalistic language of Genesis 23: 17-20.

So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, the cave which was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all of its borders, were deeded to Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all who went in at the gate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre (that is, Hebron), in the land of Canaan. The field, and the cave that is in it, were deeded to Abraham for a possession of a burying place by the children of Heth.

As part of their national and religious revival, Judah and his fellow Hasmoneans would have been eager to identify the burial cave, thus reestablishing the Judean connection with Hebron. In the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (I, 7), originally a Hebrew document from around 109 BC (that is, a year or so after the forcible conversion of the Edomites), we read that Ruben was buried with his ancestors in the double cave ("Machpelah") at Hebron. Unless the writer is merely copying the location from Genesis 23 and omitting Mamre, this would indicate that by 109 BC the cave was identified.

At this time the city was in the valley, bordered by the hill containing the cave. Into this hill, and over the cave, Herod built the structure we see today. If "Nimra" was indeed Mamre, then the place where the Hellenistic city later arose might have been "the field of Machpelah," and the cave over which Herod built would have been "before Mamre." (As a Biblical spatial reference, "before" generally means "east of.")

In the course of the centuries, Herod's temenos received additions from Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The original structure was probably open to the heavens, but only a small portion remains thus, the inner part having been adapted first into a Byzantine church (where Jews were permitted to pray), then a mosque, then a Crusader church, and then again the present mosque, although parts were transformed by Israel after 1967 into two small synagogues. Within are six large coffin-shaped monuments (cenotaphs) representing the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

Hebron: Inside the Ibrahimi Mosque

The cave

For most of the last 2000 years, the chambers beneath the temenos floor have been off limits. Despite a few attempts to explore them, our information remains fragmentary.

The axis of the building runs WNW-ESE. This is unique among the land's monumental religious structures. (The orientation proved uncongenial for the churches, mosques and synagogues later built into it: the churches couldn't face east, the mosques couldn't face south, and the synagogues couldn't face Jerusalem.) It seems likely that this orientation was determined by the layout of the cave it covered.

In 1119, newly arrived Crusader monks discovered a cleft in the floor through which a light breeze wafted. "In the name of the holiest trinity, and with some hesitation" they made an opening. (The reference to the trinity relates to Genesis 18.) After a day of battling through various walls, they discovered the bones of the patriarchs buried in the earth. (Text in Vincent , 166-76.) The find attracted Crusader pilgrims, whose money financed the building of the church that today forms the structure within which the mosque and synagogues are found. (Keel, p. 685.)  

Based on the Crusader account, Vincent made the following reconstruction of the chambers.

Diagram of caves beneath Hebron mosque

Hebron mosque edicule

Under Crusader auspices, the cave became accessible. A Jewish visitor, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela (1160 AD), reported that Jews could descend by a staircase. After passing through two rooms, one entered a third, he said, containing the six graves. (This would correspond to the cave, No. 7, in Vincent's reconstruction above.) A light burned here day and night, and the names of the honored dead were inscribed on the tombs. There were also baskets, he reported, containing the bones of Israelites. (Keel, p. 685.)

cave-access-hole-in-machpel.jpgAfter the Mamlukes drove the Crusaders from the land in 1291, they turned the church into a mosque, allowing entry to Muslims only. The caves became taboo, as they are to this day. "The people of Hebron believe that Abraham, in his proverbial goodness, would forgive an intrusion, but that Isaac, considered zealous, would let loose at every trespasser." (Keel, p. 685, referring to Mader, p. 121, note 2.)

A British officer wandered, nonetheless, into one of the chambers in 1917 and smoked a pipe, only realizing some years later where he had been. After him, the next intruder was a 12-year-old girl named Michal. Soon after the 1967 War, Israeli general Moshe Dayan lowered her through a narrow shaft (No. 8 in Vincent's drawing). She traced the route of the Crusader monks in the reverse direction.

Summarizing remarks by archaeologists Shmuel Yeivin, Avi Ofer and Yitzhak Magen concerning the cave, Detlef Jericke (p. 18) writes: "According to the latest information, we should probably date the burial places to the Middle Bronze Age and the end of the Iron Age. Burial places from these periods were also found in the Hebron area and on Mount Rumeida [to which Tell Hebron belongs]."