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Written by Stephen Langfur
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Seeking Mamre
Tombs of Patriarchs
Byzantine Mamre

Byzantine Mamre

In Genesis 23: 17-20, Mamre serves as the reference point for locating the cave where Abraham buried Sarah. The cave is "before Mamre" (literally, "in front of Mamre"), which in Biblical parlance means "east of Mamre." This cave became the burial place of the other patriarchs and matriarchs, except Rachel.

Herod built a magnificent temenos over a cave in the Hebron of his day, presumably to honor the graves.  Those who advised him in this enterprise, if they consulted the Bible, would have located Mamre in the vicinity.

Strangely, though, a place not in the vicinity, rather two miles north of ancient Hebron, became the "Mamre" of the Byzantines. Before that it seems to have been called Terebinthus, after a great tree that grew there. Exploring the site in the late 1920's, A.E. Mader discovered a temenos. He identified parts of it as Herodian but dated others to Hadrian. Sixty years later, Itzhak Magen uncovered the outer portion of its northern and eastern walls, finding pilasters similar in design with those found in the rubble by the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and those found complete at Hebron. Disagreeing with Mader, Magen concluded that the entire enclosure was Herodian and that it had been finished. He held, moreover, that it was the site's oldest structure. (Mader had dated two constructions to Iron II, but on the basis of pottery found beneath them, Magen redated them as post-Byzantine.)

Whether the enclosure is partly or entirely Herodian, what would Herod have been commemorating? Scholars assume that it was Mamre, because in the 4th century AD Byzantine authors, builders and pilgrims explicitly identified Mamre here. This doesn't make sense though. For again: Genesis insists that the burial cave was "before Mamre" - east of Mamre - and the burial cave was beneath Herod's temenos in Hebron.

In terms of archaeology, the oldest possibility that we have for Mamre is Khirbet Nimra, the Ruin of Nimra, one kilometer north of ancient Hebron. (The burial cave lies southeast of it.) The name "Nimra" may be derived from "Mamre." This was perhaps the place that Herod's people knew as Mamre when they built the temenos over the burial cave in Hebron. More on Nimra...

mamre__haram_s_wall3.jpgNo one doubts that it was Herod who built the magnificent structure over the cave in Hebron. Would he have recognized and honored Mamre two miles to the north of it, despite the Biblical text? Unlikely. What then would Herod and friends have been commemorating here? There is no definitive answer, but the site is very strange. There are elements that are undoubtedly Herodian and others that seem quite different.

Consider the southern wall:

First, the stones are large. Herod was the only ruler in this land, as far as we know, who built with massive stones. The biggest in this wall (indeed, in the entire remaining structure) is 15 feet long and 3.7 feet high. That is not nearly as big as in Hebron or Jerusalem, but one can explain the difference. In Hebron and Jerusalem, Herod was contending with steep hills. He had to build high in order to achieve a level platform inside, so he needed massive stones for strength in the lower courses at the corners. Here, in contrast, the slope is slight. (Magen, p. 51)

The stones get larger as they go higher (a unique feature). This adds to the monumental impression, despite the wall's relative lowness. Aesthetically, however, such an arrangement would not make sense if the wall was intended to support pilasters, as Magen believes. It would have appeared to be bellying out.

The most obvious problem, however, is the lack of the typical Herodian margins, which in Jerusalem and Hebron enable the viewer to distinguish the stones and marvel at their size.

Magen explains the lack of margins by noting that this particular limestone is full of sea fossils, which would have made it hard to cut neat, straight lines. He did find one "fossily" example with margins, but the lines were not neat. He thinks the stones were quarried nearby.

There are problems with this explanation, however.. First, there are non-fossily stones with margins in the north and east walls. Herod was not the type to mix stones and styles in a single structure. There is good normal limestone in the area. The stones needed here would not have been so big as to preclude transportation.

Herodian design at Hebron

Second, in the north and east walls there were pilasters, beginning at a level flush with the inside floor. (They also began at the inside floor level in Hebron and Jerusalem.) Some had slanting stones, joining the flat lower section with the insets between the pilasters, while others did not. 

Mamre: slanting stone

mamre diagram-600.jpg

mamre-flush.jpgIn the above diagram, we note further evidence of different  building phases. On the inside of the enclosure, in the southeast corner, Magen found traces of a water system, including a wall with stones like those in the foundations of the Jerusalem Temple. This water system was evidently superseded by the well in the southwest corner. (The latter is 22 feet deep. Even today, when emptied it refills. The combination of well, tree and altar was typical of open-air sanctuaries in the Ancient Near East. Keel, pp. 188-90.)

Near this well, the insides of the temenos walls were built with recesses to increase the space around it. The well, then, preceded the walls. We have the following sequence:

1. Water system in SE corner, replaced by...
2. Well in SW corner.
3. The south and west walls.

The top levels of the south and west walls are even. In the west wall, at the right, is the main entrance. The floor, says Magen, would have been flush with its threshold.

mamre__haram_ramet-gate4.jpgWhat story can we tell to make sense of all this? Someone started building the northern and eastern walls in Herodian style, although inconsistently (sometimes making slants between pilasters, sometimes not). Perhaps he used surplus pieces from the building of the Hebron temenos. This first phase included a water system at the southeast corner. Then the well was dug in the southwest corner. Then someone completed the enclosure on the south and west with a different, fossil-filled limestone. (He incorporated, by the way, unused pieces of a gate in the western wall.) It is unclear whether he completed the pavement as planned.

There is no evidence that anyone called the site Mamre in the Roman period. The Jerusalem Talmud (IV/7,19) mentions a great fair held at a place called Botnah, which means terebinth. It was the biggest fair in the land, said the Rabbis, bigger than the ones at Acco and Gaza. They advised Jews not to attend, because idolatrous practices were rampant. This was probably the same place that Byzantine writers called Terebinthus, where a great tree stood and where an annual pagan fair was held in the summer. They are the first, apparently, to use the name Mamre as an alternative for Terebinthus. The tree would have attracted them, for reasons we shall see.

We have a detailed description of the fair from Sozomen of Gaza. Writing in the 5th century, he describes the pagan activities, which were accompanied by "hilarity." The Emperor Constantine forbade them, he tells us, and ordered that a church be built on the spot. Sozomen begins in the present tense but shifts to the past, so it is unclear whether, despite the decree, the hilarity continued.

I consider it necessary to detail the proceedings of Constantine in relation to what is called the oak of Mature [sic]. This place is now called Terebinthus, and is about fifteen stadia distant from Hebron, which lies to the south, but is two hundred and fifty stadia distant from Jerusalem. It is recorded that here the Son of God appeared to Abraham, with two angels, who had been sent against Sodom, and foretold the birth of his son. Here the inhabitants of the country and of the regions round Palestine the Phoenicians, and the Arabians, assemble annually during the summer season to keep a brilliant feast; and many others, both buyers and sellers, resort thither on account of the fair. Indeed, this feast is diligently frequented by all nations: by the Jews, because they boast of their descent from the patriarch Abraham; by the Pagans, because angels there appeared to men; and by Christians, because He who for the salvation of mankind was born of a virgin, afterwards manifested Himself there to a godly man. This place was moreover honored fittingly with religious exercises. Here some prayed to the God of all; some called upon the angels, poured out wine, burnt incense, or offered an ox, or he-goat, a sheep, or a cock. Each one made some beautiful product of his labor, and after carefully husbanding it through the entire year, he offered it according to promise as provision for that feast, both for himself and his dependents. And either from honor to the place, or from fear of Divine wrath, they all abstained from coming near their wives, although during the feast these were more than ordinarily studious of their beauty and adornment. Nor, if they chanced to appear and to take part in the public processions, did they act at all licentiously. Nor did they behave imprudently in any other respect, although the tents were contiguous to each other, and they all lay promiscuously together. The place is open country, and arable, and without houses, with the exception of the buildings around Abraham's old oak and the well he prepared. No one during the time of the feast drew water from that well; for according to Pagan usage, some placed burning lamps near it; some poured out wine, or cast in cakes; and others, coins, myrrh, or incense. Hence, as I suppose, the water was rendered useless by commixture with the things cast into it. Once whilst these customs were being celebrated by the Pagans, after the aforesaid manner, and as was the established usage with hilarity, the mother-in-law of Constantine was present for prayer, and apprised the emperor of what was being done... [Sozomen, Book II, Chapter IV]

The sediment of the well yielded up, in fact, more than a thousand coins (mostly from the time of Constantine), as well as pottery and lamps.

The sacrificial altar was probably in the middle, where a black segment appears in the diagram above. Here were found metal bells, rings, earrings, pieces of crystal, animal bones and a great many rooster feet. The rooster was holy to Hermes-Mercury, who was not only the messenger but also the god of commerce. An inscription honoring him turned up as well. (Keel, p. 713.)

Elsewhere in the enclosure, a smashed (!) head of Dionysus-Bacchus was found. This is significant, for one may well ask, Why should the biggest annual fair in the country - bigger than those in Acco or Gaza - be here, off the beaten track of antiquity? The answer may be "Wine!", for which this area was so famous. The only comfortable road from the west, through the straight Wadi Kof, led directly up to this site, which was cooler than the lowlands in summer. So this would have been the natural place for an annual drinking party.

The road up Wadi Kof, in fact, connected the Shephelah with this part of the mountain range. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, both these areas were mainly inhabited by Edomites (Idumeans). This fact heightens the possible significance of one small find: a stone altar containing the name Cos, inscribed in Greek. Cos was the chief Edomite god. Here, perhaps, we have a clue to the enclosure's original function. Already in the Hellenistic period, there may have been a tree cult here that the Edomites associated with their god. After the Hasmoneans annexed the area, most Edomites converted to Judaism, but they retained their ethnic identity and their desire for independence. For example, Herod, himself an Edomite, had an Edomite brother-in-law named Costobar (a name formed from that of the god). We read in Josephus' (Antiquities XV 7, 9):

Costobarus was an Idumean by birth, and one of principal dignity among them, and one whose ancestors had been priests to the Koze, whom the Idumeans had esteemed as a god; but after Hyrcanus had made a change in their political government, and made them receive the Jewish customs and law, Herod made Costobarus governor of Idumea and Gaza, and gave him his sister Salome to wife; ... When Costobarus had gotten to be so highly advanced, it pleased him and was more than he hoped for, and he was more and more puffed up by his good success, and in a little while he exceeded all bounds, and did not think fit to obey what Herod, as their ruler, commanded him, or that the Idumeans should make use of the Jewish customs, or be subject to them.

Josephus goes on to list Costobar's treasons, for which Herod executed him. It is tempting to think that the inconsistent pattern we have seen in the building of the enclosure, and the premature termination of the Herodian phase, may reflect the ups and downs of Herod's relations with his fellow Edomites. One can invent hypotheses. For example (following a suggestion by Magen 54-55), perhaps, in order better to integrate the Edomites with the rest of the Jewish people, Herod decided to ignore the problem of the distance and to turn their sacred tree into an Abraham shrine. Abraham and Sarah, after all, were ancestors of the Edomites, as was the son God had promised them under the tree. (If it was Herod who connected the site to Abraham, the tree may have been the one mentioned by Josephus, although the distance he gives is off by more than a mile.)

To complete this survey of the site in the Roman period: Jerome, relying on a Roman source, reports that after quelling the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 AD, Hadrian led a multitude of Jewish captives to the market at Terebinthus (which Jerome also calls Mamre) and there sold them as slaves (In Zachariam 111, 11, 4-5).

The site in the Byzantine period

Where Mamre was concerned, the Byzantines would have been more interested in the tree of Genesis 18 than in the burial cave of Genesis 23. For at this tree the Holy Trinity had appeared to Abraham. The terebinth at our site was probably the only grand tree in the Hebron area during the early 4th century, when the first Christian pilgrims arrived. It had already reached its apogee and was dead by 361. In translating into Latin (ca. 390 AD) the Onomasticon of Eusebius (ca. 330 AD) and inserting his comments (here in square brackets), Jerome remarked:  "Mamre near Hebron, where there is a [very old and of many years] terebinth even now [up to the time of my childhood and the reign of Emperor Constantine] pointed out" (Onomasticon, Section D, under Drus. In Jerome's childhood the emperor was Constantius II, son of Constantine, who ruled until 361 AD).

As far as the evidence goes, the site was first identified as Mamre in the 320's. Constantine's mother-in-law, Eutropia, attended the annual fair. She wrote home complaining about the pagan practices she had witnessed. Eusebius, in his Life of Constantine (Chapters 51-53), reports  the response of the Emperor:

But having heard that the self-same Saviour who a while ago had appeared on earth had in ages long since past afforded a manifestation of his Divine presence to holy men of Palestine near the oak of Mamre, he ordered that a house of prayer should be built there also in honor of the God who had thus appeared.

Constantine wrote his bishops in Palestine:

"She assures me, then, that the place which takes its name from the oak of Mamre, where we find that Abraham dwelt, is defiled by certain of the slaves of superstition in every possible way. She declares that idols which should be utterly destroyed have been erected on the site of that tree; that an altar is near the spot; and that impure sacrifices are continually performed."

He ordered that the altar be demolished and that a church be built. Soon after these orders were carried out, the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux (333 AD) passed by:

From thence to Bethasora [Beth Zur], 14 miles. There is the fountain in which Philip baptized the eunuch. Thence to the Terebinthus, 8 miles. Here Abraham dwelt, and dug a well under a terebinth tree, and spoke with angels, and ate food with them. Here a basilica of wondrous beauty has been built by the command of Constantine. From Terebinthus to Hebron, 2 miles. Here is a monument of square form built of stone of wondrous beauty, in which lie Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca, and Leah.

(At last someone mentions the Hebron temenos!)

The outlines of Constantine's church can be seen today (although J. Wilkinson thinks they are Crusader). While it occupied the width of the temenos (48.5 meters), it was remarkably short in length (20 meters). The reason, perhaps, was to avoid interfering with the tree.

Were the Byzantines troubled by the two miles separating their Mamre from the burial cave in Hebron? Apparently not, for they built a church into the Hebron temenos too. With a huge empire at their disposal, and accustomed to travel great distances, two miles may have seemed a trifle to them. For here, after all, they had a grand tree.