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The Tomb of Our Father Abraham

The evolution of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, site of the tomb of Abraham.

A decade ago I took my wife and five children on a family pilgrimage to the Holy Land and, in the course of it, we visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron. I remember remarking, “We are standing in a synagogue that is part of a mosque that was built as a church in the 12th century, using walls put up by Herod the Great.”

I do not know any other spot on earth that gives one a greater sense of confusion. Jews, Christians and Muslims all look upon Abraham as their father. For 13 centuries the site of his burial has functioned as a place of prayer for the three monotheistic faiths. Each has left behind an architectural legacy.

The Book of Genesis portrays Abraham as a nomad who camped with his flocks on the edge of Canaanite cities. When Sarah, Abraham’s wife, died, Abraham bought a burial cave near the hill town of Hebron, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem:

“Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.” (Gen. 23:19) Later he was buried in the same cave, as were his son Isaac and Isaac’s wife Rebekah, and his grandson Jacob and Jacob’s wife Leah. It was customary for several generations of a family to be interred in the same complex.

Abraham’s burial cave lay amidst other caves in a graveyard dating to around 2000 B.C. The Book of Jubilees, a Jewish work written in the second century B.C., indicates that some son of monument marked the tombs of Abraham and his family. A decade or two before the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great transformed the shrine. Just as he enhanced the temple in Jerusalem by enclosing its site with magnificent walls, so Herod erected walls around the Tomb of the Patriarchs, using the same elaborate stonework. His walls of embossed limestone, six to eight feet thick and up to 60 feet high, enclose a 197-by-111-foot area. The largest stones are 24 feet long and weigh more than 50 tons, an impressive feat of engineering.

Herod had a stone pavement laid inside the enclosure, covering the cave of Abraham, Cenotaphs (memorial tombs) were erected on this pavement for the three patriarchs and their wives. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus described the cenotaphs as being “of really fine marble and of exquisite workmanship.”

Unlike the temple in Jerusalem, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron survived the Roman Jewish wars of the first and second centuries. It remained a Jewish holy site well into the Byzantine era. A Christian pilgrim visited the shrine in 333 A.D. and mentioned the enclosure walls and marble cenotaphs in his diary.

Eventually Christians appropriated the site: Was not Abraham their father in faith? By the sixth century a Byzantine basilica had been built within the enclosure. Christian primacy in Hebron continued for another 200 years, until the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land in the seventh century. Muslims esteemed the tomb no less than Jews and Christians, considering themselves descendants of Abraham through his son Ishmael who, together with Isaac, buried Abraham. It was therefore natural that Muslims would want to pray at his tomb. They converted the church into a mosque, naming it after Abraham. Muslim veneration of Abraham also provided the Arabic name for Hebron: “El Khalil,” or “the Friend,” for the Qur’an cites the biblical reference to Abraham as the friend of God.

Crusaders wrested control of the Holy Land from Muslims at the end of the 11th century and, a few decades later, they rebuilt the Byzantine church-turned-mosque over the tomb of Abraham. The Crusaders, in fashioning a late Romanesque church, used Herod’s stonework for its walls. Massive pillars built around earlier columns supported a complex system of groin vaults. The roof of the church thus spanned walls that were 1,000 years older. To this day, this building stands intact, another millennium later, over a tomb dating back four millennia.

The Crusaders enjoyed a brief era of control of the Holy Land; the Muslim leader Saladin overwhelmed a Crusader army in 1187 and took control of the shrine. Saladin turned the church into a mosque, carving a mihrab (niche) into the south wall to indicate the direction of Mecca, and flanking it with an ornate minbar (pulpit). He added minarets at the four corners of the Herodian enclosure; two of them still stand. At various points during the Islamic era the cenotaphs were rebuilt. The cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebekah are faced with alternating rows of red and white stonework, a distinguishing feature of the Mamluk dynasty, who ruled the area from the mid-13th to the 16th centuries.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs remained under Muslim control until Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. Since then, areas have been set aside for Jewish prayer. The Crusader church, containing the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebekah, remains a mosque, with times reserved for Muslim prayer.

Thus Jews, Christians and Muslims have each taken their turns as custodians of the shrine – whoever controlled the area controlled the tomb.

There have been eras of tolerance when the site has been open to all faiths. A pilgrim who visited the site around 565 A.D. noted that Christians entered the church from one side and Jews from the other, “burning much frankincense.” A century later the tomb had come under Muslim control, but Bishop Arculf from Gaul was able to visit it during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, only 14 miles away, the south transept of the Church of the Nativity was made available to Muslims for prayer from the seventh through the 10th centuries. Both Jews and Christians were allowed to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs during Saladin’s rule.

But there have been eras of intolerance as well. Crusaders forbade “infidels,” or non-Christians, from entering the site. (However, at least one Jewish pilgrim did so: Benjamin of Tudela in 1170.) After the 14th century, Muslim authorities prohibited entry to non-Muslims. Jews and Christians could only gaze into the darkness of Abraham’s burial cave through a small hole in Herod’s walls. In 1929, 67 Jews were killed in Hebron during Arab riots, and the rest of the Jewish community fled.

After Israelis took control of the site in 1967, they removed the steps leading to their previous viewing hole to erase memory of the centuries when they had been excluded from the site. And they did open the site to everyone, as I had found on previous visits.

Today, however, there is an uneasy peace between the estimated 100,000 Muslims of Hebron and about 400 Jewish settlers who have moved into Hebron. Occasionally violence from both sides has left people injured or dead. In 1994, one of the settlers shot into the mosque over the tomb of Abraham during a Muslim time of prayer, killing 29 people.

Even though I consider the Tomb of the Patriarchs to be one of the most fascinating sites in the Holy Land, I had not visited it since 1986 – the city always seemed on the brink of violence. Returning 10 years later, I was interested in seeing whether any kind of accommodation had been worked out that would allow Jews, Muslims and Christians free access to the site. I found that whether one has access depends on who one is, when one comes, and where one wants to go.

I was stopped at a military checkpoint at the entrance to the site and my passport was examined. The two Palestinians who accompanied me were not allowed entrance into the Jewish section of the site, even though they were Christians and, as Pontifical Mission employees, carried laissez-passer documents from the Holy See. Access to the Jewish section is apparently restricted to Jews and foreign tourists.

A sign on the other side of the checkpoint announced the visiting hours: “Sunday through Thursday from 8:00 to 4:00.” Tourists are not allowed on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, nor on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. There was a final warning: “Visiting hours are under the jurisdiction [sic] of the commanding officer – as such may be changed according to any activity in the site.” Even though the Israeli army has pulled out of most of Hebron – as prescribed by the Oslo accords – they remain in control of the shrine.

A second sign advised, “Attention! All entering on the Sabbath! All metal objects must be removed from your person before entering the electronic gates so as to prevent the desecration of the Sabbath, which may be caused by the metal detector.” For strictly Orthodox Jews, tripping an electrical circuit is akin to lighting a fire, a work forbidden on the Sabbath.

It was not the Sabbath and I did trip electrical circuits as I entered, for I had to pass through two metal detectors; Israeli soldiers searched my camera bag each time. Then I was able to enter the section of the enclosure set aside for Jews. It had formerly been the atrium in front of the Crusader church, and it contained the cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah. In the 13th century, the Mamluks, the great tomb-builders of the Middle East, erected small octagonal and hexagonal shrines to shelter these cenotaphs; now the spaces between them are used as synagogues. I found Jewish men and women at prayer, under the watch of soldiers.

During my last visit in 1986 there had been free passage between the Jewish and Muslim sections of the site, but such passage is blocked today. To enter the mosque I had to retrace my steps and go back outside, triggering the metal detectors again as I went. Then I had to go in through an entrance for Arabs; my two Palestinian Christian companions could now accompany me. There were two more metal detectors and two more searches, and I began to wish I had not brought a camera bag with so many pockets.

The mosque is the Crusader church building – a fine example of late Romanesque architecture. It contains the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebekah. It also contains a hole in the floor, less than a foot in diameter that leads down into the burial chambers beneath Herod’s pavement. After the Israeli army took Hebron in 1967, General Moshe Dayan had an extremely thin 12-year-old girl named Michal lowered through the hole to take photographs. The burial chambers have never been adequately explored; religious sensibilities and political tensions make archaeological study imprudent. If the bones of Abraham lie in this underground chamber, they are best left undisturbed.

The northwest wall of the mosque is adjacent to the cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah. Muslims view these cenotaphs through grills. Thus Jews pray on one side of the cenotaph of their father Abraham and Muslims on the other side, but out of sight of one another. It is only foreign Christians like myself who have access to both sides, visiting hours and metal detectors permitting.

Foreign visitors are about the only Christians in Hebron these days; there is virtually no permanent Christian presence. Relations between the 400 Jewish settlers living in the heart of Hebron and the more than 100,000 Muslim Arabs who surround them are strained. I find the situation tragic. If there is any holy place that is a candidate for shared Jewish, Christian and Muslim veneration, it is the Tomb of the Patriarchs. If there is any site where one could hope to see the three families of Abraham praying together, elbow to elbow, it is this shrine. Ironically, however, the tomb is a place of contention and division rather than a point of unity.

Yet the long and complex history of this site gives one reason for hope. It has had its eras of peaceful sharing as well as its years of strife. Its remarkable transformation over the last 2,000 years teaches that nothing is unimaginable, no hope impossible.

George Martin, a regular contributor to this publication, travels often to the Holy Land.

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