CAVE OF THE PATRIARCHS IN HEBRON (MEARAT HAMACHPELAH)

 

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron

 

CAVE OF THE PATRIARCHS IN HEBRON

 

After the Temple Mount and the Western Wall complex, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron is recognized as the second holiest site in Judaism. According to tradition, this is the plot of land that Abraham our father purchased from Ephron the Hittite to bury our mother Sarah (Genesis 23), and it is also where the other fathers and mothers - Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah were later buried.  Rachel, who was buried in Bethlehem, is the only exception.

The site is also significant to Muslims, and much of the compound has been used as an active mosque since the Arab colonization of Israel began some 1400 years ago.

 

The large structure that today borders the cave area is a building from the Herodian period, with a stonemason reminiscent of the Western Wall, and was erected even before the Western Wall. This is the country's oldest building, standing for over two thousand years and serving as a holy place throughout the periods - a church during the Byzantine and Crusader periods, and a mosque during the Muslim periods. The cave itself is located beneath the building, and access to it was restricted to visitors during the reign of the Mamluk Sultan Beavers (circa 1265 AD). Non-Muslims were also barred from entering the cave compound, and Jewish worshipers were forced to settle for seventh-degree prayer on the cave structure's southeastern outer wall - until the site was liberated during the Six-Day War. The cave structure was also renovated during the Beavers period, and wings were added, including the Giulia Mosque adjacent to and north of the cave structure, the two mosques Spiers and the "Josephine" complex adjacent to and south of the cave structure, and several openings in the building wall.

 

 In recent generations, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Jewish settlement in Hebron has become a source of contention. The ancient community was liquidated after a brutal massacre of Hebron's Jews in 1929 and attempts to re-establish settlement were futile. Despite strong opposition from the city's Arabs and numerous terrorist attacks, the Jewish settlement in Hebron was gradually re-established after much pressure.

 

Another serious incident that still affects visitors to the Cave of the Patriarchs is the massacre committed in February 1994 by Baruch Goldstein, a Kiryat Arba resident, who shot dead 30 Muslim worshipers in the cave before being killed in self-defense. Following the massacre, a commission of inquiry was formed, which recommended the complete separation of Jews and Muslims in the cave complex, which is still in effect today.

 

 

HOW TO GET TO THE CAVE OF THE PATRIARCHS?

 

Cave Of Machpelah Tomb Of The Patriarchs

 

The Cave of the Patriarchs is situated in the heart of Hebron, in an area subject to Israeli civilian and security control under the Hebron Agreement (1997) - Area H2.

Those who are not locals are advised to take bus lines 381 or 383 from Jerusalem to reach the cave. Following the Cave of the Patriarchs, the line leads to Beit Romano (Yeshivat Shavei Hebron), from which you can walk to Beit Hadassah and Tel Hebron (Tel Rumida). These are also interesting sites for visitors, but if you are unfamiliar with the area, it is best to visit them as part of a guided tour rather than walking around on your own.

 

ABOUT THE CAVE OF THE PATRIARCHS

 

The Cave of the Patriarchs

 

The 'Seventh Step Place' is located on the eastern wall, outside the building. Jews have been forbidden to pray in caves since the days of the Beavers, and the seventh step was the closest place to a cave where Jewish prayer was permitted. Rehavam Zeevi, the late Minister of Tourism, is said to have visited here as a child (before the establishment of the state) and disregarded the prohibition on going beyond the seventh degree. On the spot, he was slapped hard by one of the Waqf men. Later, after becoming commander-in-chief of the Central Command following the Six-Day War, and following an attack in which he was attacked with praying grenades in a cave, Zeevi ordered in 1969 to destroy the staircase that had become a symbol of exile and destruction. The seventh step thus no longer exists, but the site was consecrated after centuries, and one can see people praying and even notes on the wall, as at the Western Wall.

 

An ancient quarry on the cave structure's southern wall allows us to see the true height of the surface above which the cave structure was founded. It is worth noting that the structure's foundations were not hewn into the rock, but rather were found on the original rock layer.

We'll go through security and then ascend a staircase to the cave structure.

As you ascend the stairs, keep an eye out for the firing slits on the western outer wall. These are the ruins of a Crusader fortress built next to the cave structure during the Crusader period.

 

We'll now enter the building. We begin by entering a late Muslim addition that houses the "Kollel." The second room you enter is already a part of the ancient cave structure, and it houses a synagogue with a partition separating men and women (except for this part, most days of the year there is no separation and you can wander relatively freely in the part open to Jews).

 

We make a right here. Near the end of the room, to our right, is a barred and inaccessible room with a tombstone known in Arabic as "Yosefia." This tombstone honors Yosef ben Yaakov, who according to Muslim tradition was buried in a cave. According to Jewish tradition, Yosef's tomb can be found on the outskirts of Nablus. Thus, Jewish tradition holds that the head of Esau, my brother Jacob, was buried in the cave. According to legend, when our ancestor Jacob died, his sons wanted to bury him in the Cave of the Patriarchs, but Esau objected, claiming that he owned the cave. Before him, Jacob's sons claimed that he sold his birthright to Jacob, but Esau claimed that he did not sell his rights in the cave. As a result, the brothers decided to send one of them to Egypt to bring the ownership deed to the cave. Who will they send the message to? Shekel is like a doe, Naftali. Meanwhile, Jacob's body was not taken to be buried. Hushim, Dan ben Yaakov's only son, who was deaf and thus unable to participate in the negotiations, died there. Hushim inquired as to how long his grandfather's body would be disgraced and not brought for Jacob's burial.

 

The story is lovely, but it is clear that the "Josephine" complex is a late medieval addition that was not part of the original structure of the Cave of the Patriarchs. The construction of this compound as part of the Mamluks' changes to the compound was intended to block the original entrance to the Cave of the Patriarchs itself.

From here, we'll make our way to the inner courtyard. The large structure we're in was built without a roof from the beginning, and the roofs we have now are relatively new additions.

 

The Avraham Hall is located on the right side of the inner courtyard and contains two tombstones for our ancestors Abraham and our mother Sarah. It should be noted that the fathers and mothers were buried beneath the cave's structure, and the prevailing belief is that the tombstones indicate the location of the tombs in the underground cave. The arrangement of the tombstones in the cave, which places Avraham and Sarah in the compound's center, is most likely ancient and has been documented in ancient sources.

 

Today, access to the tombstones is not possible (side rooms with a massive iron lattice). The only tombstones that can be accessed without partitioning are those of Isaac and Rebecca, which are in the hall of Isaac, and Jews can only visit them ten days a year. It should be noted that each tombstone has a different style of Muslim curtain, and the halls have painted ceilings in a variety of colors.

Jacob's Hall is on the other side of the inner courtyard, and there are tombstones for our father Jacob and our mother Leah in the side rooms that branch off from it.

 

To the right of Yaakov Hall, an ancient sundial is engraved on the courtyard wall.

The closed entrance to Yitzhak Hall is located to the north of Avraham Hall. This hall, which is considered magnificent in the cave halls, is closed to Jewish visitors most of the year. There are tombstones in memory of our father, Isaac, and our mother, Rebecca, in this hall, as well as a magnificent wooden prayer platform (Minbar), used by the Muslim preacher in the compound. This stage combines geometric and floral motifs, and it was built in 1091-1092 AD by Caliph Muntzar Allah Ibn Tamim, according to an inscription found on it. Habima was intended for the mosque in Ashkelon, where Hussein Ben Ali's head was buried. With the Crusaders' destruction of Ashkelon, the minbar was relocated to Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs.

 

Above the Cave of the Patriarchs is a narrow opening on the western side of the hall (and it is often difficult to photograph it due to the presence of worshipers in its vicinity). Another opening was sealed in concrete around 30 years ago after members of Hebron's Jewish community managed to penetrate and reach the cave itself, where ancient tombs and pottery vessels dating back thousands of years were discovered.

 

Archaeologists led by Zeev Yabin recently examined the inner cave in 1986, and an ancient burial cave similar to other caves in the area was discovered.

On days when Yitzhak Hall is open for visitors, you can exit north to the Giulia Mosque, which was also a late addition to the cave complex and now serves as the main mosque. You can exit north to the alley on the cave structure's northwestern wall. We'll notice an ancient drinking water facility - passive in the wall in front of the cave - as we walk down this alley. There are now modern faucets at the base of this facility. Another short walk will take us to the "Tomb of Avner Ben-Ner" complex, which is located near the cave complex's western corner. According to Jewish tradition, Avner Ben-Ner, the minister of King Saul's army, was killed by Yoav ben-Tzruya in retaliation for the death of his brother Asael, who is buried in this compound. Avner Ben-Ner was buried in Hebron at a "state funeral" attended by King David, who eulogized Avner Ben-Ner. This complex is also only open to Jewish visitors on the 10 days a year when the Cave of the Patriarchs is only open to Jews.

 

It is worthwhile to visit the site when it is completely open to Jews (including Yitzhak Hall). However, there is a significant visitor load these days (especially on Sukkot and Pesach), so you should arrive early or even visit the place twice - once on a normal day to get an impression of the complex without unusual visitor load, and once on a day when Yitzhak Hall is open while being aware that traffic congestion is expected at the site. 

SERVICES FOR TRAVELERS TO THE PATHRIARCHS' CAVE

 

There are public restrooms along the road (outside the cave building), as well as a souvenir shop, lawn, and shaded areas.

The cave is open daily from 4:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (during daylight saving time, the cave is open until 22:00).

 

Comments and warnings:

 

Since 1994, the compound has been divided into Jewish and Muslim worshipers, with partitions preventing contact between the two groups. In this framework, 10 days per year are allotted to each religion, during which the entire cave is only accessible to members of the same religion (10 days in which the entire cave is open to Jews only and 10 days in which the entire cave is open to Muslims only). During the rest of the year, Jews are not permitted to enter the Muslim area, which includes the Yitzhak Hall and the Julia Mosque.

 

This is a sacred site, and visitors are expected to behave appropriately (modest dress, etc.).


You should not use navigation software to get to this location because some of the roads in the area lead to the Palestinian Authority.
It is possible to coordinate the use of the staircase to ascend to the cave complex for the disabled and people with limited mobility.

 

 

VISIT THE PATRIARCHS CAVE IN HEBRON TODAY