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Hebron: Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Ma’arat HaMachpelah)

The Cave of Machpelah in Hebron is the world’s most ancient Jewish site and the second holiest place for the Jewish people, after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The cave and the adjoining field were purchased—at full market price—by Abraham some 3700 years ago. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are all later buried in the same Cave of Machpelah. These are considered the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. The only one who is missing is Rachel, who was buried near Bethlehem where she died in childbirth.

The double cave, a mystery of thousands of years, was uncovered several years ago beneath the massive building, revealing artifacts from the Early Israelite Period (some 30 centuries ago). The structure was built during the Second Temple Period (about two thousand years ago) by Herod, King of Judea, providing a place for gatherings and Jewish prayers at the graves of the patriarchs.

This uniquely impressive building is the only one that stands intact and still fulfills its original function after thousands of years. Foreign conquerors and invaders used the site for their own purposes, depending on their religious orientation: the Byzantines and Crusaders transformed it into a church and the Muslims rendered it a mosque. About 700 years ago, the Muslim Mamelukes conquered Hebron, declared the structure a mosque, and forbade entry to Jews, who were not allowed past the seventh step on a staircase outside the building.

In the Ottoman period, the town was divided into four courters: The Ancient Quarter (Harat al-Kadim) near the Cave of Machpelah; to its south, the Quarter of the Silk Merchant (Harat al-Kazaz), inhabited by Jews; the Mamluk-era Sheikh's Quarter (Harat ash Sheikh) to the north-west; and further north, the Dense Quarter (Harat al-Harbah). From 1874, the Hebron district was part of the Sanjak of Jerusalem and was administered directly from Istanbul.

The British occupied Hebron on December 8, 1917, and became part of the Palestine Mandate. During that time, the Cave of the Patriarchs continued to remain officially closed to non-Muslims. In 1929, the Mufti of Jerusalem instigated riots that spread to Hebron where 67 Jews were massacred on August 23, 1929.

Some Hebron Arabs, including Ahmad Rashid al-Hirbawi, president of the Hebron Chamber of Commerce, supported the return of Jews after the massacre. Two years later, 35 families moved back into the ruins of the Jewish quarter, but on the eve of the Arab revolt (April 23, 1936) the British Government decided to move the Jewish community out of Hebron as a precautionary measure to secure its safety. The sole exception was the 8th generation Hebronite Ya’akov ben Shalom Ezra, who processed dairy products in the city, blended in well with its social landscape, and resided there under the protection of friends. In November 1947, in anticipation of the UN partition vote, the Ezra family closed its shop and left the city.

Tomb of Abraham

After Jordan occupied the West Bank in 1948, no Jews were allowed in the territory and consequently, none could visit the tomb. Upon the liberation of Hebron in 1967, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, the late Major-General Rabbi Shlomo Goren, was the first Jew to enter the Cave of Machpelah. Since then, Jews have been struggling to regain their prayer rights at the site, still run by the Muslim Waqf (Religious Trust) which took control during the Arab conquest.

Because Abraham is also revered in Islam as the father of Ishmael, the tomb is holy to Muslims who refer to it as the Sanctuary of Abraham and converted a Byzantine basilica built on the site into the Ibrahimi Mosque. Muslims believe that Muhammed visited Hebron on his nocturnal journey from Mecca to Jerusalem to stop by the tomb and pay his respects. The tomb subsequently became an Islamic pilgrimage site. It was said that Muhammad himself encouraged the activity, saying “He who cannot visit me, let him visit the Tomb of Abraham” and “He who visits the Tomb of Abraham, Allah abolishes his sins.”

In 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi Mosque and opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 90. Goldstein was killed by the enraged worshippers. Security was subsequently enhanced at the site.

Many restrictions are imposed on Jewish prayers and customs at the Tomb of the Patriarchs despite the site’s significance, primacy, and sanctity in Jewish heritage and history. Nevertheless, more than 300,000 people visit Ma’arat HaMachpelah in a normal year. The structure is divided into three rooms: Ohel Avraham, Ohel Yitzhak, and Ohel Ya’akov. Presently Jews have no access to Ohel Yitzhak, the largest room, with the exception of 10 days a year.

While Jews from around the world come to visit, it is one of the few tourist sites that is not wheelchair accessible. Visitors have to climb about 30 steps between the street and the entrance to the tomb. After entering the building, another 60 steps lead to the prayer area.

Elimelech Karzen, one of the managers of the tomb said, “We have people who come in wheelchairs, people who can’t walk, pregnant women, old people that want to visit Ma’arat HaMachpelah.” He added, “Even regular people who are tired. They don’t want to climb 60 or 100 stairs. People need elevators. It’s 2023. Each time to go up and down, it’s very difficult.”

Israel wanted to correct this anomaly by installing an elevator, but the Palestinians fought the idea even though it would enable Palestinians in wheelchairs to visit the Ibrahimi Mosque (as Muslims refer to the Machpelah). They also rejected Israel’s offer to build a second elevator on the Muslim side of the site where there are fewer stairs and petitioned the High Court of Justice to stop the project claiming an elevator would damage the site’s archaeological and architectural significance, and that Israel illegally expropriated land for it.

The Court rejected their arguments. “We have not lost sight of the sensitivity along with the political and religious complexities associated with the Tomb of the Patriarchs complex,” the court said. “However, even the appellants acknowledged the need to make the site [wheelchair] accessible. Therefore, it is regrettable that this humanitarian issue has also become a political one and a source of controversy.”

After a decades-long fight, Israel opened an elevator for the disabled at the site on June 1, 2023. 

Hebron is a tense city where about 700 Jews live among more than 200,000 Palestinians. The Hebron Protocol of 1997 divided the city into two sectors: H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city, including 35,000 Palestinians, under Israeli military administration.

Sources: Jewish Community of Hebron.
“Hebron,” Wikipedia.
Donna Rachel Edmunds, “Palestinian leaders: Disabled access to Tomb of Patriarchs is ‘war crime,’” Jerusalem Post, (September 8, 2020).
“High Court rejects Palestinian bid to thwart Tomb of Patriarchs elevator,” Times of Israel, (November 4, 2021).
Pesach Benson, “Israel to inaugurate elevator at Tomb of the Patriarchs,” JNS, (June 1, 2023)
“Cave of the Patriarchs,” Wikipedia and other historical sources.

Photos: Exterior - This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license via Wikimedia.
Tomb of Abraham -A ntv, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.