Schechter Logo for Print

The Convoluted History of the Cave of Machpela in Hebron

Prof. Doron Bar
| 09/11/2023

The Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs was and remains a place of pilgrimage for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Why? Prof. Doron Bar explains its importance throughout history – beginning with the Cave’s prominance in this week’s Torah portion: Chaye Sarah.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs (מערת המכפלה or al-Haram al-Ibrahimi in Arabic) is one of the most important holy sites in the history of the Land of Israel, a holy location for members of all three monotheistic religions.

The history of this place is far from clear. It is mentioned in Genesis (23:19), when Abraham buys “the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre – now Hebron” to use as a burial site for himself and his wife, Sarah. Jewish tradition has, indeed, established the Tomb as the burial site of some of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs. At the same time, we do not know how the Tomb looked during the biblical period or whether it served as a destination for pilgrimage and a holy site.

At the end of the Second Temple period, the Tomb of the Patriarchs changed completely. At this time, a huge site was constructed, surrounded by extremely high walls. The holy place appears to be an active pilgrimage site for both Jews and Edomites, residents of the vicinity of Hebron Mount, who underwent a process of conversion to Judaism during the Hasmonean period.

Since the walls of this structure are very similar to the walls of the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, most scholars believe that Herod was responsible for the monumental construction of the Tomb in Hebron, most probably to create a pilgrimage site in this part of his kingdom.

Josephus, the famous Jewish historian of that time, mentions the site. He writes that “the headstones (of the patriarchs) could also be seen in this city (Hebron) to this day, and they are made of beautiful marble, [providing] honor and grace.” But – unlike his detailed description of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, he does not mention the monumental structure in Hebron at all.

We do not know much of the later history of the site, during the Roman and Byzantine periods. We do have an unusual testimony of an anonymous Christian pilgrim who visits Palestine during the sixth century C.E. He testifies that, on a particular holiday, on a particular day, Christians and Jews come to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and pray together, with each group entering the courtyard of the Tomb from a different entrance.

During the early Muslim period, the Tomb became a holy Muslim site and served pilgrims of adherents of all three religions – Jews, Christians and Muslims.

A particularly fascinating testimony regarding the Tomb comes from Benjamin of Tudela, the famous Jewish traveler of the twelfth century. During this time, Palestine was controlled by the crusaders, and Hebron housed a monastery, at the heart of which was the holy site of the Tomb. It is true that many Christian pilgrims visited the site and described it, but Benjamin of Tudela’s testimony is unique and unusual. He testifies to a deep underground passage that leads to the depths of the structure, the entrance to which was reserved for Jews. Only after passing through several doors and underground passages did one finally arrive in a majestic room, in which were six graves with inscriptions mentioning “this is the grave of Abraham,” “this is the grave of Isaac, son of Abraham,” etc.

Following the elimination of the crusaders from Palestine, during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, the Tomb of the Patriarchs underwent a vigorous process of Islamization and the tombstones of the patriarchs and matriarchs were redesigned. The place became sacred property (a Waqf), and the entrance of non-Muslims was entirely forbidden. Testimonies indicate that Jewish pilgrims could not enter the building anymore and were forced to content themselves with praying on the external staircase. They were allowed to ascend to the seventh stair, and their prayers were directed at a hole in the wall of the structure.

Following the Six Day War, the situation at the Tomb changed completely again. Moshe Dayan, the defense minister, declared that Jews would be allowed to enter the holy site and pray in it, and a number of halls were set aside for this purpose.

With the intensification of the Arab-Jewish conflict, the Tomb, like other holy sites, transformed into a debated national and religious symbol, contested between Jews and Arabs. On Purim 1994 a terrible massacre occurred in Hebron, when Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded an additional 125 who were holding the Friday prayers before the Ramadan. The conclusions of the state inquiry committee, headed by Judge Meir Shamgar, led to the division of the halls of the Tomb between Jews and Muslims.



Doron Bar, former president and dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, is a professor of Land of Israel studies. He earned his PhD from The Hebrew University in Historical Geography. Professor Bar is researching the development of popular and national holy places. He is a seventh generation descendant of an Old Yishuv Jerusalem family.

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone