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|Cave of the Patriarchs or Ibrahimi Mosque|
Southern view of the enclosure
|Alternate name||Sanctuary of Abraham or Cave of Machpelah|
|Cultures||Jewish, Byzantine, Crusader, Muslim|
|Cave of the Patriarchs or Ibrahimi Mosque|
Southern view of the enclosure
|Alternate name||Sanctuary of Abraham or Cave of Machpelah|
|Cultures||Jewish, Byzantine, Crusader, Muslim|
The Cave of the Patriarchs or the Cave of Machpelah (Hebrew: מערת המכפלה, Me'arat ha-Machpela (help·info), trans. "cave of the double tombs"), is known by Muslims as the Sanctuary of Abraham or the Ibrahimi Mosque (Arabic: الحرم الإبراهيمي, Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi (help·info)).
Situated beneath a Saladin-era mosque converted from a large rectangular Herodian-era structure, the series of subterranean chambers is located in the heart of Hebron (Al-Khalil)'s old city in the Hebron Hills. According to tradition that has been associated with both the Book of Genesis and the Quran, the cave and adjoining field were purchased by Abraham, and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah, considered the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people, are all believed to be buried there. The only matriarch missing is Rachel, who is believed to be buried near Bethlehem where she died in childbirth. The Arabic name of the complex reflects the prominence given to Abraham, revered by Muslims as a Quranic prophet and patriarch through Ishmael. Outside biblical and Quranic sources there are a number of legends and traditions associated with the cave.
According to the Book of Genesis 23:1-20, Sarah, the wife of Abraham, "died in Kirjath-arba; the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan". Abraham was tending to business elsewhere when she died, at the age of 127 years, and he "came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her." (Genesis 23:2) After awhile, he stood up and spoke to the "sons of Heth" and requested they give him a possession as a "burying place", and they offered him his "choice" of their sepulchres. And then in verse 7 he again "stood up" to speak to them. Abraham then requested that Ephron the Hittite, the son of Zohar, give him the cave of Machpelah, in the end of his field, "for as much money as it is worth". (verse 9) After Ephron confirmed that he would give the cave, in verse 11, Abraham further requested that he give him the field for money, in verse 13. Ephron agreed and named a price.
Genesis 23:16 ¶ And Abraham hearkened unto Ephron; and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the audience of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant.  And the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders round about, were made sure  Unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city.
The burial of Sarah is the first account of a burial in the Bible, and this is the first commercial transaction mentioned. The next burial in the cave of Machpelah is that of Abraham, who lived "an hundred threescore and fifteen years" – one hundred years unto the birth of Isaac, and threescore (60) more years unto the births of Esau and Jacob, with whom he spent his last fifteen years. The title deed to the cave was part of the property of Abraham that passed to his son Isaac in Genesis 25:5-6.
Genesis 25:9 And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre;  The field which Abraham purchased of the sons of Heth: there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.
Isaac was 180 years old when he died, and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. (Genesis 35:28-29) As noted above, Isaac was 60 when they were born, so they were 120 years old here, which is 10 years before Jacob, at the age of 130, stood before Pharaoh in Genesis 47:9. Jacob died later at the age of 147 years. (Genesis 47:28) There is no mention of how or when Isaac's wife Rebekah died, nor of Jacob's wife Leah, but they are included in the list of those that had been buried in Machpelah in Jacob's final words to the children of Israel:
Genesis 49:29 And he charged them, and said unto them, I am to be gathered unto my people: bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite,  In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a buryingplace.  There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah.  The purchase of the field and of the cave that is therein was from the children of Heth.  And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.
In the final chapter of Genesis, Joseph had his physicians embalm his father, before they removed him from Egypt to be buried in the cave of the field of Machpelah. (Genesis 50:1-14) When Joseph died in the last verse, he was also embalmed. He was buried much later in Shechem (Joshua 24:32) after the children of Israel came into the promised land.
Herod the Great built a large, rectangular enclosure over the caves, the only fully surviving Herodian structure from the period of Hellenistic Judaism. Herod's building, with 6-foot-thick stone walls made from stones that were at least 3 feet (0.91 m) tall and sometimes reach a length of 24 feet (7.3 m), did not have a roof. Archæologists are not certain where the original entrance to the enclosure was located, or even if there was one.
Until the era of the Byzantine Empire, the interior of the enclosure remained exposed to the sky. Under Byzantine rule, a simple basilica was constructed at the southeastern end and the enclosure was roofed everywhere except at the centre.
In 614, the Persians conquered the area and destroyed the castle, leaving only ruins; but in 637, the area came under the control of the Muslims and the building was reconstructed as a roofed mosque.
During the 10th century, an entrance was pierced through the north-eastern wall, some way above the external ground level, and steps from the north and from the east were built up to it (one set of steps for entering, the other for leaving). A building known as the kalah (castle) was also constructed near the middle of the southwestern side. Its purpose is unknown but one historic account claims that it marked the spot where Joseph was buried (see Joseph's tomb), the area having been excavated by a Muslim caliph, under the influence of a local tradition regarding Joseph's tomb. Some archaeologists believe that the original entrance to Herod's structure was in the location of the kalah and that the northeastern entrance was created so that the kalah could be built by the former entrance.
In 1100, after the area was captured by the Crusaders, the enclosure once again became a church and Muslims were no longer permitted to enter. During this period, the area was given a new gabled roof, clerestory windows and vaulting.
In the year 1113 during the reign of Baldwin II of Jerusalem, according to Ali of Herat (writing in 1173), a certain part over the cave of Abraham had given way, and "a number of Franks had made their entrance therein". And they discovered "(the bodies) of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob", "their shrouds having fallen to pieces, lying propped up against a wall...Then the King, after providing new shrouds, caused the place to be closed once more". Similar information is given in Ibn at Athir's Chronicle under the year 1119; "In this year was opened the tomb of Abraham, and those of his two sons Isaac and Jacob ...Many people saw the Patriarch. Their limbs had nowise been disturbed, and beside them were placed lamps of gold and of silver." The Damascene nobleman and historian Ibn al-Qalanisi in his chronicle also alludes at this time to the discovery of relics purported to be those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a discovery that excited eager curiosity among all three communities in the southern Levant, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian.
Towards the end of the period of Crusader rule, in 1166 Maimonides visited Hebron and wrote, "On Sunday, 9 Marheshvan (17 October), I left Jerusalem for Hebron to kiss the tombs of my ancestors in the Cave. On that day, I stood in the cave and prayed, praise be to God, (in gratitude) for everything."
In 1170, Benjamin of Tudela visited the city, which he called by its Frankish name, St.Abram de Bron. He reported:
In 1188 Saladin conquered the area, reconverting the enclosure to a mosque but allowing Christians to continue worshipping there. Saladin also added a minaret at each corner—two of which still survive—and the minbar. Samuel ben Samson visited the cave in 1210; he says that the visitor must descend by twenty-four steps in a passageway so narrow that the rock touches him on either hand.
Between 1318 and 1320, the Mamluk, the governor of Gaza, a province that included Hebron, Sanjar al-Jawli ordered the construction of the Amir Jawli Mosque within the Haram enclosure to enlarge the prayer space and accommodate worshipers. In the late 14th century, under the Mamluks, two additional entrances were pierced into the western end of the south western side and the kalah was extended upwards to the level of the rest of the enclosure. A cenotaph in memory of Joseph was created in the upper level of the kalah so that visitors to the enclosure would not need to leave and travel round the outside just to pay respects. The Mamluks also built the northwestern staircase and the six cenotaphs (for Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, Abraham, and Sarah, respectively), distributed evenly throughout the enclosure. The Mamluks forbade Jews from entering the site, allowing them only as close as the fifth step on a staircase at the southeast, but after some time this was increased to the seventh step.
During the Ottoman period, the dilapidated state of the patriarchs' tombs was restored to a semblance of sumptuous dignity. Ali Bey, one of the few foreigners to gain access, reported in 1807 that,
'all the sepulchres of the patriarchs are covered with rich carpets of green silk, magnificently embroidered with gold; those of the wives are red, embroidered in like manner. The sultans of Constantinople furnish these carpets, which are renewed from time to time. Ali Bey counted nine, one over the other, upon the sepulchre of Abraham.'
After the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel gained control of Hebron, the first Jew who entered the Cave of Machpelah for about 700 years, was the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Major general Rabbi Shlomo Goren. "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." Following the 1929 Hebron massacre, this restricted access was even more restricted by British Mandate authorities. After Israeli statehood in 1948 and the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank, no Jews were allowed anywhere in the Judaean Mountains. Following the Israeli occupation of Hebron in the Six-Day War, the area came back under Jewish authority for the first time in 2,000 years and the 700-year-long restriction limiting Jews to the seventh step outside was lifted. Jews immediately began re-settling in the city after the Six-Day War, fixing their expulsion following the 1929 Hebron massacre. The first subsequent Jewish wedding ceremony took place on August 7, 1968.
In 1968, a special arrangement was made to accommodate Jewish services on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This led to a hand-grenade being thrown on the stairway leading to the tomb on October 9; 47 Israelis were injured, 8 seriously. On November 4, a large explosion went off near the gate to the compound and 6 people, Jews and Arabs, were wounded. On Yom Kippur eve, October 3, 1976, an Arab mob destroyed several Torah scrolls and prayer books at the tomb. In May 1980, an attack on Jewish worshippers returning from prayers at the tomb left 6 dead and 17 wounded.
Tensions would later increase as the Israeli government signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993, which gave limited autonomy to the PLO in the West Bank city of Jericho and the Gaza Strip. The city of Hebron and the rest of the major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank were not included in the initial agreement. A shooting spree committed by Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-American settler in February 1994, left 29 Palestinian Muslims dead and scores injured. The resulting riots resulted in a further 35 deaths.
The increased sensitivity of the site meant that in 1996 the Wye River Accords, part of the Arab-Israeli peace process, included a temporary status agreement for the site restricting access for both Jews and Muslims. As part of this agreement, the waqf controls 81% of the building. This includes the whole of the southeastern section, which lies above the only known entrance to the caves and possibly over the entirety of the caves themselves. In consequence, Jews are not permitted to visit the Cenotaphs of Isaac or Rebecca, which lie entirely within the southeastern section, except for 10 days a year that hold special significance in Judaism. One of these days is the Shabbat Chayei Sarah, when the Torah portion concerning the deaths of Abraham and Sarah and the purchase by Abraham of the land in which the caves are situated, is read.
The Israeli authorities do not allow Jewish religious authorities the right to maintain the site and allow only the waqf to do so. Tourists are permitted to enter the site. Security at the site has increased since the Intifada; the Israel Defense Forces surround the site with soldiers and control access to the shrines.
On February 21, 2010, Israel announced that it would include the site in a national heritage site protection and rehabilitation plan. The announcement sparked protests from the UN, Arab governments and the United States. A subsequent UNESCO vote in October aimed to affirm that the "al-Haram al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/Hebron" was "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories."
The rectangular stone enclosure lies on a northwest-southeast axis, and is divided into two sections by a wall running between the northwestern three fifths, and the southeastern two fifths. The northwestern section is roofed on three sides, the central area and north eastern side being open to the sky; the southeastern section is fully roofed, the roof being supported by four columns evenly distributed through the section.
In the northwestern section are four cenotaphs, each housed in a separate octagonal room, those dedicated to Jacob and Leah being on the northwest, and those to Abraham and Sarah on the southeast. A corridor runs between the cenotaphs on the northwest, and another between those on the southeast. A third corridor runs the length of the southwestern side, through which access to the cenotaphs, and to the southeastern section, can be gained. An entrance to the enclosure exists on the southwestern side, entering this third corridor; a mosque outside this entrance must be passed through to gain access.
At the center of the northeastern side, there is another entrance, which enters the roofed area on the southeastern side of the northwestern section and through which access can also be gained to the southeastern (fully roofed) section. This entrance is approached on the outside by a corridor which leads from a long staircase running most of the length of the northwestern side. The southeastern section, which functions primarily as a mosque, contains two cenotaphs, symmetrically placed, near the center, dedicated to Isaac and Rebecca. Between them, in the southeastern wall, is a mihrab. The cenotaphs have a distinctive red and white horizontal striped pattern to their stonework but are usually covered by decorative cloth.
Under the present arrangements, Jews are restricted to entering by the southwestern side, and limited to the southwestern corridor and the corridors that run between the cenotaphs, while Muslims may enter only by the northeastern side but are allowed free rein of the remainder of the enclosure.
The caves under the enclosure are not themselves generally accessible; the waqf have historically prevented access to the actual tombs out of respect for the dead. Only two entrances are known to exist, the most visible of which is located to the immediate southeast of Abraham's cenotaph on the inside of the southeastern section. This entrance is a narrow shaft covered by a decorative grate, which itself is covered by an elaborate dome. The other entrance is located to the southeast, near the mihrab, and is sealed by a large stone, and usually covered by prayer mats; this is very close to the location of the seventh step on the outside of the enclosure, beyond which the Mamelukes forbade Jews from approaching.
When the enclosure was controlled by crusaders, access was occasionally possible. One account, by Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela dating from 1163 CE, states that after passing through an iron door, and descending, the caves would be encountered. According to Benjamin of Tudela, there was a sequence of three caves, the first two of which were empty; in the third cave were six tombs, arranged to be opposite to one another.
These caves had been rediscovered only in 1119 CE by a monk named Arnoul, after an unnamed monk at prayer "noticed a draught" in the area near the present location of the mihrab and, with other "brethren", removed the flagstones and found a room lined with Herodian masonry. Arnoul, still searching for the source of the draught, hammered on the cave walls until he heard a hollow sound, pulled down the masonry in that area, and discovered a narrow passage. The narrow passage, which subsequently became known as the serdab (Arabic for passage), was similarly lined with masonry, but partly blocked up. Having unblocked the passage, Arnoul discovered a large round room with plastered walls. In the floor of the room, he found a square stone slightly different from the others and, upon removing it, found the first of the caves. The caves were filled with dust. After removing the dust, Arnoul found bones; believing the bones to be those of the biblical Patriarchs, Arnoul washed them in wine and stacked them neatly. Arnoul carved inscriptions on the cave walls describing whose bones he believed them to be.
This passage to the caves was sealed at some time after Saladin had recaptured the area, though the roof of the circular room was pierced, and a decorative grate was placed over it. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the area fell into the hands of the Israel Defense Forces, and Moshe Dayan, the Defence Minister, who was an amateur archaeologist, attempted to regain access to the tombs. Ignorant of the serdab entrance, Dayan concentrated his attention on the shaft visible below the decorative grate and had the idea of sending someone thin enough to fit through the shaft and down into the chamber below. Dayan eventually found a slim 12-year-old girl named Michal to assist and sent her into the chamber with a camera.
Michal explored the round chamber, but failed to find the square stone in the floor that led to the caves. Michal did, however, explore the passage and find steps leading up to the surface, though the exit was blocked by a large stone (this is the entrance near the mihrab). According to the report of her findings, which Michal gave to Dayan after having been lifted back through the shaft, there are 16 steps leading down into the passage, which is 1 cubit wide, 17.37 metres (57.0 ft) and 1 metre (3 ft 3 in) high. In the round chamber, which is 12 metres (39 ft) below the entrance to the shaft, there are three stone slabs, the middle of which contains a partial inscription of Sura 2, verse 255, from the Qur'an, the famous Ayatul Kursi, Verse of the Throne.
In 1981 Seev Jevin, the former director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, entered the passage after a group of Jewish settlers from Hebron had entered the chamber via the entrance near the mihrab and discovered the square stone in the round chamber that concealed the cave entrance. The reports state that after entering the first cave, which seemed to Jevin to be empty, he found a passage leading to a second oval chamber, smaller than the first, which contained shards of pottery and a wine jug.
Judaism and Islam accept the Jewish tradition that entombed within are the biblical and Qur'anic patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) as well as three matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah).
In Judaism, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is the second most sacred site in the world, after the Temple Mount. The Book of Genesis relates that Abraham specifically purchased the land as a burial plot from Ephron the Hittite, making it one of two purchases by Abraham of real estate in the Land of Canaan, the Promised Land. According to Genesis, three biblical couples are buried there:
There is a Jewish tradition, that besides the three biblical couples mentioned above, that Adam and Eve were buried there also. (Zohar, Ruth 96) Certain Kabbalah texts also add that Moses and Zipporah are buried in the cave. 
Another Jewish tradition tells that when Jacob was brought to be buried in the cave, Esau prevented the burial claiming he had the right to be buried in the cave; after some negotiation Naphtali was sent to Egypt to retrieve the document stating Esau sold his part in the cave to Jacob. As this was going on Hushim, the son of Dan who was hard of hearing, did not understand what was going on, and why his grandfather was not being buried, so he asked for an explanation; after being given one he became angry and said: "Is my grandfather to lie there in contempt until Naphtali returns from the land of Egypt?" He then took a club and killed Esau, and Esau's head rolled into the cave. This means that the head of Esau is also buried in the cave. Some Jewish sources record the selling of Esau's right to be buried in the cave – according to a commentary on the "Book of Exodus", Jacob gave all his possessions to acquire a tomb in the Cave of the Patriarchs. He put a large pile of gold and silver before Esau and asked, “My brother, do you prefer your portion of this cave, or all this gold and silver?” Esau's selling to Jacob his right to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs is also recorded in Sefer HaYashar.
An early Jewish text, the Genesis Rabba, states that this site is one of three that enemies of Judaism cannot taunt the Jews by saying "you have stolen them," as it was purchased "for its full price" by Abraham.
According to the Midrash, the Patriarchs were buried in the cave because the cave is the threshold to the Garden of Eden. The Patriarchs are said not to be dead but "sleeping". They rise to beg mercy for their children throughout the generations. According to the Zohar, this tomb is the gateway through which souls enter into Gan Eden, heaven.
There are Hebrew prayers of supplication for marriage on the walls of the Sarah cenotaph.
The enclosure is known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, as Abraham is a revered prophet of Islam who, according to the Qur'an, built the Kaaba in Mecca with his son Ishmael. After the conquest of the city by Umar, this holy place was "simply taken over from the Jewish tradition" by the new rulers; the Herodian enclosure was converted into a mosque and placed under the control of a waqf. The waqf continues to maintain most of the site, though the Israeli military controls access to the site.
According to some Islamic sources it is also the tomb of Joseph. Though the Bible has Joseph buried in Shechem (the present-day Palestinian city of Nablus), Jewish aggadic tradition conserved the idea that he wished to be interred at Hebron, and the Islamic version may reflect this. The Jewish apocryphal book, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, also states that this is the burial place of Jacob's twelve sons.
The New Testament in Acts 7:16 indicates that the twelve patriarchs were buried in Sychem/Shechem. According to New Testament commentator Albert Barnes this belief was supported by fourth-century theologian and historian Jerome.