The Cave of the Abraham is known by Muslims as the Sanctuary of Abraham. Situated beneath 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 Hebrew name possibly refers to the physical layout of the original two chambers while according to the Book of Genesis, Jacob dug further in to make a third chamber for Leah and himself.
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 birth of Esau and Jacob. (Genesis 25:26) 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. Herod’s building, with 6-foot-thick stone walls made from stones that were at least 3 feet tall and sometimes reach a length of 24 feet, 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.
No one but a Mahommedan is allowed to visit this place, which is a great privation for the Jews.
A. Howard, 1858.
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 which 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:
“Here that there is the great church called St. Abram, and this was a Jewish place of worship at the time of the Mohammedan rule, but the Gentiles have erected there six tombs, respectively called those of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. The custodians tell the pilgrims that these are the tombs of the Patriarchs, for which information the pilgrims give them money. If a Jew comes, however, and gives a special reward, the custodian of the cave opens unto him a gate of iron, which was constructed by our forefathers, and then he is able to descend below by means of steps, holding a lighted candle in his hand. He then reaches a cave, in which nothing is to be found, and a cave beyond, which is likewise empty, but when he reaches the third cave behold there are six sepulchres, those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively facing those of Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, upon which the names of the three Patriarchs and their wives are inscribed in Hebrew characters. The cave is filled with barrels containing bones of people, which are taken there as to a sacred place. At the end of the field of the Machpelah stands Abraham’s house with a spring in front of it”.
In 1188, however, 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 1318-20, the Mamluk Governor of Gaza (a province which 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, only allowing them 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.