Thursday 24 April 2014

Hebron and Machpelah

The last archaeological excursion of the year was to Hebron, which used to be known as Kiriath Arba, and to the Muslims is Al Khalil, referring to Abraham, the Friend of God.

Hebron, in Palestine, is 35 kms directly south of Jerusalem. It is the second holiest place for the Jews, because of the tombs of the patriarchs there, and the fourth holiest place for the Muslims, coming after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

The name Kiriath Arba is curious - the City of the Four - given that there are only three pairs of patriarchs buried there: Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Leah. Gen 23 speaks of Abraham buying the field and cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah. Gen 25:7-12 speaks of the burial of Abraham himself by Isaac and Ishmael (who seems to have returned for this occasion, something I had never noticed before).

Hebron is also mentioned in Num 13, where the Atarim or explorers sent by Moses to scout the land reach it and cut down a huge cluster (eschol) of grapes there - the Valley of Eschol.

Close by is the field and the oak of Mamre, the famous place where Abraham was visited by the three angels (Gen 18:1-15); unfortunately it is not open to visitors. Vernet said it is protected by a fence, and there is nothing else to see. Immediately after this visit, we have the incident of Abraham bargaining with the Lord for Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16-33).

The great edifice at Machpelah was built by Herod the Great. It reveals the originality of his architecture, with enormous blocks of stone. It is a rectangular structure of 63x36 m. Curiously, it is not known by Josephus Flavius. It is known as Haram Al Khalil by the Arabs; Salahaddin added four minarets, two of which still survive. Inside the enclosure are the 3 pairs of tombs. They are actually cenotaphs, empty tombs, or memorial tombs, funerary monuments more than tombs.

The other curious thing is that to date no proper entrance has been discovered into the Herodian edifice. The present day entrance is obviously a shabby entrance made into the edifice. Below the cenotaphs are the Machpelah caves, which seem to have been explored only very secretly, with no consistency among the various descriptions.

Here, in Hebron, David was proclaimed king of Judah, and seven years later, king of Israel too (2 Sam 2:1-7). Several sons of David were born here (2 Sam 3:1-5). Abner, one of Saul's generals, was killed here by Joab, one of David's generals, causing political problems to David (2 Sam 3:22-24). The tomb of Abner may be found just outside the Haram Al Khalil.

2 Sam 5:1-12 speaks of David conquering Jerusalem. This was a political move. The kingdom of Saul was small and poor in comparison with the kingdom of the north, with capital at Samaria. The kingdom of David was even smaller, because of the Canaanite city state in between his domain and those of Saul. David conquered this city, and it has remained ever since the heart of Judaism.

Hebron is the richest city in Palestine, rival to Nablus. 150,000 inhabitants. In the centre of this city, totally Muslim, are four small colonies of Jews - this quite apart from the huge settlement of Kiriath Arba outside Hebron. 

We went inside the kasbah in the old city of Hebron, that was quite an experience: shops all closed down; not many tourists and pilgrims; paltry businesses attempting to be run by the locals. (I tried to buy almonds, very cheap at 13 NIS; unfortunately the ones I checked were bad; sign of lack of movement.) 



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