On my visit to Israel in May of 2010, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the Tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank. Due to a longer than usual period of calm, I was able to go to Hebron (with a knowledgeable guide I hired to drive me).
This facility is built over the Cave of Macpelah, the ancient site purchased by Abraham to serve as his and his family burial site. The book of Genesis tells how he paid 400 shekels of sliver, the going rate at the time, to acquire the site.
The history of this site is complicated and contentious The walls of the complex were built by Herod the Great during the Roman occupation around the time of Christ. A Byzantine Church was built on the site in 570 AD, but was converted to a mosque a little more than a hundred years later when the city was taken by Muslim armies. It was converted back to a Christian Church for a brief period in the 12th Century after the crusaders took Hebron, only to be reconquered by Saladin less than 50 years later.
Today, the facility is still divided. One section of it is the Muslim side, the other is the Jewish side. Each faith is allowed access to the whole complex 10 days per year, during certain holy days and festivals.
We visited the Muslim side of the building first. It required us to pass through a security station on our way in.
The highlight of the Muslim side is the Great Mosque, which contains the centopaths of Rebekah and Isaac .
One of the room’s most impressive features is the intricately carved minbar, or pulpit. Saladin brought this with him when he captured the city. It was made without a single nail.
The Great Mosque also contained the still visible reminders of the conflict that has existed over this building, but also over the whole region. Inside the beautiful tiles of the prayer niche (mirhab) were still visible bullet holes, from the 1994 incident where a fundamentalists Jewish settler entered the Muslim side of the building and opened fire on worshipers. 29 people died and many more were injured, and security has been heightened every since. It wasn’t the first massacre in Hebron- in 1929 a group of Muslim sacked the Jewish quarter of the city, killing 69.
Visible through small windows on both sides of the facility are the centopaths of Abraham & Jacob, who are held as sacred in both religions.
My visit to the Jewish side was much shorter, due to an scheduled prayer time, but I still had enough time to admire the fine woodworking and the stained glass.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to visit Hebron and the Tombs of the Patriarchs. Less than a month later, the Gaza Boat controversy reignited the conflict (ironically while I was on my flight back to the US) and access the both Hebron and the site became harder. I have corresponded with travelers since who did make it there, but it was certainly much more complicated than my visit. Most travelers from Western countries with ties to Israel also report feeling less than safe, especially this deep in the West Bank. Either way, a thorough investigation of the city’s current situation should be done before any attempt at visiting should take place.
Should anyone want to inquire about the services of the excellent guide I used, please contact me through the contact form in the upper right corner.