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Ancient Hebron Site, Closed to Jews Since 1999, Greets Visitors

As the public Torah weekly readings reach the story of the Patriarch Abraham, a rare Jewish visit is paid to Avraham's home in Elonei Mamre.

By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 10/12/2010, 12:14 AM / Last Update: 10/12/2010, 3:07 AM

As the public Torah weekly readings reach the story of the Patriarch Abraham, a rare Jewish visit was paid to Avraham's home in Elonei Mamre.

The site is mentioned three times in Genesis, in chapters 13,14, and 18. This is where Abraham settled after separating from his nephew Lot, where he built an altar to G-d, and where G-d sent him three angels to inform him that his son Isaac would be born the following year.

It was also here that Abraham established the first Hebrew army, for the purpose of rescuing Lot, who had been kidnapped by the Four Kings during their war against the Five Kings as described in Genesis.

Glass Junction:  Permitted to Jews Only on Paper
The site is remembered by many old-timers from Hevron and nearby Kiryat Arba as situated very close to the Glass Junction, the old entrance to Hevron and Kiryat Arba along what was then the main Jerusalem-Hevron highway. The Hevron Agreement of 1999 stipulated clearly that Jews would be allowed to visit it, but in practice, after the Israel Defense Forces retreated from most of Hevron, Jews have hardly ever been allowed to do so.

Just a few days ago, a group of Jews did in fact visit the site. They found it to be preserved as before, though encompassed by several apartment buildings. The Jewish Community of Hevron hopes the ancient Jewish site will not only soon be opened to Jews, but will actually be returned to Jewish hands.

The Oaks of Mamre
During the Second Temple period, the site of Elonei Mamre was identified as just three kilometers north of the city of Hevron, and a similar distance from ancient Tel Hevron, today's Admot Yishai neighborhood of Hevron. Geographic historians explain that Abraham chose not to settle in the Hevron Valley, but rather on the hills north of the city, which were covered by oak forest; oak in Hebrew is "elon," giving the area its name. (Mamre was the name of a man whom the Bible mentions several times in Genesis as having lived in the area. The site's name means, literally, the "Oaks of Mamre".)

The name was carried down through the generations, losing only one letter in the Arabic name of a hill that towers above the Hevron valley: Jabel Namre, just west of the Machpelah Cave.

Herod's Wall
Today, Elonei Mamre is also one of Israel's most important archaeological sites. A two-meter-high, 70-by-30-meter wall has been found there, apparently built by King Herod 2,000 years ago. The wall's construction has similar characteristics to that in the Machpelah Cave [the Cave of the Patriarchs, ed.] and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Remains of two towers from an earlier period have also been found in Elonei Mamre.

The early Christians built a large church there in the 4th century C.E., as part of their desire to reconnect with their Jewish roots – and especially with the Patriarch Abraham, who introduced monotheistic faith to the world. Jews and Gentiles would gather here on market days and argue about religion, and many coins have been found there. The church was destroyed in the Moslem conquest three centuries later. The Talmud refers to the site, known then as Botnah, as one of the three most important "fairs" (markets) in the Holy Land, though it notes that there were many idol worshipers there.