100 year old photos of the Cave of the Patriarchs

Hevron's Cave of the Patriarchs will be packed this weekend, Parashat Chayei Sarah. Here is how it once looked.

Lenny Ben David ,

Cave of the Patriarchs
Cave of the Patriarchs

Cave of the Patriarchs, Hevron (All pictures are from the Library of Congress, circa 1900)  

In synagogues around the world this Sabbath, congregations will read the Torah portion describing Sarah's death and burial.  Abraham purchased the Mearat HaMachpela [literally the "double cave" -- so named either because it had two chambers or because it would eventually contain pairs of husbands and their wives, including the three Patriarchs and their wives, excepting Rachel]. 

Genesis 23:  And these were the days of Sarah, 127 years. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba which is Hevron....Abraham spoke to the Sons of Heth: grant me legal possession of land for a burial site... for its price in full ... 400 shekels of silver.... Thus it was established, the field and the cave that was in it, for Abraham as legally possessed for a burial site from the Sons of Heth."

"Inner entrance to Machpelah showing mammothstones in Herodian wall"

In Israel, despite the recent terror knifings in Hevron, tens of thousands of Jews will converge on the second holiest city in Judaism, Hevron, to pray in the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs during the Sabbath. Security will be tight.

The massive building surrounding the gravesite was built by King Herod two thousand years ago.  The actual graves are located in subterranean caverns beneath.  Their locations are marked above ground by cenotaphs -- empty tombs that serve as monuments.

Cenotaph above the Tomb of Sarah (circa 1900)

In the 11th and 12th century Jewish travelers documented visiting the caves.  One of them, Binyamin of Tudela, described "two empty caves, and in the third ... six tombs, on 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."   

The great Jewish scholar Maimonides visited the tombs in 1116 and declared it a personal holy day.   

From the 14th century, however, Jews were not permitted to pray at the shrine.  The Mamluks (an Islamic army of slave soldiers) forbade Jews from visiting the site other than standing on stairs outside and even then, only up to the seventh step.  The practice continued until 1948 when all Jews were banned from the Jordanian-occupied 'West Bank'.

Tomb of Abraham

"Cenotaph of Isaac showing distinctive features of Crusader Church"

When Israel captured the area in 1967, after IDF Chief Rabbi Goren pressured the government to continue to the city, the Arab residents greeted the IDF with white flags, fearing revenge for the horrendous massacre of the Jews of Hevron in 1929. Israel saw to it that Jews were allowed to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs, but allowed the Islamic Waqf authorities to maintain control of large portions of the site, so that there are days when the site is closed to Jews.  

Many Jewish families in Israel celebrate weddings, bar mitzvas and circumcisions at the shrine.

And a happy note:

Hevron today, where school boys from near Jerusalem recently celebrated completion of the book of Genesis

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