It was not the Sabbath and I did trip electrical circuits as I entered, for I had to pass through two metal detectors; Israeli soldiers searched my camera bag each time. Then I was able to enter the section of the enclosure set aside for Jews. It had formerly been the atrium in front of the Crusader church, and it contained the cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah. In the 13th century, the Mamluks, the great tomb-builders of the Middle East, erected small octagonal and hexagonal shrines to shelter these cenotaphs; now the spaces between them are used as synagogues. I found Jewish men and women at prayer, under the watch of soldiers.
During my last visit in 1986 there had been free passage between the Jewish and Muslim sections of the site, but such passage is blocked today. To enter the mosque I had to retrace my steps and go back outside, triggering the metal detectors again as I went. Then I had to go in through an entrance for Arabs; my two Palestinian Christian companions could now accompany me. There were two more metal detectors and two more searches, and I began to wish I had not brought a camera bag with so many pockets.
The mosque is the Crusader church building a fine example of late Romanesque architecture. It contains the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebekah. It also contains a hole in the floor, less than a foot in diameter that leads down into the burial chambers beneath Herods pavement. After the Israeli army took Hebron in 1967, General Moshe Dayan had an extremely thin 12-year-old girl named Michal lowered through the hole to take photographs. The burial chambers have never been adequately explored; religious sensibilities and political tensions make archaeological study imprudent. If the bones of Abraham lie in this underground chamber, they are best left undisturbed.
The northwest wall of the mosque is adjacent to the cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah. Muslims view these cenotaphs through grills. Thus Jews pray on one side of the cenotaph of their father Abraham and Muslims on the other side, but out of sight of one another. It is only foreign Christians like myself who have access to both sides, visiting hours and metal detectors permitting.
Foreign visitors are about the only Christians in Hebron these days; there is virtually no permanent Christian presence. Relations between the 400 Jewish settlers living in the heart of Hebron and the more than 100,000 Muslim Arabs who surround them are strained. I find the situation tragic. If there is any holy place that is a candidate for shared Jewish, Christian and Muslim veneration, it is the Tomb of the Patriarchs. If there is any site where one could hope to see the three families of Abraham praying together, elbow to elbow, it is this shrine. Ironically, however, the tomb is a place of contention and division rather than a point of unity.
Yet the long and complex history of this site gives one reason for hope. It has had its eras of peaceful sharing as well as its years of strife. Its remarkable transformation over the last 2,000 years teaches that nothing is unimaginable, no hope impossible.
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George Martin, a regular contributor to this publication, travels often to the Holy Land.
Tags: Christianity Unity Muslim Pilgrimage/pilgrims Jews