The Tomb of Our Father Abraham
text and photographs by George Martin
A decade ago I took my wife and five children on a family pilgrimage to the Holy Land and, in the course of it, we visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron. I remember remarking, We are standing in a synagogue that is part of a mosque that was built as a church in the 12th century, using walls put up by Herod the Great.
I do not know any other spot on earth that gives one a greater sense of confusion. Jews, Christians and Muslims all look upon Abraham as their father. For 13 centuries the site of his burial has functioned as a place of prayer for the three monotheistic faiths. Each has left behind an architectural legacy.
The Book of Genesis portrays Abraham as a nomad who camped with his flocks on the edge of Canaanite cities. When Sarah, Abrahams wife, died, Abraham bought a burial cave near the hill town of Hebron, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem:
Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. (Gen. 23:19) Later he was buried in the same cave, as were his son Isaac and Isaacs wife Rebekah, and his grandson Jacob and Jacobs wife Leah. It was customary for several generations of a family to be interred in the same complex.
Abrahams burial cave lay amidst other caves in a graveyard dating to around 2000 B.C. The Book of Jubilees, a Jewish work written in the second century B.C., indicates that some son of monument marked the tombs of Abraham and his family. A decade or two before the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great transformed the shrine. Just as he enhanced the temple in Jerusalem by enclosing its site with magnificent walls, so Herod erected walls around the Tomb of the Patriarchs, using the same elaborate stonework. His walls of embossed limestone, six to eight feet thick and up to 60 feet high, enclose a 197-by-111-foot area. The largest stones are 24 feet long and weigh more than 50 tons, an impressive feat of engineering.
Herod had a stone pavement laid inside the enclosure, covering the cave of Abraham, Cenotaphs (memorial tombs) were erected on this pavement for the three patriarchs and their wives. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus described the cenotaphs as being of really fine marble and of exquisite workmanship.
Unlike the temple in Jerusalem, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron survived the Roman Jewish wars of the first and second centuries. It remained a Jewish holy site well into the Byzantine era. A Christian pilgrim visited the shrine in 333 A.D. and mentioned the enclosure walls and marble cenotaphs in his diary.
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Tags: Christianity Unity Muslim Pilgrimage/pilgrims Jews