The Cave of Machpelah,
This cave of Machpelah, in which the mortal remains of Sarah were laid, was to
figure in the future as the family vault of Abraham's family. For here were to
be laid, in the course of the following centuries, Abraham, then his son
Yitschaq together with his wife Rebekah and, lastly, Yacob (called Yisrael),
Isaac's son, beside Leah, his first wife. Rachel, his second wife, was not laid
in this tomb; she was buried by the wayside as the caravan, coming from the
Upper Euphrates, made its way to Hebron.
Abraham's family tomb
At Mamre, Abraham's camp was established, it will be remembered, on the present site of the Haram Ramet el-Khalil (or hill sanctuary of the Friend of YAHWEH). Abraham's well and the set apart enclosure can be seen there, partially surrounded by ancient walls made of enormous stones. It was here that the patriarch's tents stood and that Sarah breathed her last.
The cave of Machpelah was about two and a half miles to the south of the Hebrew
camp under the oaks of Mamre, near the present village of Jebel er- Remeideh
which is supposed to be the former village of Hebron. But the place has by no
means retained its primitive appearance; a fortified mosque occupies the site of
Ephron the Hurrite's field, and the tomb of the patriarchs constitutes the crypt
of the mosque. In fact the present sanctuary is made up of three distinct parts:
the external wall, the mosque and the tomb in the crypt.
The cenotaphs of Scriptural patriarchs, in the mosque at Hebron
The Subsequent History Of The Cave Of MachpelahThe Cave Of Machpelah has had a chequered history. The fact that we do not possess all the necessary information about the internal arrangement of this crypt must be ascribed to human turbulence. The following short resume of events makes this clear.
Already in A.D. 333-4 the manuscript known as the Bordeaux Pilgrim mentions the presence of a mausoleum (memoria), above the cave of Machpelah, square in shape and beautifully constructed of stone. St Jerome, a tireless visitor of the holy places, confirms the statement. Two centuries later a considerable change had occurred: Antoninus of Piacenza (570) describes his admiration for a basilica which at that period stood above the cave.
Seventy years later the tomb of the three patriarchs passed into the hands of the Mohammedans whose dominion extended to the whole of Palestine. But they do not seem, at least for a time, to have prevented Messianic followers from going to pray there, though, of course, the former church was transformed into a mosque.
A further change occurred in 1099 when the Franks took possession of the country. The mosque was returned to use as a Christian sanctuary dedicated to St Abraham. This church was served at first by a college of canons governed by a prior. A little later it became a cathedral under a bishop. Pilgrims crowded to the spot and many of them have left descriptions of the building. In 1187 there was a further change of fortune and Saladin, the great Mohammedan leader, the conqueror of the Franks, hastened to reoccupy the tomb of Abraham, venerated by the followers of Allah both as a prophet and the father of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs. Access to the cave was not, however, forbidden to Messianic followers, at least according to the account drawn up by the Dominican Buchard (1283) who seems to have been given permission to spend a whole night in prayer by the tomb of the patriarchs. But in 1583 the Franciscan Ouaresimus notes with understandable grief the formal prohibition of all visits to the crypt. In fact from the sixteenth century down to the middle of the nineteenth no Christian was able to enter the cave of Machpelah.
In 1843, however, Dr Frankel succeeded in bribing the keepers of the underground sanctuary; he went down into the crypt and was able to observe the sarcophagi, each of which, bearing the name of a patriarch cut in Hebrew and Arabic letters, was covered in damask.
The last European investigation, carried out with uncommon daring, took place in 1859. Its hero was the Piedmontese architect Pierotti, at that time an official of the municipality of Yerusalem. Disguised as an Arab and with the complicity of the keeper of the tomb, purchased for a considerable sum, he managed to effect an attempted descent. According to his account the principal staircase goes down from the vestibule of the mosque. It comes out above, and nearly in the centre, of the ancient cave. It is hewn out of the rock and is only a little over two feet wide. It terminates in a large iron grill heavily padlocked. The keeper, despite the large bribe paid by Pierotti, only allowed him to go down five steps. From this point, in the light of the lamps 7 which light up the tomb continuously, he could make out some sarcophagi of white stone. All this, it must be admitted, provides but scanty information.
Since then there have been several attempts to go down into the tomb which, despite preparation by official and diplomatic channels, have been fruitless.
7 These lamps are let down by a cord from the floor of the mosque built above the cave, through six openings no more than a foot wide The oil for the lamps is paid for by gifts coming from allover the Islamic world.
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