Legends, Mysteries, Light and Darkness: The Secret History of the Biblical Cave of the Patriarchs

Legends, Mysteries, Light and Darkness: The Secret History of the Biblical Cave of the Patriarchs

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The Cave of the Patriarchs is a very famous site in the Middle East. Known as Ibrahim Mosque or the Sanctuary of Abraham today, it appears in the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran. Legends tell of a secret entrance leading to the graves of biblical figures, however, the tunnels which are said to run below are closed off to modern tourists and researchers. Thus, one must turn to ancient texts and decipher the myths surrounding this shadowy site.

The Cave of the Patriarchs was covered by a Judean structure during the Herodian era. Later, Saladin changed it into a mosque. Through history, the old caves bore witness to mysterious meetings and were the main backdrop for legendary plots and pilgrimages. The burials of patriarchs including Abraham, Sarah, and many more are said to be located inside the underground tunnels.

It is a tomb symbolizing ancient ideas, and may even be called the basis for spirituality in the Middle East. But nobody knows for certain if the Cave of the Patriarchs is a legendary or real cemetery for ancient patriarchs and spiritual masters. The bible claims that some of the individuals buried inside the cave died when they were very old. For example, Isaac is said to have lived 180 years, Jacob 130. This information seems to be unrealistic.

The tomb of Abraham.

The tomb of Abraham. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Caves of Forgotten Stories

The cave mentioned in the bible is known from records dating to the reign of Herod the Great. He built a structure on the site which was strongly related to Hellenistic Judaism. It was an enclosure that had a secret entrance (which still hasn’t been found). This construction made by the order of the famous king added to the legends and interest in the mysterious caves.

The stone canopy above a more visible known entrance to the caves

The stone canopy above a more visible known entrance to the caves (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Jews and Christians shared the site in the Byzantine period when it had a small church or basilica. But the temple was always tied to legends concerning the Cave of the Patriarchs. It is impossible to verify many of the ancient and medieval theories related to the site because the caves are not accessible to visitors, and it is very difficult for professionals to explore them too. Apparently, the tunnels that belonged to the system of caves are partly ruined.

The Muslim history of the cave started in 614. Then the caves seem to have been forgotten for many decades. But they were rediscovered by a monk in 1119 AD. This monk, known in history as Arnoul (not his real name, but what he is called), is said to have entered the narrow passage of the cave and discovered a large, round room.

Before the exploration in 1119, the cave’s story reads even more like a legend and there are no records suggesting exploration. However, there is a very interesting text dated to the 11th century by Benjamin of Tudela who described some known facts about the caves at the time:

Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara. (Public Domain)

“At a distance of six parasangs is St. Abram de Bron, which is Hebron; the old city stood on the mountain but is now in ruins; and in the valley by the field of Machpelah lies the present city. Here there is the great church called St. Abram, and this was a Jewish place of worship at the time of the Mohammedan rule, but the Gentiles have erected there six tombs, respectively called those of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. The custodians tell the pilgrims that these are the tombs of the Patriarchs, for which information the pilgrims give them money. If a Jew comes and gives a special reward, the custodian of the cave opens unto him a gate of iron, which was constructed by our forefathers, and then he is able to descend below by means of steps, holding a lighted candle in his hand. He then reaches a cave, in which nothing is to be found, and a cave beyond, which is likewise empty, but when he reaches the third cave behold there are six sepulchers, those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, respectively facing those of Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah. And upon the graves are inscriptions cut in stone; upon the grave of Abraham is engraved “This is the grave of Abraham”; upon that of Isaac, “This is the grave of Isaac, the son of Abraham our Father”; upon that of Jacob, “This is the grave of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham our Father”; and upon the others, “This is the grave of Sarah,” “This is the grave of Rebekah,” and “This is the grave of Leah.” A lamp burns day and night upon the graves in the cave.”

Woodcut by Gustave Doré depicting the burial of Sarah in the cave.

Woodcut by Gustave Doré depicting the burial of Sarah in the cave. (Public Domain)

Tomb of Isaac, c. 1911

Tomb of Isaac, c. 1911. (Public Domain)

Remembering a Religious Space

The site was restored during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign was especially good for the Holy Land’s ancient sites.

The next time the world was reminded of the Cave of the Patriarchs importance was when the site became part of Israel in 1967. The location sits in a space of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, but it is still very attractive for religious tourism. However, in 1994 the Cave of the Patriarchs caught worldwide attention for a terrible event. It was the site of a massacre committed by an Israeli-American settler who killed 30 Palestinian Muslims.

Entrance to the caves

Entrance to the caves (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Nonetheless, the site has remained a sacred space for many generations. It has never lost its place amongst legends. Now it is known as the site of the Ibrahimi Mosque along with the Cave of the Patriarchs. Future research, if permitted, may prove it as one of the most remarkable cemeteries of the world, but for now, it is still a fascinating site for biblical archaeology.

Top image: Israel, Hebron, Cave of the Patriarchs from the south. (GFDL). The more visible known entrance to the caves. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Tombs of the Patriarchs, Hebron, available at:
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/hebron-tombs-of-the-patriarchs

Hebron: Tomb of the Patriarchs (Ma'arat HaMachpelah), available at:
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/machpelah.html

Inside the Caves of Machpela by Noam Arnon, available at:
http://www.hebron.com/english/article.php?id=282

Benjamin of Tudela, available at:
http://www.alexmitchellauthor.com/benjamin-of-tudela/

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