The Cave of the Patriarchs (Me’arat Hamachpelah) stands at the entrance to Hebron, an ancient city in the southern West Bank, 30km south of Jerusalem. It is the traditional burial site of four biblical couples - Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.
These were the founders of the Jewish nation and the forebearers of Christianity and Judaism. As descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael, Muslims also hold the tomb sacred. It has long been a tradition to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs for spiritual comfort, blessings, guidance, and mercy.
The Burial Site of Biblical Forefathers
The site features in the Old Testament, several times. In Genesis, we read how Abraham bought the cave and surrounding plot of land as a burial place for his wife, Sarah. Later he was buried beside her, and so too were future patriarchs and matriarchs. Caleb, one of the scouts sent by Moses into the Land of Canaan, stopped at Hebron to pray at the patriarchs’ tombs. The Cave of the Patriarchs is also mentioned in the Book of Zohar, as the gateway to the Garden of Eden.
History of the Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron
The cave itself lies deep beneath the ground. According to legend, no one is known to have entered the cave and survived, except for Rabbi Azulai. 300 years ago, the Rabbi was lowered into the cave to retrieve the Turkish Sultan’s sword. The Rabbi came out alive, only to die a week later. In the 1st-century Herod built a structure above the cave with 6ft-thick stone walls.
The Herodian building has survived surrounding and protecting the cave to this day. At some point, a mosque was built within the Herodian walls. In 1100, Crusaders took over the compound, but less than a hundred years later, the site was once again a Muslim place of worship. Under Muslim rule, Jewish access to the cave was denied in the 1490s.
For about 500 years Jews visiting the site could only approach as far as the seventh step on the stairway leading to the compound. Despite this restriction, Jews continued to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the site fell under Israeli jurisdiction, and Jews could once again access the compound.
The Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs Today
The 1995 Wye River Accords gave the Muslim administrative body control of the southeastern section, including the cave entrance and the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca. On ten auspicious religious days a year, Jews are given access to the Muslim section of the site. The rest of the site is open daily to all visitors.
Visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs should be done with a guided tour, as it is in a politically vulnerable area. It is possible to visit the nearby Jewish community of Kiryat Arba, the Jewish Quarter of Hebron, or attend a religious service at the Cave of Machpelah synagogue.