The ancient tree of Mamre has its roots in the Old Testament. It has grown near Hebron, in the southern West Bank since time immemorial. The legendary single oak or terebinth tree stands on a hilltop propped up by metal beams like a withering old man. Although it appears dried out there are new, fresh, green offshoots from the granddaddy of oak trees.
“Now the Lord appeared to him in the terebinths of Mamre…” The tree features in Genesis 18:1-18 when Abraham pitched his tent beneath the terebinth (turpentine or oak) tree. Here Abraham was visited by three angels who told him of his wife Sarah’s future pregnancy. This has given the tree the name “Oak of Abraham'' or the “Tamarisk Tree of Abraham.”
The tree is mentioned in several historic texts, such as the Frankish Bishop Arculf’s description of his pilgrimage in 680; by Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173), and the 10th-century writing of Rabbi Petechiae of Ratisbon. It is mentioned in the writings of the Roman historian Josephus, and by Byzantine Jewish and Christian sources. The legend has survived hundreds of years but opinions about the exact location of ancient Mamre, and the biblical tree have changed.
Where is Mamre?
The Bible describes Mamre as Abraham’s home where he built an altar to God. The location of Memre has long been disputed and can be confusing. There are three possible sites identified as biblical Mamre in Hebron. The Oak of Mamre at Khirbet es-Sibte in Hebron, and is distinct from the more ancient site of Mamre, at Ramat el-Khalil, 2m away.
Khirbet Nimra - this site has been identified as the Persian and Hellenistic location of Mamre.
Ramat el-Khalil - is located about 3km north of Hebron, on the ancient Al-Rama Road. It was considered the correct location of Abraham’s Tree by King Herod, the Roman historian Josephus, Constantine the Great, and up until the 12th-century Crusaders. After that, the location of the site became unclear and shifted to Khirbet es-Sibte. Ramat el-Khalil is still held by Jews to be the site of Abraham’s Tree. Archaeological findings at Ramat el-Khalil date back to the Bronze Age and include the ruins of a 1st-century haram, and 4th-century basilica.
Khirbet es-Sibte - today Christians prefer Khirbet es-Sibte as the traditional location of the Oak of Mamre. Khirbet es-Sibte lies 2km southwest of Ramat el-Khalil. In 1868 the site was purchased by the Church of Russia and the Monastery of the Holy Trinity was built with the tree in the monastery courtyard. The monastery remains the only Christian site in Hebron and the site is still known in Arabic as Moscovia from the word Moscow.
The Oak of Mamre Today
Since the 1997 Hebron Accords that divided Hebron, the Ramat el-Khalil site has been off-limits to Israelis and visitors. Recently the Palestinian Authority has made the tree more accessible, and named the site “Haram Ramat Al Khalil.” There are very few visitors to the el-Khalil site, and a few Christian tours visit the Khirbet es-Sibte site each year.