Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.
like a fortress over the shoddy buildings that surround it, the ancient
structure in Hebron covers a site sacred to Jews, Christians, and
Muslims. In elevation, Hebron stands taller than even Jerusalem. And
other than the Temple Mount itself, no other place remains as revered to
peoples whose hopes and faiths could not be more diverse.
building covers the Cave of the Patriarchs, the place the Bible refers
to as the burial ground for the Hebrew patriarchs and their wives. In
the first century BC, Herod the Great constructed a massive wall around
the cave—a beautiful edifice with construction techniques similar to
those of the Temple Mount.
As with Jerusalem’s Western Wall
Tunnel, the massive size of the foundation stones surrounding the Cave
of the Patriarchs inspires awe to all who see them. With Herod’s
signature relief framing the edges, each stone sits slightly offset from
the one beneath it, providing the optical illusion of both loftiness
and grandeur. Inside the wall, the pavement also dates to Herod’s day.
centuries passed, the four sides of the structure would include
porticoes, and a partition divided the different faiths that came to
visit. The Augustinian Canons rediscovered the Cave of the Patriarchs
below Herod’s structure in AD 1119. For a time, anyone could visit the
underground area. But by the end of the 13th century, no one from the
general public was allowed in the cave.
monochrome exterior blends with its drab surroundings. But inside the
colors and architecture vary wildly—betraying the hodgepodge of
intentions imposed on it throughout the centuries. The Crusader ceiling
looks beautiful, as does the ornate wooden pulpit Saladin donated in
1191 after burning Ashkelon. Today, the magnificent pulpit sits beside
Isaac’s cenotaph (a tomb marker or monument).
Because the cave
remains inaccessible, cenotaphs stand to commemorate the patriarchs
buried below. Visitors can see the cenotaphs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,
Rebecca, Leah, and Sarah. A padlocked trap door covers a shaft that
descends to the Cave of the Patriarchs below where the patriarchs lay.
ironic that the only part of the land Abraham actually owned—though God
promised him all of it—was this burial plot in Hebron. In fact, Abraham
lived for sixty-two years in the Promised Land before owning any of it.
Abraham haggled for the purchase and ultimately paid 400 silver shekels
for the cave. Like many pilgrims in Israel today, the result of
haggling is still paying way too much.
When God called Abraham to
leave his homeland and his idols in order to follow the true God, the
old man walked away from everything familiar (Genesis 12:1-4; Joshua
24:2-3). Abraham and his many descendants would die before ever
receiving all God promised. “All these died in faith, without receiving
the promises,” the book of Hebrews reminds us, “having confessed that
they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). Either God
reneged on His promise to Abraham, or the promise proves—and even
Isaac and Ishmael laid their father Abraham to rest at this site
(Genesis 25:9). Their diverging lines of descendants share a common
lineage to Abraham—but today they struggle to share even the same site
that commemorates him. As a result of the unpredictable—and even
volatile—tensions between the Muslims and Jews who share the modern
building, visitors would do well to predetermine whether or not a visit
to Hebron is safe.Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.