In days of yore, Mamre was a thriving marketplace where Jews, pagans and early Christians used to buy, sell and trade, and religious rituals of various denominations took place. To the 250 visitors that made the trip to Mamre on a chilly Thursday night, it must have seemed much more desolate.
The large field that is today known as Elonei Mamre (Oaks of Mamre) is distinguished by its massive stone walls and dotted with random pillars and broken remains.
The trip took place a day before the Shabbat of Parashat Hayei Sarah, the Torah portion in which the purchase of the Cave of Machpela is described.
Mamre is mentioned several chapters before as the site where Abraham and Sarah pitched their tent and were visited by three angels. Today the angels came in the form of three buses with accompanying IDF soldiers who drove the group from Kiryat Arba into what is today part of the H1 zone of Hebron controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The trip was organized by Midreshet Hevron, a field school founded in 1978 that teaches Land of Israel studies, and arranges field trips in Hebron, Jerusalem, the Judean desert and other locations throughout the country. The participants ranged from Midreshet Hevron college-aged students to black-hatted hassidim to members of the Bnei Menashe from neighboring Kiryat Arba.
Researchers affiliated with Midreshet Hevron, including Dr. Yoram Almachias, Meir Dana-Pichard, Noam Arnon and Doron Sher Avi, split up into groups and explained what the crowd was seeing using maps, diagrams and even a Bible, as one researcher quoted from the Book of Genesis.
So did Abraham and Sarah live at this location? As far back as the Middle Ages people seemed to think so.
Jewish traveler and historian Benjamin of Tudela (1130 - 1173) wrote in his travel journal that “beyond the field of Machpela is the house of Abraham; there is a well in front of the house, but out of reverence for the Patriarch Abraham no one is allowed to build in the neighborhood.”
However, another site in Hebron called Nimra is thought by some to be the location of ancient Mamre due to its similar name and closer proximity to the Cave of Machpela. Still another more famous site in Hebron is called the Oak of Mamre, known as Eshel Avraham in Hebrew. This tree, which can still be seen today, it believed by some to be where Abraham sat “by the terebinths of Mamre.”
Today, the tree is located in the courtyard of Abraham’s Oak Holy Trinity Monastery built in the 19th century. However, Noam Arnon, author of the newly released book called Hama’ara – Discoveries and Research at the Cave of Machpela, told The Jerusalem Post that the Elonei Mamre archeological site is more likely the true location of the special tree that has captivated the imaginations of so many over the generations. “The tree didn’t move; the tradition moved.” He added that historians believe the contemporary Oak of Abraham site is too far away from the Cave of Machpela to match up with descriptions.
Meir Dana-Pichard, who works at Midreshet Hevron, also spoke to the Post and explained that the tree was once central to pagan worship at the site, but today all that is left are stones. It was rituals like these that led the rabbis of the Talmud to warn the Jewish community of the time to avoid the annual festival that took place there. In the Jerusalem Talmud in tractate Avoda Zara, which deals with idol worship, Rabbi Yohanan refers to the place as Beit Ilanim or Botnah, the site of the most important of three annual fairs.
Past excavations at Mamre have revealed pottery from the time of King Hezekiah, who lived in the First Temple period, and evidence of the Hasmoneans, Dana-Pichard explained. The famous Jewish historian Josephus wrote about the site, as did the Christian historian Jerome. The stone walls measure about two meters high, 70 x 30 meters in some places. One striking aspect is a lower section of wall that has the exact same Herodian masonry as the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the Tomb of Machpela in Hebron. The chiseled margins around the block led archeologists to conclude it was built by King Herod some 2,000 years ago.
After the pagan era, Constantine build a church there. The Madaba Map, which dates back to the sixth century, includes Mamre next to the church. Dana-Pichard explained that excavations revealed remains of a Byzantine church that existed on the spot and was later destroyed during the Islamic period.
One surviving spot at Mamre is a large round deep shaft that looks like a well covered with an iron grate. Dana-Pichard explained that it collected rainwater and may have been used for religious rituals. Past historians have reported viewing a structure called Abraham’s Well at the site. Could this have been it? The Travels of Rabbi Petahia of Ratisbon, which chronicles a journey that took place roughly between 1170 and 1187, records visiting the tree under which the angels rested, among the oaks of Mamre: “He also showed him a fine olive tree cleft into three parts with a stone in the middle. They have a tradition that when the angels sat down the tree was cleft into three parts, each resting under one tree whilst sitting on the stone. The fruits of the tree are very sweet. By the tree is the well of Sarah; its waters are clear and sweet.
By the well is the tent of Sarah. Close by Mamre is a plain and on the other side there are about a hundred cubits from the well of Sarah to the well of Abraham. Its water is very agreeable. They also showed him a stone of twenty-eight cubits, upon which Abraham, our father, was circumcised.”
While standing above the iron railing by the well, Arnon pointed down the street and stated, “that’s where we used to catch the bus into Kiryat Arba.” Although the nearby Jewish community is only a five-minute bus ride away, the large mosque built three years ago and the Palestinian Authority flags fluttering in the night breeze make it feel a lot farther.
Another long-time local resident added that he used to pass the site daily while waiting for a ride into Jerusalem.
Located near “Glass Junction,” what once was the main route to the Jewish community has seen the effects of urban sprawl with a huge building owned by Hebron’s Herbawi mattress factory towering over the archeological site.
All this was new to Alex Oliver, a young man from Toronto, Canada, who said he came on the trip at the last minute not knowing what to expect. “It was remarkable” he exclaimed. He couldn’t help noting the huge empty office buildings across the street and wondering about the political ramifications. Meanwhile, some visitors got a kick out of taking selfies with “Abraham’s well” in the foreground and the new towering mosque with its green neon-topped minaret in the background.
Arnon lamented that the site used to be open to the public on a daily basis and hoped that the annual visits would one day take place more often.
The site also played a significant role during the bloody battle between the Jews and the Romans. Most visitors to Israel know of Masada, and the story of Shimon Bar Kochba and his revolt against the Romans is famous. When the Romans finally put down the rebellion, it was at ancient Mamre that they set up their slave market.
Dana-Pichard explained, “After the Great Revolt, the Romans sold Jews as slaves from this location. A Roman historian tells us that the price of a Jewish slave was the same as the cost to feed a horse for one day because there were so many Jews on sale.” He added, “It’s very exciting to think that here we stand, after 2,000 years. Back then we were in a state of weakness, while today, we have our own army and our own country.”
He concluded with a story from the Midrash in Genesis Raba that explains that Mamre was named after a man by the same name who was a good friend of Abraham. When the Jewish patriarch told him that he received a commandment from God to perform the act of circumcision, he asked Mamre for advice. To which his friend replied: this is the God that saved you from the burning furnace, the battle with the five kings and from famine. If he requests something from you, don’t ask questions, just do it. In return for such advice, Mamre is merited to have had a divine revelation take place “in the fields of Mamre.”
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