Israeli history photo of the week: Cave of the Patriarchs

JPost special feature: A Library of Congress collection that documents Israel before the creation of the state.

Inner entrance to Machpelah 311 (photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
Inner entrance to Machpelah 311
(photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
The Library of Congress has recently digitalized a collection of over 10,000 photographs, taken by the "American Colony" in Jerusalem, a group of Christian utopians who lived in Jerusalem between 1881 and the 1940s. The photographers returned to the US, and bequeathed their massive collection to the Library of Congress in 1978. The collection includes Winston Churchill's visit to Jerusalem, Jewish expulsions from the Old City during Arab riots, and the building of Tel Aviv.

In synagogues around the world this Sabbath, congregations will read the Torah portion describing Sarah's death and burial. Abraham purchased the Mearat HaMachpela [literally the "double cave" -- so named either because it had two chambers or it would eventually contain pairs of husbands and their wives].In Israel, thousands of Jews will converge on Hebron and pray in the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs during the Sabbath.The massive building surrounding the grave site was built by King Herod two thousand years ago. The actual graves are located in subterranean caverns beneath. Their locations are marked above ground by cenotaphs -- empty tombs that serve as monuments.
In the 11th and 12th century Jewish travelers documented visiting the caves. One of them, Binyamin of Tudela, described "two empty caves, and in the third ... six tombs, on which the names of the three Patriarchs and their wives are inscribed in Hebrew characters. The cave is filled with barrels containing bones of people, which are taken there as to a sacred place."  The great Jewish scholar Maimonides visited the tombs in 1116 and declared it a personal holy day. From the 14th century, however, Jews were not permitted to pray at the shrine. The Mamluks (an Islamic army of slave soldiers) forbade Jews from visiting the site other than standing on stairs outside. The practice continued until 1948 when all Jews were banned from the Jordanian-occupied West Bank. When Israel captured the area in 1967 Jews were allowed to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs, but Israel allowed the Islamic Waqf authorities to maintain control of large portions of the site. Many Jewish families in Israel celebrate weddings, bar mitzvas and circumcisions at the shrine. More photos can be viewed at