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Israel's Holy City of Hebron
The stories of the 'old testament' (so called only by Christians--it is the Torah to the Jews) are a subject of fascination for the archaeologist and many other academics alike, from linguists to historians who seek to find in the tales something that is true and so believed; rather than what they should be -- -- believed and hence true .
Judeo Christianity depends more upon place then many other religions. So for example the Muslim has Mecca, the Buddhist has Lhasa and even the Scientologists have Hollywood, but none of these or indeed most other systems of religious thought depend so intimately on the historical record for verification of their beliefs so much as the Torah and Testaments do.
Hebron--The Nexus Point for Eretz Israel
The importance of the city of Hebron, for the Jews, is roughly equivalent to that of Nazareth for Christians. It is the beginning place , the geographical spot on the map that can be pointed to and said of: 'there is where it all started for us.' True enough that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but the bulk of his formation occurred in Nazareth.
Hebron , in the Hebrew language, (according to one definition) means 'connection ' and so it is a connection , a nexus point, in several ways. It is the city that connects the Jewish people to their beginnings, their genesis , because it is where Abraham (the founder of the Jewish religion) chose to live and where he communicated with the One God. It connects the Jews to the very birth-place of their faith.
“And Abram encamped and he came and settled in Elonei Mamre
that is in Hebron and there he built an altar to G-d” (Gen. 13:17–18).
It is called a citadel city, towering over all Eretz Israel, by virue of the fact that it is the highest such city in elevation in all that country.
Hebron is a connection to the misty past, because it is one of the oldest inhabited cities, not only in Israel, but in the entire world, and so connects this land to all the peoples of the earth and all the scattered Jews of the earth, wherever they may be.
Indeed, Hebron connects Israel and the Jews to Heaven itself , by way of the tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Bible, the Torah .
In another sense, Hebron connects the Jews to their future. For the future of the land of Israel lies tangled in the question of ownership and boundaries. But as we read in the Torah, Israel was given to the Jews long before any other competing claims or religions even existed.
"G-d promised Abraham that He would
“give this land to your offspring” (Gen. 15:18).
And perhaps in it's most conflicted but hopeful sense, Hebron connects the three major faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam to Hebron by way of Abraham, who is, by all three, revered and venerated.
Hebron Cave of Machpelah
"Abram moved his tent, and came and lived by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and built an altar there to Yahweh".Genesis 13:18
Historically speaking,archeologists have discovered that Hebron was founded back in what is known as the early Canaanite period of 2200 BCE to 3300 BCE, and as such was a major Canaanite city. It remained so until the Egyptian conquest campaign destroyed it around 1550 BC .
Our story begins with the arrival of Abraham, the founder, for lack of a better word, of the Jewish people. It was Abraham who purchased that part of Hebron known as Ma’arat ha-Makhpela (Tomb of the Patriarchs) namely: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah.
It is important to keep in mind that Israel is more than just 'land' or real estate--it is a 'sacred space' which was in effect laid-out by God when he commanded Abraham, in Genesis 13:17, to "stand up and walk in the land, to it's length and it's breadth, for I shall give it to you."
Now it is surely a testament to the strength, and vitality of this, by no means youthful Abraham, that he obeyed God (the length and breadth of Israel taken as a walking-tour is a formidable challenge!) but at any rate, in doing so he allowed God to give Eretz Israel as an inheritance to the Jewish people.(Genesis 15:18)
After he did this, Abraham chose Hebron to be his dwelling-place, and in Elonei Mamre, in the area of Hebron, he set up an altar to God from which he could proclaim the One God and the monotheism which would come to distinguish the Jews from all the surrounding peoples (Hittites,Canannites,etc.) who worshiped pantheons of gods.
We are all familiar with the story of David and Goliath, who was himself an instrument of the Philistines. It was they who ruled the area until David was anointed by the tribe of Judah as king of Hebron, and eventually, as he moved his sphere of influence all the way to Jerusalem itself. After this,Hebron was somewhat subservient to Jerusalem,where the center of 'all things Israel' were headquartered.
With the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians around 580 BCE,and from then on, Hebron itself was never the same again. It became a turnstile for invading religions and armies, from the Edomites to the Muslims.
After the Babylonian exile, Jews had a second life in Hebron, when the Maccabees were able to wrestle control back from the Edomites, and Herod built his great 'cyclopean' wall around Hebron's Machpelah, but it wasn't to last, as during the period of the second temple Vespasian's military, on behalf of Romans everywhere, burnt down the city,and 135 BCE saw Jews sold as slaves in a sort of 'suburb' of Hebron--Mamre.
Now it was the Christian's who turn to make a stake in Hebron,when Justinian ordered erected, over the Cave of the Patriarchs, a Byzantine church (we are now up to the 6th century CE.) which in turn was de-constructed by the Sassanid armies of Khosrau II in his successful bid to take Jerusalem.
Islam first came to Hebron under the Rashindin Caliphate of 639. This time a mosque was installed over the Cave of the Patriarchs by remaking the Byzantine ediface of Justinian, into a place of worship for those of the Muslim faith--a faith which also claims Abraham as an important figure.
al-Muqaddasi, writing in 985 described the town this way:
"Habra (Hebron) is the village of Abraham al-Khalil (the Friend of God)...Within it is a strong fortress...being of enormous squared stones. In the middle of this stands a dome of stone, built in Islamic times, over the sepulchre of Abraham. The tomb of Isaac lies forward, in the main building of the mosque, the tomb of Jacob to the rear; facing each prophet lies his wife. The enclosure has been converted into a mosque, and built around it are rest houses for the pilgrims..."
In 1166, Maimonides went to Hebron and writes: "And the first day of the week, the 9th day of Cheshvan , I left Jerusalem for Hebron to kiss the graves of my forefathers in the Cave of Machpela. And the same day, I stood in the cellar, and I was praying, praising the Lord for everything. "
Hebron, under Islamic rule, was not to last, at least during this era, when Crusader Godfrey de Bouillon arrived and took Hebron renaming it "Castellion Saint Abraham". In his turn he converted the mosque and the synagogue into a church expelling the Jews who were living there. The city was overtaken briefly by Saladin, until taken back by Richard the Lionhearted.
Fast forward, past the rivalry between the Templars and Hospitallers, (rival Crusade-sects), and once again Hebron finds itself under Muslim control, this time the Mamluk Sultan Baibar; the year is 1260.
Abraham Avinu synagogue
Malkiel Ashkenazi (? 1450) is a rabbi of Sephardic tradition, known for his leadership of the Jewish community of Hebron in 1540, which he revitalized. The Ottoman Empire gained control of the land of Israel in 1517 , the exiled Jews in Salonika (then Ottoman possession) were allowed to return legally in Palestine . Among these Jews, many were expelled from Spain in 1492.
The Hakham Malkiel Ashkenazi was responsible for the purchase of a courtyard in Hebron, where he established the Abraham Avinu synagogue , which became a center for the study of Kabbalah .
Ottomans of Turkey occupied much of the Holy Land by 1523, and Jews that had been flooding into Israel escaping the terrors of the Spanish Inquistion, now were inhabiting Hebron in greater numbers than they had been, after their expulsion in the mid 14th century onward by the aforementioned Baibars.
The Ottomans can be commended for at least one thing that occurred under their rule, namely the restoration of the Cave of Machpelah, which was " covered with rich carpets of green silk" and , "embroidered with gold " with carpets donated by the Sultans of Constantinople according to writer Ali Bey who "counted nine, one over the other, upon the sepulchre of Abraham."
At this point the turbulent history of Hebron moves beyond the Biblical and ancient and into the contemporary world, where the turbulence continues even to this day.
The city has always been contested, as we have seen, by all the 'major' religions of the world, owing to the fact that is the resting-place of the great Abraham--Patriarch and figure of extraordinary import for all the religions that he inspired, founded or was sanctified by.
Today Muslims and Jews inhabit the area, in a tension that every so often breaks out into open violence, a situation that should not be expected to change in the near future, by anyone who is a student of the history of Hebron--this city the Jews claim from earliest times but who have rarely been allowed to possess.
Places of Interest in Hebron
- the Tomb of the Patriarchs
- the Archaeological Museum with objects from the Canaanite period
- the oak of Mamre : it is a very old oak tree, whose age is estimated at 850 years, located west of Hebron and known for Eshel Avraham ("אשל אברהם")
- the archaeological site of Tel Romeida, location of the ancient city of Hebron.
- the tombs of Abner , Jesse (father of King David ) and Ruth (grandmother of Jesse, see in the Bible, Book of Ruth 4.22) in Tel Romeida.
- Avraham Avinu synagogue in the historic Jewish Quarter.