One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the Old City of Hebron has historically been a meeting place for pilgrims, traders and travelers coming from around the Middle East. Today the Old City sits uneasily in between the memory of Abraham as Al-Khalil, the “friend of God”, and the flashpoint of occasional conflict that it has become.
Hebron is one of the only cities in the world today with a perfectly preserved Mamluk infrastructure, which dates back to the twelfth century. Unlike Jerusalem, Hebron had no walls for protection. Instead the inhabitants relied on its complex network of streets and alleyways to confuse attackers. This meant that the city was open to all travellers who came. There is even a soup kitchen, still active today, where Abraham’s soup has been served for free to any hungry pilgrim or locals in need for hundreds of years.
The Old City was built using the hoash model where the members of an extended family would build their homes around a shared courtyard. When a family expanded, they would add a new house around the courtyard. This structure created a highly communal culture. These family compounds were divided into “quarters” grouped by ethnicity, profession or family name. Famous quarters in Hebron were the glassmaker’s quarter, the yogurt maker’s quarter, and the Kurdish quarter. Visitors to the Old City today can wander Hebron’s ancient streets and visit artisans, such as the yogurt makers, glass blowers and confectioners who are still practicing their craft today. Amidst a range of other historic places, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is in and at the center of the Old City.
In the last century, Hebron’s Old City and its inhabitants have greatly suffered the pains inflicted by conflict. The massacres of 1929 and 1994 still have a profound impact on the Old City today, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which after 1994 was divided into a mosque and synagogue, with a wall and bulletproof glass in between. The resulting tensions and the 1997 division into H1 and H2 have also seriously affected Hebron’s once lively souk in the Old City. Various projects since then have been trying to turn the tide for its inhabitants. However, despite lingering tensions, Hebron’s long history of hospitality and commerce is still alive in the welcoming nature of local residents.
Visitors should be aware that visiting Hebron can be more fraught with tensions and practical difficulties than other places in the West Bank. The area known as H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, is generally equally safe to other Palestinian cities. H2 comprises most of the Old City, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs and 20% of all of Hebron. In H2, the Israeli army is in control of an area where a few hundred Israeli settlers live amidst thousands of Palestinians. An international unarmed observer force—the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) monitors the situation in H2 closely. It consists of observers from Norway, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey and the TIPH website provides a useful overview into the complex situation around H1/H2, Israeli settlements in the situation in Hebron’s Old City.