To many walking the Abraham Path, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is both the symbolic and actual final stage of the journey. It is at this point where all religious traditions agree Abraham was buried alongside Sarah and where their son Isaac and grandson Jacob, and their wives Rebecca and Leah, were buried as well. Muslims also believe that the grave of Joseph (the son of Jacob) is located at this site and there is a Jewish tradition associating the site with the burial place of Adam and Eve.
This is the second most sacred site in the world for Jews, and the fourth most sacred site for Muslims. Called the Haram al-Khalil by Muslims and Me’arat ha-Machpela by Jews, the site is referred to in English as either the Tomb or Cave of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs). Rather than one site, it consists of a complex of sacred shrines, two mosques and a synagogue, an amalgamation of architecture from different time periods. Outside, the vast Herodian walls of the complex are an amazing architectural feature from the 1st century with massive blocks up to 24 feet in length supporting the structure. Local legend even says that the djin (spirits) brought these huge blocks here.
The lower parts of the current wall are from this era while the higher parts are medieval additions that give the complex a fortress-style look. Inside, each Patriarch is honored through a cenotaph, a monument to the empty tombs on which they are built. The burial chambers underneath the cenotaphs have been closed off to any visitors since the 15th century. The cenotaphs are today divided between the Muslim section of the Al-Is’haqiyya Mosque and the Jewish section synagogue, with the two shrines dedicated to Abraham and Sarah being visible from both sides.
The 11th century wooden pulpit (minbar) in the mosque is one of the artistic highlights with its highly detailed carvings in walnut wood, with natural themes such as flowers, and intricate inlay which was originally held together without any nails (though nails were used in restorations). Its inscription states that it was originally from Ashkelon in 1091 and was sent to Hebron by Saladin. Next to the cenotaph of Abraham, a niche in the wall holds an indentation said to be the footprint of Adam. Near the pulpit, an opening to the cave below lies covered with a marble lid, though the caves are closed to everyone.
The tides of empire and with it the waves of religious exclusion or tolerance mark the history of the site. Herod the Great constructed the impressive enclosure wall around the caves in the 1st century AD. With the advent of Christianity, a small basilica was built but only just prior to the Persian conquest that destroyed most of the area in the 7th century. After the arrival of Islam, the Ummayads built a mosque on top of the ruins and Muslim control over the site continued until the Crusaders conquered Hebron in 1099 and reconverted the mosque into a church, excluding Muslims and Jews from worship at the site. After Saladin retook Hebron from the Crusaders in 1187, the site returned to being a mosque and over the next centuries periods of both tolerance and exclusion vis-à-vis Christian and Jewish worshippers unfolded.
The recent history of the Tomb of the Patriarchs mirrors the tension and political complexity of Hebron at large, and especially the Old City. Jewish worshippers returned to the Tomb of the Patriarchs after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, while the Islamic Waqf remained in charge of the complex. From 1967 to 1994, Muslims and Jews worshiped together in the same building, the Jews facing Jerusalem on one side of the room while the Muslims faced Mecca on the other side. In 1994, after a strong eruption of violence (see Hebron Old City), the structure was split into mosque and synagogue, with a pane of bulletproof glass between the windows on each side that face into the cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah. Since then, the doors between the Jewish and Muslim section have been closed and the Israeli army tightly controls access to either side.