That time again… Another Israel Mystery Photo. This one is one that I think many of you have probably seen but perhaps didn’t look that closely at. So I look forward to seeing how many of you can recognize it, and also to telling you about it in the next Israel Mystery Photo post!
But what about last week’s mystery photo? Well, many fewer guesses, possibly due to how late I posted it. Benny, however, was correct — it was indeed the covering of Abraham’s tomb in Ma’arat HaMachpelah / The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. I bet Aaron is kicking himself for not recognizing that one; you were so close, dude, and yet didn’t quite get it!
Technically, the picture was not of the tomb itself, but rather of what is known as a “cenotaph” — an empty marker above the grave, which is presumed to be in the caves down below the building. And the covering on it bears an embroidered medallion with Arabic writing. According to this site, the writing translates to “This is the tomb of the prophet Abraham, may he rest in peace.” And since I don’t speak or read Arabic, I’ll take their word for it!
There are many sites in the Holy Land associated with the burial places of holy people. Christianity, for example, has the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and/or the Garden Tomb. Many righteous Muslims are commemorated with “kivrei Sheikh” — graves of wise elders. There are also plenty of sites that are holy to Druze which are associated with various prophets (such as Jethro). And of course Jews have hundreds of grave sites associated with both Biblical figures and later rabbis and learned people.
Due to the shared veneration of many of the same Biblical figures, there are a number of such graves that are esteemed by Jews and Muslims alike (and often to Christians as well, though to a lesser degree). An example would be Nebi Samwil (the prophet Samuel), just outside of today’s Jerusalem. And of course, the mother (and father) of such sites is The Cave of the Patriarchs.
It has one of the longest traditions of any such site, and it makes sense logically that it could be the correct site for the cave mentioned in the Bible as the burial site for Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah. The main building is believed to have been built by Herod the Great, the only building he built that remains standing complete. Over the past 2000+ years, however, many changes and alterations have taken place.
Who was permitted into the building has also changed over time, depending on which powers had control of the land. For example, when Saladin defeated the Crusaders, he allowed Christians to continue praying at the site, despite his building a mosque at the site. Later, when the Mamluks controlled the land, Jews were not permitted inside, and could only ascend a few steps outside. Thus, one of the sites Jews tend to visit nowadays is that top step to which they were permitted to reach. It became a spot of prayer of its own since the inner area was inaccessible to them.
Following 1967’s Six Day War in which Israel gained control of the area of the Cave of the Patriarchs, access to the site was provided to all faiths, though tensions between Muslims and Jews at the sight have been extremely rough and violent at times through the intervening years. Still, both Muslims and Jews are able to visit the site and worship at the site above the burial cave of our ancestors, unlike in the prior years. Now, the times and areas where each can enter and pray are strictly regimented and separated. Nonetheless, Ma’arat HaMachpelah is one of the only major sites in the world where Muslims and Jews pray under the same roof together.