The building that houses the Cave of the Patriarchs is the last intact structure to survive from the days of King Herod—but it’s the cenotaphs inside that draw pilgrims from three faiths.
Question: What set of six tombs contains nothing at all yet still means everything to three religions?
Answer: The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron
Visitors to the holiest site in Hebron can be forgiven for thinking they are seeing something that they are not. Inside the massive stone complex above the Cave the Patriarchs (Cave of Machpelah), they will find six cenotaphs adorned with beautifully woven tapestries, calling to mind flag-draped coffins on pedestals.
What is less obvious at a glance is that these are not coffins or tombs at all but simply ceremonial placeholders, visual indicators of the meaning of the complex. They are supposed to represent the final resting places of the men and women who together are considered not just the patriarchs but also the matriarchs of three world religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In fact, the cenotaphs are empty—but the elders of antiquity aren’t too far away.
According to the Torah, Bible, and Koran, Abraham purchased the cave and surrounding field to be the burial plot for his wife, Sarah, who died before him. The Biblical version lists him as following her in death, later to be joined by their son Isaac and his wife, Rebecca. Isaac’s son Jacob and his wife Leah are said to round out the sextet entombed here.
Though accounts of their burials are referenced on and off again in the following centuries, it wasn’t until Roman King Herod came along that the spot was marked in grand fashion with massive stone walls (but no roof). Since the underground tombs had been covered by growth, construction, and debris in the intervening years, no one was sure exactly where to find the bodies, but Herod erected a set of cenotaphs in order to give Jewish citizens a place to visit—for a fee.
Another millennium passed before a monk named Arnoul, alerted by a draft of air on site, found a crumbling opening that led to a staircase. Further exploration passed several empty, dust-filled chambers, eventually leading to a room where the bodies of the three men were found, their shrouds largely disintegrated and propped up against a wall. This led to the discovery of more bones, which were assumed to be those of the women. What happened next varies by teller.
The monk washed the bones in wine to clean and preserve them, and six sepulchers were erected down in the cave. But some reports from that era say that Christian soldiers buried the bones in the church floor, not in the new tombs. Others say only some of the bones were buried, while the rest were sold as icons to Jewish and Christian faithful. Even those who believe the bones were interred in the individual sepulchers acknowledge that the monk had no way of telling whose bones he was handling, so even if the underground tombs are occupied, it is likely that each contains a mix of the ancients.
Above ground, in the floor, or down in the caves—one thing is certain: people of all faiths who make pilgrimages to this site are indeed paying their respects at the final resting place of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
5 More Fascinating Facts about the Cave of the Patriarchs
- Dominion has changed repeatedly: After Herod, Christians erected a no-Jews-allowed basilica here, only to be replaced in turn by an Arab mosque (with the same ban). Byzantines made it a Christian church, with no Muslims allowed, but then it was a Muslim site for nearly 800 years. Since the Six Day War, the site has official been under control of the State of Israel.
- There might be a seventh member of the ancestral family buried here—at least in part. Jewish tradition says that when Jacob died, his brother Esau claimed Jacob’s spot in the tomb was reserved for him and tried to prevent the burial. Relatives argued that Esau had sold the spot along with his birthright years before. Jacob’s grandson, enraged at the hold-up, decapitated Esau, whose head rolled into the tomb and stayed there.
- In the 12th century, after the bones were rediscovered, Christian tourists were kept in the dark about this find, and continually led to the upper level to look at the cenotaphs for a small fee; Jews were told the truth and allowed to enter caves below to pray at the sepulcher, but for a higher fee.
- The Herodian cenotaphs were long gone by the Ottoman era, so the six cenotaphs today are the actually the handiwork of the Sultans of Constantinople. The sultans ordered that the finest Turkish coverings be woven to distinguish the ancestors by gender: green for the men and red for the women. Examiners closely monitored their tapestries; if they ever started to fade, they were replaced immediately.
- Though now formally under Jewish control, 81% of the building is reserved for Muslim use. Co-existence is not effortless: Jews and Muslims use different entrances, there are walking paths only Jews may use to access the site, and roads upon which only non-Palestinians may drive.
Discover the ancient history of many faiths when you experience the Palestinian Discovery pre-trip extension to our Suez Canal Crossing: Israel, Egypt, Jordan & the Red Sea Small Ship Adventure.