Hebron: The city of Abraham, the Beloved

Hebron: The city of Abraham, the Beloved

THE BUS changed into a lower gear. We were driving past ancient terraces cut into the rocky hillsides just outside Hebron, a region celebrated for its grapes, apricots, nuts, pomegranates, tomatoes and figs. Out of the window I could see gnarly green vines that had recently groaned with sweet black grapes.

The countryside around Hebron is the Biblical land of “milk and honey”. This is the territory that the tribes of Israel could not enter for 40 years after their flight from Egypt. It was from these hills that scouts brought Moses pomegranates and vine branches as proof of what they’d seen.

Hebron is also celebrated for its glassware, pottery and leather goods that are sold to tourists in Tel Aviv as “Italian” goods. These industries were said to have been brought to the city in the 15th century by Andalusian Jews fleeing the Catholic inquisition.

Hebron is 30 kilometres south of Jerusalem. If you look at a map of Palestine, Hebron is the biggest town in the southern section of the West Bank, so-named because it is on the western side of the Jordan.

A feature of this map is the infamous “green line” (now eaten away by the apartheid wall and Zionist settlements) which is supposed to mark Palestinian territory. Jerusalem is not part of the West Bank. A salient feature of the green line is that it cuts into the Holy City, making the map look like a balloon squeezed in half by an unseen hand.

Another 40 or so kilometres south of Hebron is Beer Sheba where the prophet Ishmael was born to Hagar before she migrated to Mecca. The road takes the traveler up to the heights of Hebron, and then down to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Directly to the east is the Dead Sea where Abraham’s nephew, the prophet Lot delivered a message to the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Soon we were in the tangled streets of Hebron. The bus driver negotiated the winding thoroughfare up to the plaza below the Cave of the Patriarch. Hebron is in a valley surrounded by four rocky mountains and is 3,000 ft (about 1,000 metres) above sea level.

In Arabic, Hebron is known as “Khalil” and is named after Abraham. The Qur’an (4:125) reports that “God did take Abraham as an intimate (khalila)”.

Some authors argue that the modern day “Hebron” is an anglicized version of the Hebrew word “Hevron” (meaning friend) while a few maintain that it has Egyptian origins. Another ancient name for Hebron is Mamre.1 About two kilometres before the centre of town is RamatalRhalil, or Nimrah, where Abraham is said to have greeted the three Angels who told him that Sarah would bear Isaac. A large Byzantine church once graced the site, and is featured in the famous Madaba mosaic on Mount Nebo across the Jordan River.

Two kilometres west of Hebron is Maskubiyyah where there is a gnarly oak tree believed to be thousands of years old. Today, iron calipers prevent its twisted trunk from toppling over. Some locals claim that the ancient oak marks the location of Mamre.

This is where Abraham and Sarah could have encamped and where Jesus could have passed through with his mother Mary on the way from Egypt Excavations in 1926 revealed a Herodian enclosure with a well in,its southwestern corner. Until recently, Christiah pilgrims used to peel off pieces of bark for good luck. The Russian Orthodox Church who owns the site now prevents this.

Hebron boasts the bodies of many Prophets under its fertile soil. In the village of Halhul, a few kilometres north of Hebron, is the mosque and tomb of Jonah. Interestingly, there is another tomb of Jonah in Iraq as well as Galilee. This multiplicity of sacred burial spots belonging to the same person is nothing unusual in the Middle East

The Palestinians use the Arabic word “maqaam” to describe these locations. Lexically, the word means “the station of”. Historians believe many of these sites commemorate the places that the Prophets frequented during their lifetimes, rather than their burial spots.

In addition to the presence of Jonah in the neighbourhood, it’s widely believed that Joseph lies in Hebron in the Cave of the Patriarch together with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. After being buried in a marble sarcophagus in the middle of the Nile, he was carried from Egypt by Joshua and finally laid to rest with his father, Jacob.

Another old name for Hebron is Kiryat Arba, the town of four mountains. The Cananites called it “arbo’a” which means “four”. There is also a story based on old Jewish testament that says Hebron represents “four” because four couples (Adam and Eve, Jacob and Leah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Abraham and Sarah) are buried there.

On the other hand, Muslim scholars say their traditions point clearly to Adam either being interred on Mount Serendib in Sri Lanka, or on Mount Qubais in Mecca whilst Eve lies in a graveyard in the Saudi, seaport of Jeddah.

Hebron, like Jerusalem and Jericho, is an ancient centre and is one of the oldest inhabited places mentioned in the Torah. It is at least 5,000 years old and was a Cananite royal city. The prophet David was sent to Hebron, and he ruled there for about seven years before proceeding north to conquer Jerusalem.

Hebron is, without doubt a crucial fragment in the mosaic of Semitic history. Hebron is the fourth most sacred city in Islam. It is the second most revered city in Judaism, And, most significantly, Abraham is the one prophet who shares equal veneration in the three great monotheistic faiths.

The first person known to have built a structure on the site of the cave (housing the bodies of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Joseph) was Herod. Some of the 2,000 yearold stone blocks can still be seen in the lower walls of the enclosure. Over the millennia the Byzantines, the Ummayyads, the Crusaders, the Egyptian Mamluks and the Turkish Ottomans have all added their touches to the original Herodian structure.

Since ig67 the Israelis have also added their handiwork. The mosque’s drinking well, its eastern door and steps – as well as a minaret have been demolished.

We dismounted from the bus. An Israeli army jeep drove past us. Hebron is a West Bank flashpoint and the air is fraught with tension. Here, Zionism is urged at the point of a gun for the benefit of a messianic minority. After the 1967 war, and the Israeli takeover of the West Bank from Jordan, the diehard Rabbi Moshe Levinger had provocatively moved into the Darbawiyyah Hotel. Later, groups of fanatic disciples had followed his example by occupying a hospital in the city centre.

I was told that the last Jewish presence in the town had been in 1929 when about 60 Ashkenazi Jews had died in Arab uprisings. This unrest had been sparked off by an unwelcome influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe. Previously, Arabs and local Sephardic2 Jews had lived harmoniously in Hebron, but the new faces had brought with them a sinister colonialist agenda.

Historically, Jewish residence in Hebron has not been continuous. When the Roman Emperor Hadrian razed Jerusalem to the ground in 70 ce and expelled its Jewish population, most fled the region. Jews only filtered back after the first Muslim conquest some 500 years later.

Jewish habitation in Hebron has never been on a large scale, and did not exceed 2,000 up until the beginning of the aoth century. The Mamluks, who succeeded the Ayyubids in 1 260, forbade Jews from entering the sanctuary. They were only allowed to climb seven of its steps.

In 1967 Jews gained direct access to Abraham’s mosque for the first time in over 700 years. This triumph was tinged with the bitterness of Arab defeat Rabbi Levinger’s occupation sent a message to the Arabs. They saw “non-Semitic” European Jews, largely descended from the Khazars, coming to steal their ancestral land in the name of a greater, exclusivist Israel.

Today, without the iron fist of the Israeli Defence Force, the 55 settler families who now squat in central Hebron’s “Jewish quarter” would enjoy little peace of mind. The old city is very much a defining symbol of the Arab-Israeli conflict. To say that it is a cauldron of hate and hostility is an understatement

I looked up at Abraham’s masjid, an imposing square stone edifice with a crenellated Mamluk rampart and a sweeping set of steps leading up to it The white Israeli flag, punctuated by its blue Star of David, hung limply from a square minaret that had become a military watchtower.

One could only marvel at how the Israeli government justified the presence of several hundred unwelcome Zionist settlers amidst 120,000 angry and downtrodden Arabs. How could the Knesset afford the expensive luxury of deploying 2,000 troops in a situation where for each settler there were five soldiers?

An honest look at history reveals that the tradition of Jewish and Muslim communities living together had been a peaceful and hugely cooperative one. But here today in Hebron, Zionism had torn over 1,000 years of noble Abrahamic tradition to shreds in less than thirty years.

I remembered from a previous visit that a white car with two men in UN-style uniforms had pulled up near us. We were enjoying a cooldrink in the shade before visiting the mosque. Curious as to whom we were, these strangers had struck up conversation. It turned out that the two men were from Norway. They had already served a six-month tour of duty as European community observers.

Glancing around to see if no soldiers were within earshot one of the blonde-haired Vikings told me: “I don’t care what they say, this is an Arab country!”

In addition to the 400-odd settlers occupying the old quarter, Hebron is dominated by a Zionist settlement on one of the hills overlooking the town. Called Kiryat Arva in Hebrew it was built in 1971 to house 3,000 to 4,000 settlers. Kiryat Arva is one of the first – and most notorious settlements in Palestine. Other settlements in Hebron are Ramat Mamre, Har Manoh and Haggai.

The late Desmond Stewar,3 an English author, describes Kiryat Arva thus:

… a huddle of high stone towers on a bare hilltop overlooking Hebron. As settlements go, Kiryat Arva is a veteran, having been authorised by Israel’s Labour government after the 1967 war. Its buildings stand as menacing as missiles. Like other such setdements, it is built on expropriated – or in plain simple English – stolen land.

Indeed, the immediate impression one gains of the red-roofed Zionist settlements across Palestine is that they are thinly disguised military strongholds. They stand artificially imposed on the landscape, provocative suburban bastions of ethnic bigotry perched aggressively on hilltops. Even their smoothly tarred access roads bypassing dusty Arab municipalities are forbidden to Palestinian-registered vehicles.

In Palestine, the settlements cut as heartlessly into the scattered Palestinian soul as they do into the stony soil. While Palestinians have been aggressively denied a right of return to their ancestral land, there are empty communes waiting to welcome foreign Zionist settlers. This in a world where there are effectively no more significant Jewish communities left to immigrate to Israel, where more Jews are leaving the country than are entering it and where the Palestinian birth rate far exceeds the Israeli one.

In fact even Israeli academics are beginning to admit that Zionism has already lost the “war of demographics”. Today the settlements are desperate political flags merely marking out territory. Many Jews scorn the messianic zeal of the fundamentalists, and merely see the settlements as convenient dormitory suburbs outside Israel’s cities.

As we moved slowly towards the mustering point for visiting the mosque, I could see groups of youths in skullcaps and wispy adolescent beards clambering from buses in the carpark, and joshing each other on the steps leading up to the mosque.

As our party, clearly Muslim in identity with our women in black hijab, merged with the crowd I felt uneasy. There were some ugly stares, and the general disposition was distinctly hostile. It made me feel sad; but when a few fatuous young men decided to taunt an elderly Arab shopkeeper we became preoccupied in keeping Ibrahim – our proud and fiery Zulu – on a leash to prevent an international incident.

Memories of loudhailers, hissing teargas canisters, gunfire and roaring Casspir4 engines flooded back to me. My whole body tensed up. The streets of Hebron took me back to 1985 and the bloody anti-apartheid uprisings in Cape Town.

Three youths with guns strapped to their backs strode past us. Two pubescent Rambos carrying hunting rifles and wearing cowboy hats followed them. Judging by their demeanour, one would have thought that Armageddon was imminent

We entered the mosque through a gate on its eastern boundary. Above us was a tower with its guardhouse and omnipresent Israeli flag. There was an alley running up the side of the mosque and an army jeep was parked in it

After passing through the first military checkpoint I set foot in the second where my cameras were x-rayed by soldiers. After Doctor Barusch Goldstein had slipped into the mosque during Ramadan in 1994, and in Palestine’s first suicide attack mowed down 29 worshippers as they were prostrating in the dawn prayer, the security-obsessed Israelis kept a tight rein.

Today, Doctor Goldstein- whose racist rampage came to an ignominious end when he was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher is regarded as a valiant martyr by a number of Zionist zealots who pay homage to his grave in Kiryat Arva. There, a marble plaque reads:

To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah and the nation of Israel.

The question, of course, is how could such a scoundrel ever be regarded as a hero? The answer is that Israel’s usually ambivalent response to Zionist terrorism is perceived as consensual by both victim and perpetrator. Yitzhak Rabin might have called Goldstein an “errant weed” but Noam Friedman, who fired on a busy Hebron marketplace three years later, was declared “insane”. And, a mere two months after committing an act of terrorism, was granted home leave by the Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital – an institution built on the ruins of Deir Yasin.

Palestinians angrily point out that the prison sentences handed out to these “madmen,” even if they reach the courts, are hardly ever commensurate with their crimes. Palestinian “Noam Friedmans” are usually shot dead on the spot and their families are more often than not punished with summary house demolition.

The former editor of the Saudi-based Arab News, Dr Abdul Qader Tash,5 comments that we should not be surprised at the number of “madmen” in Hebron. This is because for fundamentalist Zionists, Hebron is more important than Jerusalem. Dr Tash adds that in any future peace negotiations, Jewish extremists will not easily give up central Hebron as they regard living there as a matter of faith.

Following the 1967 war, I was told that about 10% of the mosque had been set aside exclusively for Jewish worship – with total access being granted to Jews and Muslims during important religious festivals. After Goldstein’s massacre, the mosque had been shut-down for eight months. When it re-opened, Arabs discovered that the floor space had now been divided 50-50.

In spite of the charged atmosphere outdoors, the interior of the “Muslim side” of the mosque is peaceful and dominated by green, the favourite colour of the Prophet Muhammad. The largely symbolic sepulchres of Isaac and Rebecca are of classic Ottoman style with characteristic inlaid red brickwork. A low-slung chandelier hangs between the tombs whose imposing size blocks out the light

The mosque is essentially a structure within a structure. The fortress-type walls and stone plazas are the labours of Herod, whilst the vaulted building inside is largely the handiwork of the Byzantines. This Roman church was converted into a Muslim place of worship by the Um mayad dynasty shortly after the Prophet Muhammad’s Companion, ‘Umar, conquered Jerusalem over 1,400 years ago.

An imposing mimbar, sent to Hebron from Aleppo by Saladin Ayyubi, stands proudly next to the exquisitely tiled and decorated prayer niche. This 800-year-old carved wooden pulpit is almost identical to the one that was burnt to ashes by the Zionist radical, Denis Rohan, in alAqsa in 1969.

The mosque was almost empty save for an old man in a headscarf resting against Saladin’s mimbar and a curious youth peering at us from behind Rebecca’s tomb. It was time for ‘Asr (the mid-afternoon prayer) and the call rang out We gathered to make our devotions, a small congregation of South Africans and Palestinians genuflecting shoulder to shoulder between the tombs of the noble Isaac and the regal Rebecca.

After the Imam finished leading the prayer, it was possible to enjoy a few moments of quiet reflection. I put my head in my hands and thought: Zionism had polluted the Jewish psyche very much in the same way that the toxic credo of Wahhabism had sullied the tolerant purity of Sunni Islam. Extremism had led the Jews off the road into the brambles just as it had done to Islam.

Before the crazy days of hate, Jews had freely lived in all the great eastern and North African cities – Damascus, Teheran, Baghdad, Cairo, Istanbul, Marrakesh and Algiers. Now, in the name of Zionism, they had found themselves confined to a few Western democracies and an angry ghetto in the Middle East.

Sitting on the cool carpet between the tombs, I recalled that the first Islamic waqf (endowment) in Palestine had occurred in Hebron. The Prophet Muhammad bequeathed Hebron to his Companion Tamim al-Dari,6 his brothers and his succeeding generations until the Day of Judgement Waqf is an endowment left in the perpetual trust of its caretakers for the benefit of the greater community. A waqf lies ultimately in the hands of God and cannot ever be ceded, sold, or mortgaged.

What would the prophet Abraham think of today’s situation? I asked myself. If he were to occult from his resting-place through the lime flagstones of the mosque, how would he respond?

We got up and proceeded to Abraham’s sepulchre. At least we still had access. Jacob’s second wife Rachel, who gave birth to Joseph, is buried outside Bethlehem. Her burial site is claimed to be the third holiest site in Judaism. In 1996 the Israeli authorities seized her humble domed tomb and created a yeshiva next to iL Today, armed guards harass non-Jewish pilgrims who for two thousand years had enjoyed unfettered right of entry to her grave.

Abraham’s shrine is set in the centre of the sanctuary together with Sarah’s. This is where the mosque has been divided since 1994. Against the northern wall of the outer courtyard (now incorporated into the Jewish section) are the cenotaphs of Leah and Jacob. The small mosque and tomb of Joseph are situated on the western side of the sanctuary.

The Jews believe Joseph is buried in the high- lands of Shechem, or Nablus, and so do not pay much attention to this particular shrine. As a Muslim I felt too intimidated to enter this section of the building. Nevertheless, Christians do have the pre-requisite “neutrality” and can visit both the mosque and synagogue on production of their passports.

Through a decorative grille I could see the inside of a cenotaph that was embossed with green and gold calligraphy. The position of Abraham’s body is, however, not directly under the spot so beautifully demarcated by the exquisite Mamluk and Ottoman craftsmanship. The Imam of Abraham’s mosque relates that the bodies of the Prophets and their wives lie in the cave that is several metres under the floor of the masjid.

According to him, the ornate tombs do not correlate with the positions of the bodies, and are merely symbolic stations. He adds that the situation is not without political irony. While the door that leads down in to the cave is in the synagogue, the bodies rest under the Muslim section!

Interestingly, those who have descended into the cave do not appear to have found any bodies. If they are still lying there, the prophets and their wives have avoided the attention of prying eyes. After 1967 the Israeli general Moshe Dayan snuck into the mosque and lowered a 12-yearold girl down a narrow hole to look for the graves. She discovered a long tunnel and a blocked entrance. Another Jewish search party managed to scout the caves, but only discovered bones and earthenware from the first millennium BCE.

Built into the wall of Abraham’s tomb is a footprint embedded in rock. This footprint is believed to be that of the Prophet Muhammad’s, may peace and blessings of God be upon him. It is one of the miraculous signs of the Prophet that his footprints have been so preserved. Abraham seems to have enjoyed the same powers because in Mecca’s Grand Mosque his footprints have been preserved in volcanic basalt. It is said that he called humanity to the Hajj from this rock.

Muhammad’s footprint in Hebron is one of the unexpected highlights of visiting Abraham’s mosque. I was excited because I had now located six footprints of the Prophet Muhammad in the Muslim world: one in Jerusalem,7 one at the tomb of the great Companion Ayyub Ansari8 in Istanbul, one at the grave of Imam Shafi’i9 in Cairo and two in the Topkapi palace.

There are many people who scoff at prophetic relics, but 1 challenge them to look at or even run their fingers over these footprints without remaining indifferent After making a du’a (an invocation) for Abraham I peeped through a gap in the wooden screen that divided the mosque in half. I saw the distinctive black coats of the Jews.

Nearby, a soldier silhouetted against a frosted glass partition with his combat rifle at the ready was a sober reminder of the current reality. I left the cool shadows of the Ibrahimi mosque, and screwing my eyes in the harsh summer glare, saw groups of chattering Israeli schoolchildren being herded along by armed youths.

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on