Head about 20 miles south of Jerusalem into the Judean Hills, and you will eventually reach the ancient city of Hebron. Historically, this city is one of the oldest in existence—founded around 1720 BC—and biblically one of the holiest cities in the Holy Land. It is also the largest city in the contested territory of the West Bank, with a population of 220,000 people.
It is near Hebron where Abraham made a covenant with God and would become “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4). It is also here where Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as a family mausoleum (Genesis 23). The text goes on to mention that it is in this cave where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their families are buried—hence the name Cave (or Tomb) of the Patriarchs. An interesting side note is that Jewish tradition also suggests the cave is also the resting place of Adam and Eve!
The Hebrew name of the cave—Machpelah—translates to mean “multiplied” or “doubled,” which could refer to the four couples believed to be buried in the cave, or quite possibly to the fact there is actually a cave buried within another cave.
When you arrive, you will notice a rather imposing-looking building, which now houses the cave. It dates back to 37 BC, around the time of Herod. It visually dominates central Hebron, in particular due to the wall—built by Herod the Great—which encompasses it. Once a Jewish mausoleum, the building was also a Byzantine basilica, and a mosque for over 600 years. It is now considered to be the oldest publicly used space in the world.
At one time, the entrance was forbidden to Christians and Jews, who were only permitted to pray and worship from the staircase that approaches the building.
Once inside the complex, visitors can walk through three main sections, each of which is devoted to a patriarch and his wife. There are six cenotaphs—empty tombs or monuments—covered with beautifully embellished tapestries. There is a Muslim area and a Jewish area, where visitors can see synagogues and cenotaphs of Jacob and Leah. The Muslim sections house the cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah. Just beyond Abraham’s room, there is a shrine that displays a stone believed to bear the footprint of Adam as he left the Garden of Eden. The actual cave, however, is restricted to public access. There is a canopy which stands over a decorative grate where visitors can place their written prayers into the cave’s shaft.