Authenticating the Tomb of the Patriarchs

"One can scarcely tolerate the theory of some architectural writers, that this enclosure is of a period later than the Jewish," said Henry Baker Tristram in 1865.

19.5.20, 14:40
(IMAGE: A illustration of Hebron from H. B. Tristram's book.)
The following is an excerpt from the 1865 book The Land of Israel; a Journal of Travels in Palestine by Henry Baker Tristram, a British researcher and Bible scholar. He was a founder of the British Ornithologists' Union and a fellow of the Royal Society. His other works include The Natural History of the Bible (1867), The Survey of Western Palestine: The Fauna and Flora of Palestine (1884) and Eastern Customs in Bible Lands (1894). 
Of interest is his description of the Eshel Avraham, or Oak of Abraham and his assertion that the Tomb of the Patriarchs is authentic. He notes that Muslims built later additions to the building and laments the hostile reception by local Muslims who banned his entry to the historic site.

Page 391 - 397
Hebron. — February 7th. — The rain had passed away, and the beams of a bright Eastern sun peering in through the open door found us still asleep. All the little Hamzis of the various maternities had their gaze of wonder in turn at the strange visitors, as with infantile curiosity they crowded round the door, and then followed us down into the yard to watch our ablutions.

After a little delay we got at our dry clothes, and mounted the roof to have a look at the massive building which encloses the Cave of Machpelah, so long hermetically sealed to Christians. We were not one hundred yards from it, and we were looking round on one of the most ancient cities in the history of the world. On the hill sides, and in the valleys below, Abraham had walked and communed with God ; the dust of the patriarchs mouldered in the caves beneath these huge walls. We were in David's royal city, and by the pool below us the monarch had taught a higher morality to Eastern conquerors, and hanged up the murderers of his rival. Here, above all, were many of those Psalms written which still rise heavenward in the daily worship of every land.


We with difficulty cleared our room of visitors, for service, after which we strolled about a mile and a half from the city to visit the so-called Abraham's Oak, no representative or descendant of the famed oak of Mamre, which was a terebinth (Pistacia terebinthus), but a mere substitute, and in a different direction from Hebron, west instead of north, a noble holm oak, the finest tree in Southern Palestine, of the species Quercus pseudo-coccifera, Desf. Arabice "Scindian." It was not until we had been long wandering in Northern Galilee that we met with an oak-tree to surpass this one in size. The tree is sound, measuring over twenty-two feet in circumference, and stands close under the vineyards in a grassy field, with some of its descendants not very far off, and with a fine old well of sweet water just behind it.
Under its shade, in quiet seclusion, we sat and spent our Sunday afternoon in reading the history of Abraham, and the promises of blessing through him to all nations, pledged to him in these valleys near 6,000 years ago, and fulfilled now to ourselves. The walk up the valley revealed to us for the first time what Judah was everywhere else in the days of its prosperity. Bare and stony as are the hill-sides, not an inch of space is lost. Terraces, where the ground is not too rocky, support the soil. Ancient vineyards cling to the lower slopes, olive, mulberry, almond, fig, and pomegranate trees fill every available cranny to the very crest, while the bottom of the valley is carefully tilled for corn, carrots, and cauliflowers, which will soon give place to melons and cucumbers.

Streamlets of fresh water trickled on each side of our path. The production and fertility, as evidenced even in winter, is extraordinary ; and the culture is equal to that of Malta. That catacomb of perished cities, the hill country of Judah, through whose labyrinths we yesterday wandered, is all explained by a walk up the Vale of Eshcol ; and those who doubt the ancient records of the population, or the census of David or his successors, have only to look at this valley, and by the light of its commentary to read the story of those cities.

On our return from the oak, we walked round the Haram ; and, accompanied by Hamzi and one or two of his friends, personages of importance in Hebron, had less cause to apprehend molestation than ordinary travellers. We were permitted to ascend the staircase, which gently rises from the south-east corner of the enclosure, having the massive stones of the Haram wall at our left, smooth and polished like marble. The enclosure thus embraces not a level space, but the side of a very steep hill, just such as would contain a sepulchral cave. We were not allowed, however, to turn again to the left, or look in — the angry scowls of a few loungers, and the noisy shouts of some mischievous boys, warned us it was time to return ; and we beat a precipitate retreat, without further molestation than some unpleasant jostling at the foot of the stairs. We had, however, had abundant time before to look through the little hole near the entrance, where the Jews are at times permitted to peep at the sepulchres of their fathers, but we could make out only an open space. I believe that, had we made a dart at first, we might have had a glance at the mysterious area within, for our visit was unexpected, and none were on guard against us ; but, with Dean Stanley's full description in our minds, we were well satisfied by our external survey.
We afterwards made the circuit of the Haram as closely as we could, and from above on the upper side we climbed on to the roof of the adjoining building, the Mosque of Jawali, and looked down through a window in its little dome, but were unable to discover anything of interest, though we were here not far from the summit of the old megalithic wall, and had hoped to find a point where we could peep down into the area. The Haram wall is about 200 feet long, by about 115 wide, and upwards of fifty feet high, without a single window or opening of any kind except the doorways at the north, which are completely concealed from view. The stones are sumptuous in size and dressing, exactly like those of the substructure of the temple area at Jerusalem. We had no opportunity of measuring exactly the size of these enormous stones, but could not doubt the statements that some reach the amazing size of thirty-eight feet by three feet and a half, or, as we should say of some, by four feet. The shallow pilasters, which, two feet and a half wide and five feet apart, relieve the outer face and run evenly to its top, have a very fine effect ; and there is a simple and austere grandeur about the massive plainness of the ancient wall, which not even the paltry Saracenic addition on its top and the two minarets at the corners can affect. The design is unique and patriarchal in its magnificent simplicity.
One can scarcely tolerate the theory of some architectural writers, that this enclosure is of a period later than the Jewish. It would have been strange if any of the Herodian princes should here alone have raised, at enormous cost, a building utterly differing from the countless products of their architectural passion and Roman taste with which the land is strewn. Stranger still had any Byzantine architect here conceived a work of such impressive simplicity without one single feature — either in design or execution — in common with the elaborate decorations in which he everywhere indulged. The only buildings with which we can compare it, to elucidate its date, are the substructures of the Temple of Jerusalem, and the Castle of Hyrcanus at Arak el Emir, the latter being but a small though perfect fragment.

Both these would carry us back to the ante-Roman period, and we must at a glance assign a greater antiquity to the style of the Hebron Haram, than to the similar but more elaborate architecture in Gilead. Let the traveller gaze on these great stones, and, unmoved by the remorseless attacks of critics, let him feel satisfied that for once he has grounds to believe in a Jewish tradition, and that he has been permitted to survey the one remaining work of the royal Solomon, or perhaps of his greater father. The words of Josephus will apply to the existing structure... and as Mr. Grove has observed, if Herod had been the architect, Josephus would not have forgotten to extol his work.
February 8th. — We sent a mounted messenger before sun-rise to Jerusalem for our letters, which we hope to find awaiting us tomorrow at the Pools of Solomon, and one of the sons of our host afterwards took us to see the two principal industries of Hebron ; glass-works, chiefly of lamps and ornaments, and the bracelets, of which quantities are hawked about Jerusalem, — the process of manufacture exhibiting no mean skill, though, of course, rude in comparison with ours.

The large tanneries, where water-skins are prepared, exhibit the other staple employment of the town, and it was very interesting to watch the several processes. The skins are half tanned, then sewn up and filled with water, the sutures being carefully pitched. They are then exposed on the ground for several days, covered with a strong decoction of tannin, and water pumped into them from time to time to keep them on the stretch till sufficiently saturated. They are all prepared with the hair on.

I afterwards set out with L. to walk to Dura, the ancient Adoraim, and Dewir Dan, probably Debir, the fortress for the storming of which Othniel won the daughter of Caleb as his bride. It was a longer walk than we had anticipated — sixteen miles there and back — but the country was very interesting, and the views lovely, often reminding me of the walks in the Sahel near Algiers. Dean Stanley's vivid picture of his ride is certainly not exaggerated. The most interesting part was the upper and the nether springs, the wedding portion of Achsah from her father Caleb. She pleads, "Thou hast given me a south land," where there are no fountains, only wells here and there ; give me also springs, "bubblings" (gulloth) of water. (Judg. i. 15.) And sweetly do these two springs, the upper and the nether, bubble and gurgle forth, and trickle down, each from the top of a re-entering angle in the hillside, forming a steep little dell, which, clad with vines and olives, runs down into the main valley. A level path, half way up the hillside, winds round the two valleys (they are not more than half a mile apart), and we had some lovely peeps of the Mediterranean and the plain of Philistia between openings in the hills, as they shone in the distance. Night had fallen before we returned, tired and hungry, to our quarters, where we found our friends waiting for us and for dinner. B. had successfully photographed Abraham's Oak and the great stones of the mosque ; and many birds had been collected, all of which were the same as those of Carmel and Mount Ephraim — jays, woodpeckers, owls, finches, telling us we had got back to the central country, and need expect no more of the rarities which had rewarded us in the south.