History

12-Year-Old Girl is First Person to Descend into Cave of Machpela

"I found myself in a square room. Opposite me were three tombstones," 12-year-old Michal Arbel wrote in 1968.

21.6.20, 23:01
Today, Michal Arbel is a respected professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem where she lectures on literature. Her published works on S. Y. Agnon, Israel's first Nobel Prize laureate, are acclaimed.

Arbel also happens to have been the first person in modern history to descend into the Cave of Machpela. It happened when she was 12 years old. Michal is the daughter of Yehuda Arbel, who at the time headed the Israeli Security Agency Jerusalem District. Yehuda Arbel was also a decorated pilot who served the Israeli Air Force for years, helping bring the legendary Dakota planes to Israel and also led an Israeli rescue mission to help victims of an earthquake in Turkey.  
 
The following is an excerpt from the English edition of Living with the Bible by Moshe Dayan, Israel's' celebrated general and Minister of Defense. He includes Michal's journal entry in which she describes her findings beneath the Tomb of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs.
 
Living with the Bible by Moshe Dayan, 1978 William Morrow and Company, New York.
Pages 46 - 49
 
For exactly seven hundred years, from the thirteenth century (1267 AD) until 8 June 1967, the structure above the traditional Cave of Machpelah, and of course the cave itself, had been barred to Jews. The closest they were allowed to get to the cave area throughout those centuries was the steps on the outside of the eastern wall, and even then they were permitted to ascend only to the seventh step. From there they could insert a note of petition and supplication into a small hole in the wall and it would flutter into the cave below.
 
On the fourth day of the Six Day War, when the Israeli army captured Hebron, the seven-hundred-year anti-Jewish ban was broken. Jews ascended beyond the seventh step and entered the building which marks the tombs of the patriarchs.
The building had been erected as a Jewish shrine by King Herod towards the end of the first century BC. After the Moslem conquest in the seventh century AD, it was turned into a mosque. It was converted into a church by the Crusaders in the twelfth century, and reconverted into a mosque after the Mameluke conquest a century and a half later. Its east wing served as a Moslem house of prayer. The west wing holds the tombs which represent the sepulchres of the patriarchs.

If indeed this is the authentic site of historic Machpelah, the cave lies somewhere beneath the floor of the structure. The representational tombs seen in the halls belong to a much later period. They were built above a large subterranean chamber containing sepulchral niches, to which entry is forbidden.

Jewish visitors came to Hebron in their tens of thousands after the Six Day War to pay homage at the tombs of the patriarchs, after being denied access for so long. Some brought with the Torah scrolls and a holy ark to house them, and turned the west wing into a synagogue. This created the uneasy situation of a mosque and a synagogue housed cheek by jowl in one building, with Jews and Moslems under the same roof offering their different prayers within sound of one another.

We had to devise an arrangement which would enable both communities to worship at the shrine without interference, disturbance and clash. This would best be done by separating the two prayer halls even further, and providing each with its own entrance. During our study of the problem, a proposal was put forward to erect a special synagogue hall just outside the building, and to link it to the underground storey, namely, the very underground chamber which, by tradition, holds the patriarchal tombs. The proposal was thought feasible because it was said that this chamber had once had an opening, now sealed, to the outside If this proved true, it could now be reopened, and the scaling bricks replaced by a door. This would make the synagogue a symbolic part of the building housing the shrine, and it would also serve as an entrance for Jewish visitors who could proceed to the tombs without having to go through the mosque.
 
However, to discover whether there was indeed a sealed opening required a close inspection. This was not easy, for the chamber had no doors and in any case entry was barred. It - or rather its darkness - could only be glimpsed through a grilled aperture in the floor of the masque, which told us nothing. If entry were to be effected at all, it could be only through the aperture.

The first of such entries was undertaken by Michal, the daughter of one of our people. She was then a slender twelve-year-old, able to wriggle through the eleven-inch-diameter aperture above the chamber. But more than that, she was a bright and courageous little girl who was unafraid not only of ghosts and spirits - their existence was not proven, she said - but also of snakes and scorpions, which were a very real danger.

In the classic opening manner of suspense stories, on one dark and gloomy night she was lowered by rope to the floor of the subterranean area, holding a torch [flashlight] in one hand and a camera in the other. She took a number of photographs and also made notes and sketches.
 
It appeared that there were several later tombstones, burial niches, and a flight of steps that did indeed lead to, and end at, a sealed opening. But it had given entry only to the upper storey. There was no sign in the photographs of a scaled exit that had once led directly to the outside.

I asked Michal for her photograph as a memento, together with a report of her survey adventure. This is what she wrote:

Visit to the Case of Machpelah. On Wednesday, 9 October 1968, my mother asked me if I would agree to go through a small hole leading into a cave. After l agreed, she told me that it was to be the underground Cave of Machpelah.
A few hours later, my father woke me. I dressed and went into the car. In the car I wrapped myself in a blanket. I must have looked like a bundle dumped on the back seat. We set off and reached Hebron. We stopped for a while at the police station, and we then went on to the building of the Cave of Machpelah. I got out of the car, still covered in a blanket, and went into the mosque.

I then saw the opening through which I was to enter. It was measured and found to be exactly eleven inches in diameter Ropes were tied round me, I was given a torch and matches (to test the air below) and I was lowered. I landed on a heap of papers and money-bills.

I found myself in a square room. Opposite me were three tombstones, the middle one higher and more decorated than the other two. There was a small square opening in the wall opposite me. They released more rope and I went through the opening, and found myself walking through a low, narrow corridor whose walls were cut out of the rock. The corridor had the shape of a box; its corners were right-angled. At the end of the corridor was a stairwell and the steps ended in a built wall.

I left, was drawn through the aperture, recounted all I had seen, and went down again. I measured the narrow corridor it was thirty-four paces long.

When I counted the stairs, there were fifteen when I went up but sixteen when I went down. I counted them again, going up and down five times, but the results were the same... The riser of each step was ten inches.

I went up the stairs the sixth time and knocked on the ceiling. I received answering knocks in return, and they pulled me back. They gave me a camera and I went down again and photographed the square room, the tombstones, the corridor and the staircase. I went up again, got a pencil and paper returned below and made sketches. I measured the room. It was six paces by five. The width of each tombstone was one pace, and the space between the tombstones was also one pace. The width of the corridor was one pace, and its height was about a metre.
 
I was pulled back up. On the way I dropped the torch, and so I went down for it and was drawn up again. Michal.

Although we did not find the opening we were looking for, I am sure that the chronicles of Israel will record with pride this visit of Michal, the first visit by a Jew to this site in seven hundred years.
 
* * *
 
In 1981, researchers and students from Midreshet Hebron descended into the Cave of Machpela from the other end of the room and were able to see the other side of the tunnel which Michal found blocked. Noam Arnon describes his experiences descending into the cave in the following article: Entering the Cave of Machpela by Noam Arnon. That entrance was subsequently sealed up.
 
Both entrances are located in the Hall of Isaac and Rebecca. The entrance in which Michal Arbel entered is today a main attraction for visitors on Jewish holidays who hold their faces over the opening to feel the back-draft (the scent of the Garden of Eden) from the underground caverns, or simply stand and recite prayers.
 
NOTES:
 
 

Inside the cave of Machpela | 28 Images