Benjamin of Tudela Describes the Tomb of Machpela from the 1100s

What was the Cave of the Patriarchs like in the mid-12th century? Read the full excerpt from Benjamin of Tudela's diary.

29.12.15, 17:54
(Artistic depiction of Benjamin of Tudela by painter Jose Serrano. Source.)
Benjamin of Tudela, known in Hebrew as Benyamin MiTudela, was a Jewish traveler from Spain. His writings on the land of Israel and the Middle East are considered credible primary sources by historians.
The Jewish traveler began his journey somewhere between the years 1159 and 1163 and returned in 1172. His travels lasted over ten years in which he visited numerous cities, focusing on Jewish communities. His diaries were published as The Travels of Benjamin (Masa'ot Binyamin) and also The Book of Travels (Sefer ha-Masa'ot).
The following excerpt deals with Hebron and comes from the 1907 version titled The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, critical text, translation and commentary by Marcus Nathan Adler.
At a distance of six parasangs is St. Abram de Bron, which is Hebron; the old city stood on the mountain, but is now in ruins; and in the valley by the field of Machpelah lies the present city. Here there is the great church called St. Abram, and this was a Jewish place of worship at the time of the Mohammedan rule,  but the Gentiles have erected there six tombs, respectively called those of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. The custodians tell the pilgrims that these are the tombs of the Patriarchs, for which information the pilgrims give them money. If a Jew comes, however, and gives a special reward, the custodian of the cave opens unto him a gate of iron, which was constructed by our forefathers, and then he is able to descend below by means of steps, holding a lighted candle in his hand. He then reaches a cave, in which nothing is to be found, and a cave beyond, which is likewise empty, but when he reaches the third cave behold there are six sepulchres, those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively facing those of Sarah, Rebekah and Leah. And upon the graves are inscriptions cut in stone; upon the grave of Abraham is engraved "This is the grave of Abraham"; upon that of Isaac, "This is the grave of Isaac, the son of Abraham our Father"; upon that of Jacob, "This is the grave of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham our Father"; and upon the others, "This is the grave of Sarah," "This is the grave of Rebekah," and "This is the grave of Leah." A lamp burns day and night upon the graves in the cave.
One finds there many casks filled with the bones of Israelites, as the members of the house of Israel were wont to bring the bones of their fathers thither and to deposit them there to this day.
Beyond the field of Machpelah is the house of Abraham; there is a well in front of the house, but out of reverence for the Patriarch Abraham no one is allowed to build in the neighbourhood.
(footnotes: Compare R. Pethachia's account of his visit (Travels of Rabbi Petachia: translated by Dr. A. Benisch; London, Trübner & Co., 1856, p. 63). See papers by Professors Goldziher and Guthe (Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins, XVII, pp. 115 and 238) for an account of the opening of the tombs at Hebron in 1119, as given in a presumably contemporaneous MS. found by Count Riant. Fifteen earthenware vessels filled with bones, perhaps those referred to by Benjamin, were found. It is doubtful whether the actual tombs of the Patriarchs were disturbed, but it is stated that the Abbot of St. Gallen paid in 1180 ten marks of gold (equal to about £5,240 sterling) for relics taken from the altar of the church at Hebron. The MS. of Count Riant further mentions that before the occupation of Hebron by the Arabs, the Greeks had blocked up and concealed the entrance to the caves. The Jews subsequently disclosed the place of the entrance to the Moslems, receiving as recompense permission to build a synagogue close by. This was no doubt the Jewish place of worship referred to by Benjamin. Shortly after Benjamin's visit in 1167 the Crusaders established a bishopric and erected a church in the southern part of the Haram. See also Conder's account of the visit of His Majesty the King, when Prince of Wales, to the Haram at Hebron. (Palestine Exploration Fund's Quarterly Statement, 1882.)

(Artistic depiction of Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara, in the XIIth century (Engraving by Dumouza, XIXst century. Source: US Public Domain / Wiki Commons)
The following is an alternative translation of part of the above writing from the French article "Invention de la sépulture des patriarches Abraham, Isaac et Jacob, à Hébron, le 25 juin 1119" by Count Paul Riant as printed in "Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres"  Year 1883  Volume 27  Issue 1  pp. 26-35.
Here (Chebron) is the large place of worship called St. Abraham, which, during the time of the Mahomedans, was a synagogue. The gentiles have erected six sepulchres in this place, which they pretended to be those of Abraham and Sarah, of Jitschak and Ribekah and of Ja'acob and Leah ; the pilgrims are told that they are the sepulchres of the fathers and money is extracted from them. But if any Jew comes, who gives an additional fee to the keeper of the cave, an iron door is opened, which dates from the times of our forefathers who rest in peace, and with a burning candle in his hands, the visitor descends into a first cave, which is empty, traverses a second in the same state, and at last reaches a third, which contains six sepulchres: that of Abraham, Jitschak and Ja'acob and of Sarah, Ribekah and Leah, one opposite the other. At these sepulchres bear inscriptions, the letters being engraved thus upon that of Abraham : "this is the sepulchre of our father Abraham upon whom be peace", even so upon that of Jitschak and upon all the other sepulchres. A lamp burns in the cave and upon the sepulchres continually, both night and day, and you there see tubs filled with the bones of Israelites, for it is a custom of the house of Israel to bring thither the bones of their relicts and of their forefathers and to leaye them there unto this day." (Benj. de Tudèle, éd. Ashep, I, p. 76-77).
(A segment from the map from the 1907 book "The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela." Source: US Public Domain / Wiki Commons.)
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