History

Oak of Mamre: Abraham's Oak Once Attracted Masses to Hebron

An ancient tree once attracted visitors from all over. Now it is one of four holy sites inaccessible to Israelis.

15.7.16, 14:44
(Photo: The Eshel Avraham, in 2008. Credit: Wiki Commons.)
 
At the edge of H1 Hebron, past the massive factories and industrial sprawl of the PA's largest city, is an ancient tree. For how long it's been there, no one can be sure, but  it is estimated to be about a thousand years old. 
 
It is called the Eshel Avraham or the Oak of Abraham. Some refer to it as the Oak of Mamre, or Tamarisk Tree of Abraham as described in the Bible.  Nearby are the ruins of Elonei Mamre which include walls built by King Herod.
 
Today the tree is propped up by metal beams and wooden planks. Nearby grow offshoots taken from the father tree. However, the main tree is dry and bare. 
 
Venerated for generations, this tree still bloomed right up until the 1929 Hebron massacre. Students of the nearby Slobodka yeshiva would visit as attested to by photographs. A nearby Jewish-owned hotel was named Eshel Avraham. Today, all these sites are of limits to Israelis due to the 1997 Hebron Accords, except in rare circumstances.
 
The Bible refers to the Oak of Mamre when Abraham is visited by the three angels who inform him of his wife Sarah's future pregnancy.
 
"Now the Lord appeared to him in the terebinths of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot... (Genesis 18:01) Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. (Genesis 18:04)
 
(Photo: Oak of Mamre circa 1900 colored photo. Credit: Wiki Commons.)
 
The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia refers to is as follows:
 
A famous and venerable oak which still stands at Mamre, half an hour's journey west of Hebron, and is surrounded by a wall over which it projects. Josephus probably refers to it when he mentions that Abraham dwelt by an "ogygian" [or "ogyges"] (prehistoric) tree...  It was under this tree that, in Hadrian's time, the great sales of Jewish slaves, numbering, it is said, no less than 135,000, took place.
 
MEDIEVAL TRAVELERS
 
Many travelers over the years have mentioned visiting the site, such as Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon. He passed away in 1217, leading scholars to believe his travels took place sometime between 1170 and 1180. The English translation of Travels of Petachia of Ratisbon was published in London in 1856. The following is an excerpt: 
 
"Among the oaks of Mamre, at a distance from there, dwelled an old man, who was near death when Rabbi Petachia arrived there, and he told his son to show Rabbi Petachia the tree under which the angels rested. He also showed him a fine olive tree cleft into three parts with a stone in the middle. They have a tradition that when the angels sat down the tree was cleft into three parts each resting under one tree whilst sitting on the stone . The fruits of the tree are very sweet. By the tree is the well of Sarah; its waters are clear and sweet. By the well is the tent of Sarah. Close by Mamre is a plain and on the other side there are about a hundred cubits from the well of Sarah to the well of Abraham its water is very agreeable. They also showed him a stone of twenty-eight cubits, upon which Abraham, our father, was circumcised. 
page 65-67."
 

(Photo: Postcard of the tree from 1927.)
 
Another traveler was Arculf, a Frankish Bishop who toured the Levant in around 680. His writings were republished in The Pilgrimage of Arculfus in the Holy Land in London in 1895 by The Library of the Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, page 33 -34.
 
A mile to the north of the Tombs that have been described above, is the very grassy and flowery hill of Mambre, looking towards Hebron, which lies to the south of it. This little mountain, which is called Mambre, has a level summit, at the north side of which a great stone church has been built, in the right side of which between the two walls of this great Basilica, the Oak of Mambre, wonderful to relate, stands rooted in the earth ; it is also called the oak of Abraham, because under it he once hospitably received the Angels. St. Hieronymus elsewhere relates, that this tree had existed from the beginning of the world to the reign of the Emperor Constantine ; but he did not say that it had utterly perished, perhaps because at that time, although the whole of that vast tree was not to be seen as it had been formerly, yet a spurious trunk still remained rooted in the ground, protected under the roof of the church, of the height of two men; from this wasted spurious trunk, which has been cut on all sides by axes, small chips are carried to the different provinces of the world, on account of the veneration and memory of that oak, under which, as has been mentioned above, that famous and notable visit of the Angels was granted to the patriarch Abraham.
 
 
The 1537 book Yihus HaAvot also describes the oak of Abraham as a holy site for the Jewish community.
 
The 1866 book The Comparative Geography of Palestine and the Sinaitic Peninsula by Carl Ritter translates some of those references to the Oak of Mamre and the stone of Abraham's circumcision.  Page 300 states,
 
"The anonymous Jewish author of the Jichus ha-Abot [usually pronounced Yichus HaAvot], written in 1537, seems to have taken the ground that this place is correctly supposed to have been the site of Abraham's tent. After describing the sepulchres of Hebron in which the patriarchs were buried, he speaks of the place where Jesse the father of David was interred, outside of the city, and passes to speak of the graves of other Israelites to whom he wishes peace. He then goes on to say, that in the neighbourhood of the city, between the vineyards, are the oaks of Mamre, where Abraham pitched his tent, and the stone on which he sat during the circumcision. This stone, which was regarded as a sacred memorial of the covenant with the Jews (Gen. xvii. 8, 9, 23-27), was visited three hundred years earlier (1210) by the Jewish pilgrim Samuel bar Simson, who tells us that it was held in great reverence by the Arabs, i.e. the Ishmaelites. Benjamin of Tudela visited the place in 1160, but his description is very indefinite."
 
Traditions regarding the miraculous qualities of tree branches almost resulted in its liquidation. After hundreds of years, deprived of leaves and branches, the tree was surrounded by a fence to prevent further damage it.
 

(Photo: Photograph of the Oak of Mamre in 1912. Credit: Elmendorf, Dwight Lathrop - A camera crusade through the Holy Land C. Scribner's Sons New York, Wiki Commons.)
 
RUSSIANS BUILD CHURCH ON SITE
 
The site of the oak was acquired in 1868 by Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin) for the Church of Russia, and the Monastery of the Holy Trinity was founded nearby. The site has since been a major attraction for Russian pilgrims before the revolution. Today it is the only functioning Christian site in the Hebron region. After the Russian Revolution, the property came under the control of the ROCOR.
 
Since then, place was called by the Arabs "Moscovia," after Moscow. The church, convent and hostel were operated by a number of Russian monks. Hebron teacher and journalist Eliyahu Yehoshua Levanon wrote that in 1920 during a big snow storm, a branch broke off from the tree and was transferred to the Archaeological Museum in London. He writes that during his stay in Hebron, in the 1930s, there were a number of Christians, most of them government officials. Orthodox Christians  prayed in the yard Christians the "Eshel Avraham", and a Protestant church was established far from the city center. But there were no church bells in Hebron, at the request of the "muftis".
 
At the end of May each year Orthodox Christians from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and other places used to celebrate their Pentecost holiday. Hundreds of them came to the Eshel Avraham to conduct their prayer services.
 
They believed this was the day of Abraham's meeting with the three angels. Before the 1929 massacre, many Jews came as well.
 

(Photo: Russian postcard of Oak of Mamre, from 1869, "World Illustration journal." Credit: Wiki Commons.)
 
ARAFAT TAKES OVER
 
In 1997, after the Hebron Accords divided the city, Israelis were prevented from visiting the site, except in rare circumstances.  
 
Section 6 of the Accords reads as follows:
 
Paragraphs 2 and 3(a) of Article 32 of Appendix 1 to Annex III of the Interim Agreement will be applicable to the following Holy Sites in Area H-1:
 
1. The Cave of Othniel Ben Knaz/El-Khalil;
2. Elonei Mamre/Haram Er-Rameh;
3. Eshel Avraham/Balotat Ibrahim; and
4. Maayan Sarah/Ein Sarah.
 
The Palestinian Police will be responsible for the protection of the above Jewish Holy Sites. Without derogating from the above responsibility of the Palestinian Police, visits to the above Holy Sites by worshipers or other visitors shall be accompanied by a Joint Mobile Unit, which will ensure free, unimpeded and secure access to the Holy Sites, as well as their peaceful use.
 
After the Accords were signed, the PLO attacked the monks and nuns and forcibly removed them, turning the property over to the Christian custodians of their choosing, based on Yasser Arafat's past affiliation with the Communist Soviet Union.
 
An article titled "Russian Orthodox strife brings change in Hebron" by CNN's  Jerrold Kessel from July 9, 1997 states:
 
The monastery is in an area controlled by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, and the monks and nuns who were forced to leave insist that they were badly manhandled.
 
"We were told you have to leave because this man has to come here," says Mother Superior Juliana. "This man was from the red church."
 
"They put me on the floor and they dragged me like a sack of potatoes," a nun said.
 
A monk says that another monk was knocked to the ground, handcuffed and beaten. Jibril Rijoub, a Palestinian Security Chief, denies force was used.
 
An article entitled New Challenge for Arafat: A Russian Church by Serge Schemann from the New York Times, July 11, 1997 states, 
 
"Intervening in an old dispute between rival Russian Orthodox churches, Palestinian police have forcibly evicted expatriate monks and nuns from Hebron's only Christian church and have given it to representatives of the Russian patriarch in Moscow."
 
Noam Arnon, spokesperson for the Jewish community of Hebron has often visited the oak and other sites currently under PA control such as the nearby ruins of the Elonei Mamre structure. He stated that older Arab residents who live and work in the area still remember the days before the Hebron Accords when Jewish visitors were more common.
 
(Photo: Noam Arnon with a local caretaker at the Eshel Avraham.)
 
THE FAMOUS JEWISH-OWNED HOTEL
 
Near the site was the famous Eshel Avraham Hotel. An article on the 1929 riots describes it as such:
 
"The guest house was called Eshel Avraham, the Tamarisk Tree of Abraham, a classical Jewish symbol of hospitality. It was operated by Haim Shneerson and was one of five or more small family-run lodgings for visitors. Students at the Hebron Yeshiva were housed with private families. See Statement of Yehuda Leib Shneerson, son of Haim Shneerson, Central Zionist Archives (hereinafter C.Z.A.), 1929 Riots, Notes on Hebron, File S25/4601, Annex 16.  
 
Eshel Avraham was the first hotel in Hebron and was located in one of five buildings constructed by the two grandfathers of Yehuda Leib Shneerson during the period of Turkish rule over Palestine. Hard times forced them to sell the buildings to Arabs. On the main floor there were four rooms and a synagogue. See Yehuda Leib Shneerson, Hoy Hebron, Hebron! (Hebrew), Tel Aviv, Yair Publishers, 1980, p.23."
 
The book Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929 by Hillel Cohen also mentions the hotel in a section about Yehuda Leib Schneurson on page 145.
 
Schneurson was the scion of the Chabad admors, just like the Slonim and Eliezerov families were. His father was the proprietor of the Eshel Avraham Hotel, which boasted the most famous accommodations in Jewish Hebron and was a popular summer vacation site for Jerusalem's Jews. During the massacre the Muslim Kurdiyya family saved Scheurson's life. He testified in court about what he saw from the window of their home (appeal file 12/30, TNA CO 733/181/4).
 
He later left the country and when he returned he joined the Revisionist movement. When Avraham Stern founded Lehi, Schneurson joined the organization, and during the British manhunt for Stern, Schneurson was one of the few who knew where he was hiding. Schneurson's age and background led his fellow Lehi operatives to call him saba (grandfather).
 
In 1980 the Lehi veterans association published his memoir Hoy Hevron, Hebron (O Hebron, Hebron). The introduction was written by Israel Eldad, the organization's ideologue. Eldad noted that Schneurson bridged the Old and New Yishuv, between Haredi Judaism and maximalist Zionism, between yeshiva study and fighting spirit."
 
A Haaretz newspaper article on the riots and the subsequent trial gives further insight the lives of Hebron residents.
 
"...in the trial of Sheikh Talib Marka, who was accused of incitement to murder Jews in Hebron. Hebron resident Yehuda Leib Schneersohn, who spoke Arabic, testified that he saw the sheikh standing on the steps of the Slonim house and shouting..."
 
(Photo: Students of Hebron's Slobodka Yeshiva at the Eshel Avraham. From the book And They Went Both Together וילכו שניהם יחדיו by Dov Cohen. Credit: Wiki Commons.)
 
IS THE TREE DEAD?
 
In modern times, visitors are few and far between, although several YouTube videos show Christian tours there. Concern for the welfare of the actual tree is also evident.
 
The Rome News Tribune of Sunday Dec. 29, 1996 published an article by John Donnelly of Night-Ridder newspapers quoting an Israeli expert.
 
"I think it's dead, or at least dying" said Avishai Shmeda, a botany professor at Hebrew University. Visit the tree, Shmeda said. Shmeda said the Russian church made the grave mistake years ago of trying to save the dying tree by building a raised cement wall around it. The wall, he said, instead killed the remaining roots. "This tree is a huge deal," Shmeda said. "You could write a book about this tree."
 
On December 20, 2008  a group of scientists from the Russian Central Botanical Gardens visited the site to offer recommendations for the conservation of the remaining shafts, as well as care and treatment of the two standing next to the 200-year old oak trees, and the 11-year root sprouts growing in close proximity to the biblical tree. 
 
Today, arranging visits to the Eshel Avraham is difficult as is visiting the three other Jewish holy sites in H1 Hebron. However, H2 Hebron, which comprises the Tomb of Machpela, and the Old City, receives over 700,000 visitors a  year. Such sites as the Avraham Avinu Synagogue, Beit Hadassah, the ancient cemetery and the Tomb of Jesse and Ruth have sparked a sense of shared history and culture for Israelis and Jews worldwide.
 
For full article on the nearby Elonei Mamre archeological site click here: Elonei Mamre Archaeological Site and Herod's Walls
 
To arrange your visitor to Hebron contact us.
 
 
United States contact info:

http://www.hebronfund.org
1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230
718-677-6886
info@hebronfund.org

In Israel contact the offices of the Jewish Community of Hebron at:
http://en.hebron.org.il/
02-996-5333
office@hebron.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/hebronofficial
 
SOURCE NOTES:
 
* The Four Lost Holy Places in Hebron by Noam Arnon (Hebrew with photos)
New Challenge for Arafat: A Russian Church (plus eyewitness accounts of Arafat's violence)
* Video: Abraham's Oak (includes scene of bustling H1 Hebron)
* Video: Long tour in English of Oak of Abraham and church by Christian guides. Includes extensive film of modern downtown H1 Hebron.
A Rare Visit to Alonei Mamre (Hebrew, with photos)
 
YouTube video playlist of various tours of Elonei Mamre and Eshel Abraham.