An American Abolitionist in 1830s Hebron

"Hebron is esteemed by the Jews as a sacred city; and they think it a great privileged to live here," J. D. Paxon, 1839.

30.3.17, 23:26
(PHOTO: The Tomb of Jesse and Ruth in Tel Rumeida, Hebron, 2016.)
John D. Paxton (1784-1868) was an American religious leader and abolitionist. His stance against slavery got him fired from at least one job in the American South. His 1833 book Letters on Slavery discussed at length the controversy that tore apart the United States at the time.
In 1839 he published Letters on Palestine: Written During Two Years' Residence. Of note is his descriptions of Jewish life there, specifically the synagogue where he saw a Torah he describes as "a most splendid roll of the law." It is very possible that this Torah scroll is the exact same one still in use today in Hebron's historic Avraham Avinu synagogue.
Also of interest is his description of the Tomb of Jesse and Ruth and the violent rioting that took place during the invasion of Ibrahim Pasha from Egypt. 

page 141

Following this united valley a little to the south-east, we came to Hebron. The country about it is better cultivated than any district I have seen. There are many enclosures and vineyards; olive groves and fig-trees abound.
As we drew near the town, we passed several wells; these, we were told, were, one of the well of Jacob, one of Isaac, and one the well of Abraham; so each of the patriarchs has one. It at least shows their regard for the memory of these good men.
Hebron stands in the valley; but at a place where the two ridges, which bound it on either side, are not uniform, but rather like separate hills placed near each other. While most of the town stands in the valley, its edges rise in a small degree on four of the hills by which it is surrounded, but in the greatest degree on the hill to the south-east. 
The town has a very old appearance; the streets are narrow and dirty, and to a great extent arched over, especially the bazaars. Few of the houses look well; they are placed uncomfortably close to each other, and are badly aired and lighted. The bazaars appeared poorly supplied with goods and provisions; and, on the whole, it was a poorer place than I was led to expect, from the improved state of the country around it. 

Much the largest part of the population in Mohammedan. There are few Christians in Hebron; we were told, but one family, and that was the family of the secretary of the governor. We had a letter to him, and expected to find lodgings with him, but to our regret he was not at home. While inquiring for him, the governor passed, and ascertaining that we were travelers, and were recommended to his secretary, he sent a soldier with us to introduce us to a respectable Jewish family, who were ordered to take care of us. We were kindly received and provided for. 

They showed us the synagogue, which was near our lodgings. We found a school in operation in the synagogue; the scholars were reading in the Hebrew Bible. They showed us a most splendid roll of the law, which they had recently received. It was fixed on two rollers so as to roll off the one as rolled on top the other, leaving such a part exposed as might serve for the lesson to be read. The whole put nicely in a case, and fastened with clasps, and laid away in a closet not far from the reading-desk or pulpit.

A few years ago, when Ibrahim Pasha's troops took Hebron, they committed great outrages on the Jews, by plundering them of all they could find. They broke into their synagogue, and opened all parts of it in which they thought anything could be found, mutilated and tore their roll of the law, and perpetrated many other enormities. 

Hebron is esteemed by the Jews as a sacred city; and they think it a great privileged to live here. They pretend that persons, when old, if they come and live at Hebron, can renew their age. They need not go far for materials to correct the opinion; for some of them had about them ample proof that old age and all its infirmities come upon people at Hebron as certainly and as fast as at other places.

The great mosque, which was probably once a Christian church, stands over, as we were told, the cave of Machpelah. We were not allowed to enter it. It is a very large building, and the lower part contains stones of a very large size. It stands on the side of the hill, at the south-east part of the city. The palace of the governor joins it; and it is not impossible that the palace in which David reigned for seven years was in that quarter. Near the mosque is a very large cistern, which the Jews, who was our guide, pretended was Sarah's bathing-house. It was, however, of much more modern formation; the declaration of the Jew to the contrary notwithstanding.

At the south end of the town is a fine pool. This is the pool, as is supposed, over which David hung the hands and feet of Rechab and Bannah, the murderers of Ishbosheth. 2Sam. iv. 12. It appears to have been formerly fed by a stream through a small aqueduct, that comes into it; but the stream is now dry, and the aqueduct out of order. A short distance to the north of this pool, is another of a smaller size; but the water in it does not appear as good, not is it much used.
(PHOTO: This photo was captioned "The King’s Pool. Hebron - where David hanged the Murderers of Saul’s Sons." Credit: California Museum of Photography archive.)
While rambling among the olive-trees that almost cover the hill to the south-west of the town, we came to the ruins of an old building, which must have been a place of some consequence formerly, but is now wholly deserted. Our guide took us into it, and in one of the rooms showed us a small hole in the wall, which he told us was the tomb of Jesse, father of David.
The Jews, who were with us, certainly showed much reverence for the place, pulling off their shoes, and performing other acts of regard. Whether this be the grave of Jesse none can tell, nor is it worth much inquiry. It is not impossible that Jesse may have died in Hebron, notwithstanding Bethlehem, was his usual place of residence. When David came under the jealousy of Saul, and was obligated to flee, his family fled with him, and David had to provide for and protect his father and mother. 1Sam. xxii. 1-4.
It is not unlikely that while he reigned in Hebron, and the sons of Saul over the rest of Israel, his family may have resided with him; Jesse, who was an old man when David was anointed, may have finished his days while his son lived and reigned at Hebron. 

I could not but notice in passing, some piles of wood of a larger kind than any I had seen in Palestine. It was pine, and cut into pieces of four or five feet in length. Many pieces were from a foot to eighteen inches in diameter, which, in this country, is large growth. I noticed also over their shops, and at other places, pine branches used as protection from the sun. On inquiry I was told that, a few hours to the south-west, there was much wood of that kind. As the pine, in these countries at least, is seldom found except in sandy districts, there must be a sandstone formation in that quarter. 

Hebron, indeed, lies far south in Palestine, and on the borders of the wilderness, and probably the limestone foundation terminates not far south of this, and gives place to the sandstone, which accounts for the immense regions of sand which are met with in that district. Had time allowed, I would gladly have made a tour of a day or two to the south, and taken a glimpse of that waste, howling wilderness in which Israel, for their rebellion, were made so long to wander. The peculiar circumstances of my companion, Mr. B----, whose aid I needed as interpreter, imposed on us the necessity of limiting our time. There is a pretty good road from Hebron to Gaza and El-Arish on to Egypt, which may be traversed on a dromedary in four days.

We wished on our return from Hebron to take a route more to the east, and pass Tekoah and the region of the Dead Sea. We learned, however, that that district was now in a troubled state, as the population on it were among those whom the Pasha was disarming, and some of the more desperate were for keeping out of his reach, and might, in their ill-humor, injure those who fell in with them. As we had no guard, we thought it the part of prudence to keep out of harm's way, and accordingly returned as far as the pools of Solomon by the same route we had traveled in going to Hebron.


(and you don't need a donkey or camel to get there)
United States contact info:

1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230

Israeli contact info:
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Out of Doors in the Holy Land: An American's View of Hebron from 1908
A Non-Jewish View of Hebron in the 1830s
Tomb of Ruth and Jesse - Great-Grandmother and Father of King David