The Seventh Step - Restriction on Jewish Prayer in Hebron

For 700 years, this was the closest Jews could get to the Tomb of Machpela.

24.5.18, 10:35
Today the southeast / eastern entrance of the Tomb of Machpela is closed off and a scenic platform and garden replace what was once a dark corridor and staircase.
People still gather to pray at the Seventh Step of the infamous flight of stairs of which Jews and all non-Muslims were banned. In 1260, the Mamluks, a Muslim military caste from Egypt, captured the Land of Israel. In Hebron, they re-branded the Tomb of the Patriarchs, calling it the Mosque of Ibrahim, altered the building by adding two minarets to the top and added Islamic decorations inside.
In 1267, Baibars, sultan of the Mamlukes issued a ban on all non-Muslims from entering the building. They were restricted to the seventh step of the stairway entrance.
Other sites in the Land of Israel such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem and King David's Tomb on Mount Zion also faced restrictions.
Even before the Mamluke conquest, Jews and other visitors found it hard to visit the holy site while under foreign rule. Travel writings from such historical figures as Benjamin of Tudela, and Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon describe being forced to pay a fee for visiting, and a second fee for descending into the caves below.

During the Mameluke time, the only non-Muslims who entered the structure were a handful of royalty and diplomats of great importance who were issued special dispensation, or individuals who snuck in, at risk to their lives. 


One of these exceptions was the Prince of Wales, who required not only a letter from the Sultan of Turkey, but an armed guard. The following excerpts are from travel journals of his trip by companions:
The entrance [to the Cave of Machpelah] is by a staircase, to which access is forbidden to Christians [and to Jews too of course], though we succeeded in running up and peeping in at dawn, without being detected. But this is a rash and rather dangerous experiment. It is only within the last few years that two or three royal and princely parties have been permitted to enter.
The entrance to the mosque is most jealously forbidden by the Muhammedans to any but their fellow-worshippers; by special firman [decree] of the Sultan, an exception was made in favor of the Prince of Wales in 1862, the Marquis of Bute in 1866, the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1869, and the sons of the Prince of Wales in the present year, 1882.
Of these occasions the most noteworthy was the visit of the Prince of Wales, His Royal Highness was accompanied by the late Dean [of Westminster Cathedral, Arthur Penrhyn] Stanley, who thus describes the event: 
-- Before our arrival at Hebron, the Governor of Jerusalem, Suraya Pasha, had made every preparation to ensure the safety of the experiment. Accordingly, as the protracted file wound through the narrow valley by which the town of Hebron is approached, the whole road on either side, for more than a mile, was lined with soldiers. The native population, which usually on the Prince's approach to a town streamed out to meet him, was invisible, it may be from compulsion, it may be from silent indignation...
We started on foot, two and two, between two files of soldiers, by the ancient pool of Hebron, up the narrow streets of the modern town, still lined with soldiers. 
Hardly a face was visible as we passed through: only here and there a solitary guard, stationed at a vacant window, or on the flat roof of a projecting house, evidently to guarantee the safety of the party from any chance missile. It was, in fact, a complete military occupation of the town. At length, we reached the south-eastern corner of the massive wall of enclosure, the point at which enquiring travellers, from generation to generation, have been checked in their approach to this, the most ancient and the most authentic of all the Holy Places in the Holy Land.
Charles Wilson, ed., Picturesque Palestine, Sinai, and Egypt (London, 1882) vol 3, p 186 and 197 - 198.

Henry Morgenthau, the United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire made a rare visit to the Tomb of Machpela in 1914,during World War I and the Armenian Genocide. The New York Times reported his visit to the Land of Israel on July 12, 1914.
"One of the incidents which marked the stay was a trip to Hebron and an inspection of the mosque over the Cave of Machpelah. This ancient Hebrew burial place of the Patriarchs is today most jealously guarded by the Moslems, who control it, and those of other faiths are not permitted to enter the sacred precincts. Less than a score of persons are today living for whom this rigid rule has been relaxed, and it is several years since any one has been thus favored, as was the small party admitted with the ambassador... a special firman issued at Constantinople to Mr. Morgenthau made it possible for the party to enter this sacred shrine. While the party was in the mosque a double row of Turkish infantry was drawn across the entrance to keep out the fanatical mob."


The great Jewish-British philanthropist Moses Montefiore was prevented from entering the 2,000-year-old structure despite explicit permission from the sultan during his visit in 1838. His wife, a constant companion on his travels wrote in her book: Notes from a Private journal of a visit to Egypt and Palestine:

"On arriving at the gate of the mosque, we found a great crowd assembled, and consisting chiefly of Turks, among whom was a dervish, the sound of whose hideous cries, as he shook his head and tossed his arms furiously about, his whole appearance rendered doubly frightful by a dark grizzly beard, was almost enough to terrify a bolder heart than mine.
To his hideous yells, as we continued to approach, were added those of the multitude, but encouraged by the governor and cadi, who led the way, we dismounted and gained an entrance. It was soon apparent, however, that the authority of office exercises little influence here. A turbulent throng of Mussulmans was collected in the interior of the mosque, and they were soon joined by the raving dervish. 

In the meantime the noise outside continued to increase, and the Jews, who were anxiously waiting to obtain a sight of the burying-place of their revered forefathers, experienced the most violent insults. The Moslem, with pale face, pointed to an iron door, saying that it was that which led to the interior of the cave. But the rage of the Turks, and the howling of the dervish now became more violent than ever, and we decided that it would be prudent to retire without attempting a further entrance. We accordingly retreated as we had advanced; the governor and cadi, with their officers, preceding us. Hasan and Saad-Eddin behaved most valiantly, repulsing with their silver-headed canes those who had assailed our poor brethren, and exultingly challenging a dozen at a time."


Rabbi Hyam Zvee Sneersohn, a great-grandson of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote in his 1872 book Palestine and Roumania, a description of the Holy Land:
"They are not allowed to enter the Cave ; the sons of Hagar do not allow the sons of Sarah to visit her grave. The servant has inherited the mistress. They stand outside and say their prayers. They visit this ground from time to time, but it is always joy which fills their hearts. They go there as a child would go to see its parents. They say their prayers, but they do not weep. It is quite different with another holy spot, near the western wall of the Temple."

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.

Now the question may be asked : Why do the Jews continue to live in a place where they are surrounded by robbers and murderers, and where they have to endure such manifold oppressions and vexations? The reason of this is, that the Jews still love the place ; they can not depart from the spot where their fore-fathers rest. It is the Cave of Machpelah, which, to them, is more attractive than all the beauties of other countries."


John D. Paxton, and American abolitionist wrote in his 1939 book, Letters on Palestine: Written During Two Years' Residence:

"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... There are few Christians in Hebron; we were told... Hebron is esteemed by the Jews as a sacred city; and they think it a great privileged to live here..."


John Lloyd Stephens, the American explore wrote in his 1837 book, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land:

"The great mosque, the walls of which, the Jews say, are built with the ruins of the temple of Solomon, according to the belief of the Mussulmans and the better Authority of the Jews, covers the site of the Cave of Machpelah, which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite; and within its sacred precincts are the supposed tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The doors were guarded with jealous care by the bigoted Mussulmans; and when, with my Jewish companion, I stopped for a moment to look up at the long marble staircase leading to the tomb of Abraham, a Turk came out from the bazaars, and, with furious gesticulations, gathered a crowd around us; and a Jew and a Christian were driven with contempt from the sepulchre of the patriarch whom they both revered. 
A special firman from the pacha, or perhaps a large bribe to the governor, might have procured me a private admission; but death or the Koran would have been the penalty required by the bigoted people of Hebron.
...The Turk guards the door, and the Jew and the Christian are not permitted to enter; and the old rabbi was pointing to the different parts of the mosque, where, as he told me, under tombs adorned with carpets of silk and gold, rested the mortal remains of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."


The first non-Muslim to freely enter the Tomb of Machpela and pray there was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who liberated the city during the Six Day War of 1967. A week later, thousands of Jews streamed into the site. One particular visitor described the awe in walking past the infamous seventh step.

Malka Slonim-Sapir was the daughter of Rabbi Jacob Joseph Slonim, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Hebron. Both were survivors of the 1929 Hebron massacre in which most of the Slonim family were viciously tortured and murdered. The survivors were then deported by the British Mandate authorities. She spoke of her experiences in an article in Ma'ariv news dated June 16, 1967.

"I went to Hebron. They let me go only to the Machpelah Cave. At the seventh step I halted. I could not make my feet move. I was used to [stopping there after doing so] hundreds of times in my childhood. They [the crowd anxious to enter] shouted at me, "Get moving, why are you standing there?' My feet refused to move. Afterward I went further, for the first time in my life and I didn't know what I was doing. I was as if in shock. (Source: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929 by Hillel Cohen pp154.)


The flight of stairs remained in place until the Succot holiday of October 1968 when a terrorist threw a grenade into crowd of Jewish people wounding 47 people. Following the incident, the Israel Defense Forces demolished the structures next to the Tomb of Machpela -- including the stairway -- from where the attack emanated.

Today, the Jewish Community of Hebron maintains regular upkeep of the area with gardens, flower beds, and walkways. During the ten days out of the year that the Tomb of Machpela is reserved for Muslim-only worship, the seventh step area is used for Jewish prayer services.

The history of being restricted from holy sites by non-Jewish rulers is important for understanding the modern political climate of the city of Hebron.