Prince of Wales Visits Hebron in 1862

The 2018 visit of Prince William recalls a past royal trip to the city of Hebron.

24.6.18, 13:05
(PHOTO: Hebron - the town showing the Mosque [Mosque of al-Khalil, also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs or the Cave of Machpelah] CREDIT: Francis Bedford, April 8, 1862, Royal Collection.)
This week, Prince William of England will make the first official royal visit to Israel. However past princes have visited the Holy Land and Prince Albert Edward was one of the few non-Muslims to be granted access to the Tomb of Machpela. For 700 years starting with the Mamelukes, the burial site of the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs was off-limits except for those of the Islamic faith.

One of these exceptions was the Prince of Wales, who required not only a letter from the Sultan of Turkey, but an armed guard. In 1862 the future King Edward VII visited the land of Israel were he spent time in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of Machpela in Hebron.

The eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the 21-year-old prince was well-traveled having visited many other countries in his youth.
One of his travel companions, the renown British historian Charles Wilson wrote about the princes' experiences in the 1882 book Picturesque Palestine, Sinai, and Egypt:
"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 inquiring travelers, 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."
Dean Stanley, who was among the travel companions and is quoted by Wilson, also published his writings on the visit in his book Sermons from the East, in a chapter entitled The Mosque of Hebron. The full text is available here.

The London-based Jewish Chronicle wrote at the time, he became "only the second Englishman after Sir Moses Montefiore to be given permission to visit the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron." However, Sir Montefiore's visit ended in a near riot, as Muslim locals forbade the philanthropist from entering the structure.

The Courier, an Australia newspaper reported the event in an article titled "The Visit of the Prince of Wales to the Mosque of Hebron" on July 22, 1862:

The Times publishes a letter from one of the Prince of Wales' suite at Jerusalem, describing a visit to the Mosque of Hebron. After much negotiation, permission was given to the Prince of Wales and a limited number of his suite to visit the mosque; and, to prevent the fanaticism of the populace from breaking out, the approach to the town was lined with soldiers, and guards stationed on the house tops. Within these sacred precincts for 600 years, excepting by stealth, no European has even set foot. The writer says :-" At the head of the staircase, which by its long ascent showed that the platform of the mosque was on the upper-most slope of the hill, and therefore above the level where, if anywhere, the sacred cave would be found, we entered the precincts of the mosque itself, and were received by one of its guardians, a descendant, of one of the companions of Mohamed, with the utmost courtesy on his part, though not without deep groans from some of his attendants, redoubled as we moved from one sacred spot to another. We passed (without our shoes) through an open court into the mosque. 

This building occupies (to speak roughly) about one-third of the platform. I proceed to describe its relation to the sepulcure of the Patriarchs. t is the innermost of the outer porticoes which contain the two first. In the recess on the right is the alleged tomb of Abraham, on the left that of Sarah, each guarded by silver gates. The shrine containing the tomb of Sarah we were requested not to enter as being that of a woman. The shrine of Abraham, after a momentary hesitation and with a prayer offered to the patriarch for permission to enter, was thrown open. The chamber is cased in marble.

The tomb consists of a coffin like structure, like most Moslem tombs, built up of plastered stone or marble, and hung with carpets-green, embroidered with gold. The three which cover this tomb are said to have been presented by Mohammed II., Selim I., and the late Sultan, Abdul Medjid. I need hardly say that this tomb (and the same remark applies to all the others) does not profess to be mere than a cenotaph, raised above the actual grave which lies beneath. But it was impossible not to feel a thrill of unusual emotion at standing in a relation so near to such a spot-on emotion, I may add, enhanced by the rare occasion which had opened the gates of that consecrated place (as the guardian of the mosque expressed it) 'to no one less than the eldest son of the Queen of England.' 

Within the area of the church or mosque were shown, in like manner, the tombs of Isaac and Rebekah. They differed from the two others in being placed under separate chapels, and closed, not with silver, but iron gates. To Rebekah's tomb the same decorous rule of the exclusion of male visitors naturally applied as in the case of Sarah's. But, on requesting to see the tomb of Isaac, we were entreated not to enter, and on asking, with some surprise, why an objection which had been conceded for Abraham should be raised in the case of his far less eminent son, were answered that the difference lay in the characters of the two Patriarchs :-" Abraham was full of loving kindness; he had withstood even the resolution of God against Sodom and Gomorrah ; he was goodness itself, and would overlook any affront. But Isaac was proverbially jealous, and it was exceedingly dangerous to exasperate him. When Ibrahim Pasha (as conqueror of Palestine) had endeavored to enter, he had been driven out by Isaac, and fell back as if thunderstruck." The chapel, in fact, contains nothing of interest; but I mention this story both for the sake of the singular sentiment which it expresses, and also because it well illustrates the peculiar feeling which (as we were told) had tended to preserve the sanctity of the place-an awe amounting to terror of the great personages who lay beneath, and who would, it was supposed, be sensitive to any disrespect shown to their graves, and revenge it accordingly. 

The tombs of Jacob and Leah were shown in recesses corresponding to those of Abraham and Sarah, but in a separate cloister, opposite the entrance to the mosque. Against Leah's tomb, as seen through the grate, two green banners reclined, the origin and meaning- of which were unknown. The gates of Jacob's shrine were opened without difficulty, but it calls for no special remark. Thus far the monuments of the mosque adhered strictly to the Biblical account, as given above. The variation which follows rests, as I am informed by Dr. Rosen, on the general tradition of the country (justified, perhaps, by the ambiguous expression in Josephus,) that the body of Joseph, after having been deposited first at Shechem, (Joshua xxiv., 32,) was subsequently transported to Hebron. But the peculiar situation of this alleged tomb agrees with the exceptional character of the tradition. It is in a domed chamber attached to the enclosure from the outside, and reached, therefore, by an aperture broken through the massive wall itself, and thus visible on the exterior of the southern side of the wall. It is less costly than the others, and it is remarkable that, although the name of his wife (according to the Mussulman version, Zuleika) is inserted in the certificates given to pilgrims who have visited the mosque, no grave having that appellation is shown. No other tombs were exhibited in the mosque. Two, resembling those of Isaac and Rebekah, which were seen (by one of our party only) within an adjacent smaller mosque, were afterwards explained to us as merely ornamental. It will be seen that up to this point no mention has been made of the subject of the greatest interest to all of us, namely, the sacred cave itself in which one at least of the patriarchal family may still be believed to repose intact-the embalmed body of Jacob. It may be well supposed that to this object our inquiries were throughout directed. One indication alone of the cavern beneath was visible. In the interior of the mosque, at the corner of the shrine of Abraham, was a small circular hole, about eight inches across, of which one foot above the pavement was built of strong masonry, but of which the lower part, as far as we could see and feel, was of the living rock. 

This cavity appeared to open into a dark space beneath, and that space (which the guardians of tho mosque believed to extend under the whole platform) can hardly be anything else than the ancient cavern of Machpelah. This was the only aperture which the guardians recognised. Once, they said, 2500 years ago, a servant of a great king had penetrated through some other entrance. He descended in full possession of his faculties, and of remarkable corpulence ; he returned blind, deaf, withered, and crippled. Since then the entrance was closed, and this aperture alone was left, partly for the sake of suffering the holy air of the cave to escape, into the mosque, and be scented by the faithful ; partly for the sake of allowing a lamp to be let down, by a chain which we saw suspended at the mouth, to burn upon the sacred grave. We asked whether it could not be lighted now. ' No, they said ; ' the saint likes to have a lamp at night, but not in the full daylight. With that glimpse into the dark void we and the world without must be content to be satisfied. Other entrance may exist, or have existed, and the knowledge we have acquired of the different parts ' of the platform would enable us to indicate the points where such apertures might be expected. But, for the present, it was the full conviction of those of the party best qualified to judge that no other entrance is known to the Mussulmans themselves. The unmistakable terror to which I have before alluded is of itself a guarantee that they would not enter into the case if they could, and the general language of the Arabic histories of the Mosque is in the same direction."

The prince's visit may have opened the door to real research into Biblical history.  C. R. Conder and  H.H. Kitchener wrote in their 1881 work The Survey of Western Palestine, "Hitherto the opportunity for such systematic research has been wanting. It appears now to have arrived. The visit of H. R. M. the Prince of Wales to the Mosque at Hebron has broken down the bar which for centuries obstructed the entrance of Christians to that most venerable of the sanctuaries of Palestine ; and may be said to have thrown open the whole of Syria to Christian research."


This week's visit by Prince William will not include Hebron on the itinerary. However of note is a visit to the grave of Princess Alice, the prince's great grandmother, who saved a Jewish family during the Holocaust. She was buried, as per her personal request, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, near her aunt Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. She is honored at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as  "Righteous Among the Nations".
Today, the Tomb of Machpela is open to the public and can be visited by people of all faiths free of charge. Over 700,000 visitors come to the structure every year.