American Writer Describes Hebron Hardships in the 1890s

"Undoubtedly, the time will come when the exclusion will be overruled, and this extraordinary relic of antiquity will be thrown open and thoroughly explored."

14.10.18, 14:23
(PHOTO: Sheik Hamza, the self-proclaimed leader of the Arab community of Hebron standing in front of King David's Pool. Today, the pool still stands, but empty and overgrown with grass. Credit: John L. Stoddard, 1897)

John Lawson Stoddard (1850 – 1931) was an American writer, poet and lecturer who gained popularity through his travelogues. Stoddard was a proponent of the restoration of the Jews to Israel. In Volume 2 of his Lectures he advised the Jewish people, “you are a people without a country; there is a country without a people. Be united. Fulfill the dreams of your old poets and patriarchs. Go back, go back to the land of Abraham.”
The following passage from his book discusses his visit to Hebron.
From Bethlehem our route led on, a few miles farther, to Hebron, the earliest seat of civilization in Palestine, and one of the oldest cities in the world. Here Abraham resided; here he received the three celestial visitors, and here his tomb is to this day. Hebron was also David's capital for the first seven years of his reign, till he transferred the seat of his sovereignty to Jerusalem. It is, accordingly, gratifying to find in a town of such antiquity some relics of the past whose genuineness cannot be questioned, although their age surpasses that of all the other genuine memorials of Bible characters. 
To see these with safety, as soon as we arrived in Hebron, we made arrangements with the chief of the community, Sheik Hamza. He did not look like one possessing much authority. In one hand he held a pipe to solace his old age, while with the other he grasped a knotty stick, which served him in turn as a sceptre and an instrument of discipline. The favor of this Sheik is, nevertheless, quite essential, for the Arabs of the place are noted for their hatred of all unbelievers; and the old spirit of intolerance, which once prevailed throughout the whole of Palestine and made the entrance of a Christian to the Mosque of Omar an impossibility, still burns in Hebron bosoms undiminished by the lapse of years. 
Properly protected, however, we made our way without difficulty to one of Hebron's famous relics, its ancient reservoir of water, constructed of huge blocks of carefully hewn stone. Accustomed, as we were, to find fictitious names and dates assigned to almost everything in Palestine, it startled us to learn that this reservoir was probably built in the time of David, three thousand years ago. Such, at all events, is the opinion of most archaeologists; for cisterns like this and 
the celebrated "Pools of Solomon" were absolutely essential even in earliest times in a land like Palestine. Built with such solidity, they could last for centuries, and repairs, when needed, could be easily made without disturbing the original 
site. The Bible states that David put to death within this town the murderers of the son of Saul, and hung their lifeless bodies by the Pool of Hebron. It may, therefore, be surmised that, since no trace of other ruined reservoirs has been 
discovered anywhere in this vicinity, this is the identical basin described. 
But of far greater interest than this Pool of Hebron is an object now enclosed by the massive walls of a Moslem mosque. The Christian traveler may survey their exterior at a respectful distance, but if he places the slightest value on his 
life, he should not try to enter the enclosure. Beneath the mosque, which these high battlements surround, there is a cave. It is the cavern of Machpelah, which Abraham, on the death of his wife Sarah, purchased as a family burial-place, nearly four thousand years ago. Here he himself was also buried; and, later on, within this cave were laid to rest Isaac and Jacob, with their wives, — Jacob's body having, at the patriarch's request, been brought from Egypt to be placed here by the side of his wife, Leah. Moreover, since it was embalmed, after the manner of Egyptians, his features probably remain well-nigh intact to-day. 
It is humiliating to admit that neither Jew nor Christian can to-day stand beside the tombs in which repose the founders of the Hebrew nation. But such is the fact; for the Mohammedans guard with jealous reverence the tomb of Abraham, for whom their name is "The Friend of God." 
It is a singular coincidence that such a title should be given him by Moslems, for in the Epistle of St. James we read these words: "Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God." 
Of course, no illustrations of the tombs themselves can be obtained so long as such restrictions exist ; but one may view at least the entrance to the patriarch's sepulchre, guarded by solid masonry and iron bars. 
By a special firman from Constantinople, in 1862, the Prince of Wales was admitted here, attended by Dean Stanley. In 1866, a similar favor was accorded to the Marquis of Bute; and three years after to the Crown Prince of Prussia, the late 
Emperor Frederick. One can imagine, therefore, what chance there is for ordinary tourists to enter. 
According to the accounts of those who came here with these princely visitors, the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Leah are in separate apartments lined with marble and approached through silver gates. The place of honor, in the centre, is occupied by the tomb of Isaac. Between the tombs of Abraham and Isaac is a circular opening; and it appears probable that the structures which are seen are merely modern cenotaphs, the actual sepulchres being in a subterranean cavern at a still lower depth. The floor of the enclosure is covered to some depth with pieces of paper, which represent the accumulations of centuries. They are written petitions to Abraham, which pious Moslems have dropped through an aperture above. 
"Is this the real cave of Machpelah?" we inquired. 
"Can this be the actual tomb which Abraham acquired forty centuries ago, with all the formality and care revealed in the description given of that bargain in the Book of Genesis?" 
It seems at first incredible ; but there are many arguments in favor of its genuineness. In the first place, a tomb like this, cut from the solid rock, would (if not purposely destroyed) endure as long as the surrounding hills. Again, since Abraham was a distinguished man, and a powerful leader at the time of his death, it was at once revered as an especially sacred burial-place, the sanctity of which increased as time went by. Neither Jews nor Christians, Arabs nor Crusaders, have ever shown the slightest disposition to disturb the graves of those illustrious dead. 
In fact, the evidence is so remarkably complete that few, if any, are disposed to question it. Undoubtedly, the time will come when the exclusion practiced by the Moslems will be overruled, and this extraordinary relic of antiquity will be thrown open to Christian eyes and thoroughly explored. But even now, the fact that Hebron holds the cavern of Machpelah, in which four thousand years ago were buried the great patriarchs of the Hebrew race, gives to this region of Judaea a unique importance and undying fame. 
Our visit to Hebron naturally recalled to us that lovely painting in the Dresden Gallery, portraying Hagar driven from the house of Abraham, and going forth with her child Ishmael to live and die in exile. How little did the patriarch think, when he reluctantly consented to that sad expulsion, that the descendants of the outcast Hagar would for a thousand years exclude the offspring of her rival Sarah from all access to his tomb! Yet so it is. The rock-hewn sepulchres of Abraham and Isaac have been for centuries protected by the sons of Ishmael. 
Filled with the memories awakened by the patriarchs' graves, on our return to Jerusalem we visited one of its most impressive features. It is an ancient wall, consisting largely of huge blocks of stone, which once formed part of the old Hebrew temple. This to the Jews is by far the most sacred portion of the city. What matters it to them that Christian sects wrangle or worship round the Holy Sepulchre, or that Mohammedans kneel in prayer within the Mosque of Omar? 
They know that these colossal fragments of the time of Solomon antedate by a thousand years even the oldest of all such memorials. Here, every Friday, century after century, the wretched exiles from Mount Zion have come to kiss or bathe with tears these relics of their former glory. Now they are free to do so ; but in past ages they have paid enormous sums to their oppressors for this miserable privilege. 
Lectures, Vol. 2: Constantinople. Jerusalem. Egypt
by John L. Stoddard
page 205 - 212
1897 Boston : Balch Brothers ; Chicago : G. L. Shuman
* Stoddard on Zionism - The Politics and Art of John L. Stoddard: Reframing Authority, Otherness and Authenticity
VISIT HEBRON! (You don't need a donkey today, just a bus, car or taxi)
United States contact info:

1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230
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Israeli contact info:
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