Machpelah , the burial-place in the vicinity of ancient Hebron which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hethite for the interment of Sara (Gen., xxiii, 9, 17). Sara was buried there in a cave (xxiii, 19), as was later Abraham himself (xxv, 9). The words of the dying Jacob inform us that Rebecca and Lia were also buried in this cave (xlix, 31), and, lastly, Jacob found there his last resting place (I, 13). According to the Hebrew text, which always uses the word Machpelah with the article, the Machpelah is the place in which the field with the cave is to be found, Thus we read “the cave in the field of the Machpelah” in Gen., xxiii, 17, 19; xlix, 30; 1, 13, “the cave of the Machpelah” is twice mentioned (xxiii, 9; xxv, 9). But in the Greek text the word is rendered “the double cave”—by derivation from the root kafal, “to double”. This meaning is admitted into the Targum, into the Syrian translation and into the Vulgate.
In the later books of the Old Testament Machpelah is not mentioned. Josephus, however, knows the tomb of Abraham and his descendants in the district then known as Hebron (Antic., I, xiv, 1; xxii, 1; xxi, 3). According to this historian (op. cit., II, viii, 2), the brothers of Joseph were also interred in their ancestral burial-place—a hypothesis for which there is no foundation in Holy Writ. A Rabbinic tradition of not much later date on the strength of a misinterpretation of Jos., xiv, 15 (Hebron-Kiriath Arba—”City of Four”) would place the graves of four Patriarchs at Hebron, and, relying on the same passage, declares Adam to be the fourth Patriarch. St. Jerome accepted this interpretation (see “Onomasticon des Eusebius”, ed. Klostermann, Leipzig, 1904, p. 7), and introduced it into the Vulgate. According to Rabbinic legends, Esau also was buried in the neighborhood. Since the sixth century the grave of Joseph has been pointed out at Hebron (Itinerar. Antonini), in spite of Jos., xxiv, 32, while the Mohammedans even today regard an Arabian building joined to the northwest of the Haram as Joseph‘s tomb. The tomb mentioned by Josephus is undoubtedly the Haram situated in the southeast quarter of Hebron (El-Khalil). The shrine facing northwest and southeast forms a spacious rectangle 197 feet long by 111 feet wide, and rises to a height of about 40 feet. The mighty blocks of limestone as hard as marble, dressed and closely fitted (“beautiful, artistically carved marble”, Josephus, “Bell. Jud.”, IV, ix, 7), have acquired with age almost the tint of bronze. The monotony of the long lines is relieved by rectangular pilasters, sixteen on each side and eight at the top and bottom. Of the builder tradition is silent; Josephus is ignorant of his identity. Its resemblance in style to the Haram at Jerusalem has led many to refer it to the Herodian period, e.g., Conder, Benzinger. Robinson, Warren, and Heidet regard the building as pre-Herodian.
Since Josephus tradition has no doubt preserved the site correctly. Eusebius merely mentions the burial-place (“Onomasticon”, ed. Klostermann, s.v.”Arbo”, p. 6); the Pilgrim of Bordeaux (333) speaks explicitly of a rectangular building of magnificent stone (“Itinera Hieros.”, ed. Geyer, “Corpus Script. Eccl. Lat.”, XXXIX, Vienna, 1898, p. 25). In his version of the “Onomasticon”, St. Jerome unfortunately does not express himself clearly; it is doubtful whether the church, which he declares to have been recently built (a nostris ibidem jam exstructa), is to be sought in the mausoleum or at Haram Ramet el Khalil, half an hour’s journey north of Hebron. The “Itinerarium” of St. Antoninus (c. 570) mentions a basilica with four halls (perha, s four porches about the walls) at the graves of the Patriarchs, possessing an open court, and equally venerated by Christians and Jews (“It. Hieros.”, ed. Geyer, 178 sq.). About 700, Adamnan informs us, on the authority of Arculf, that the burial-place of the Patriarchs is surrounded by a rectangular wall, and that over the graves stand monuments, but there is no mention of a basilica (“De Locis Sanct.”, II, x, Geyer, 261 sq.). The following centuries (Mukkadasi, Saewulf, Daniel—985, 1102, 1106) throw no new light on the question. In 1119 a Christian church was undoubtedly to be found there, either the old Byzantine or the Crusader’s church, which, to judge from the style, apparently dates from the middle of the twelfth century. Remains from early times are still perceptible, but they do not enable one to form any judgment concerning the old basilica; what still remained of it at the period of the Crusades is uncertain. According to a rather improbable statement of Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish synagogue stood in the Haram before the reestablishment of Christian domination. After the downfall of the Frankish kingdom, the Latin church was converted into the present mosque. This is built in the southern section of the Haram in such a position as to utilize three of the boundary walls. The interior is seventy feet long and ninety-three feet wide; four pillars divide it into three aisles of almost the same breadth, but of unequal length. The entrance to the Haram is effected by means of two flights of steps, a specimen of Arabian art of the fourteenth century.
According to a late and unreliable Mohammedan tradition, the tombs of the Patriarchs lie under six monuments: to Isaac and Rebecca are assigned those within the mosque itself; to Abraham and Sara the next two, in front of the north wall of the mosque in two chapels of the narthex; those of Jacob and Lia are the last two at the north end of the Haram. Concerning the subterranean chambers we possess only inexact information. The Jewish accounts (Benjamin of Tudela, 1160-73; Rabbi Petacchia, 1175-80; David Reubeni, 1525) are neither clear nor uniform. An extensive investigation was undertaken by the Latin monks of Kiriath Arba (D. V. Cariath-Arbe-Hebron) in 1119, but was never completed. After several days of laborious work, they disclosed a whole system of subterranean chambers, in which it was believed that at last the much-sought-for “double cave” with the remains of the three Patriarchs had been discovered. In 1859, by means of an entrance in the porch of the mosque between the sarcophagi of Abraham and Sara, the Italian Pierotti succeeded in descending some steps of a stairway hewn in the rock. According to Pierotti’s observations, the cavity extends the whole length of the Haram. Owing to the intolerance of the Mohammedans, all subsequent attempts of English and German investigators (1862, 1869, 1882) have led to no satisfactory results. Concerning the plan of and connection between the underground chambers no judgment can be formed without fresh investigation.