The Book of Delight and Other Papers
Israel Abrahams

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A Visit to Hebron

Of a land where every stone has its story, it can hardly be asserted that any one place has a fuller tale to tell than another. But Hebron has a peculiar old-world charm as the home of the founder of the Hebrew race. Moreover, one’s youthful imagination associates Hebron with the giants, the sons of Anak, sons, that is, of the long neck; men of Arba, with broad, square shoulders. A sight of the place itself revives this memory. Ancient Hebron stood higher than the present city, but as things now are, though the hills of Judea reach their greatest elevation in the neighborhood, Hebron itself rests in a valley. Most towns in Palestine are built on hills, but Hebron lies low. Yet the surrounding hills are thirty-two hundred feet above the level of the Mediterranean, and five hundred feet higher than Mount Olivet. For this reason Hebron is ideally placed for conveying an impression of the mountainous character of Judea. In Jerusalem you are twenty-six hundred feet above the sea, but, being high up, you scarcely realize that you are in a mountain city. The hills about Hebron tower loftily above you, and seem a fitting abode for the giants whom Joshua and Caleb overthrew.

Hebron, from yet another point of view, recalls its old-world associations. Not only is Hebron one of the oldest cities in the world still inhabited, but it has been far less changed by Western influences than other famous places. Hebron is almost entirely unaffected by Christian influence. In the East, Christian influence more or less means European influence, but Hebron is still completely Oriental. It is a pity that modern travellers no longer follow the ancient route which passed from Egypt along the coast to Gaza, and then struck eastwards to Hebron. By this route, the traveller would come upon Judea in its least modernized aspect. He would find in Hebron a city without a hotel, and unblessed by an office of the Monarch of the East, Mr. Cook. There are no modern schools in Hebron; the only institution of the kind, the Mildmay Mission School, had scarcely any pupils at the time of my visit. This is but another indication of the slight effect that European forces are producing; the most useful, so far, has been the medical mission of the United Free Church of Scotland. But Hebron has been little receptive of the educational and sanitary boons that are the chief good–and it is a great good–derived from the European missions in the East. I am almost reluctant to tell the truth, as I must, of Hebron, and point out the pitiful plight of our brethren there, lest, perchance, some philanthropists set about mending the evil, to the loss of the primitiveness in which Hebron at present revels. This is the pity of it. When you employ a modern broom to sweep away the dirt of an ancient city, your are apt to remove something else as well as the dirt.

Besides its low situation and its primitiveness, Hebron has a third peculiarity. Go where one may in Judea, the ancient places, even when still inhabited, wear a ruined look. Zion itself is scarcely an exception. Despite its fifty thousand inhabitants, Jerusalem has a decayed appearance, for the newest buildings often look like ruins. The cause of this is that many structures are planned on a bigger scale than can be executed, and thus are left permanently unfinished, or like the windmill of Sir Moses are disused from their very birth. Hebron, in this respect again, is unlike the other cities of Judea. It had few big buildings, hence it has few big ruins. There are some houses of two stories in which the upper part has never been completed, but the houses are mostly of one story, with partially flat and partially domed roofs. The domes are the result both of necessity and design; of necessity, because of the scarcity of large beams for rafters; of design, because the dome enables the rain to collect in a groove, or channel, whence it sinks into a reservoir.

Hebron, then, produces a favorable impression on the whole. It is green and living, its hills are clad with vines, with plantations of olives, pomegranates, figs, quinces, and apricots. Nowhere in Judea, except in the Jordan valley, is there such an abundance of water. In the neighborhood of Hebron, there are twenty-five springs, ten large perennial wells, and several splendid pools. Still, as when the huge cluster was borne on two men’s shoulders from Eshkol, the best vines of Palestine grow in and around Hebron. The only large structure in the city, the mosque which surmounts the Cave of Machpelah, is in excellent repair, especially since 1894-5, when the Jewish lads from the Alliance school of Jerusalem renewed the iron gates within, and supplied fresh rails to the so-called sarcophagi of the Patriarchs. The ancient masonry built round the cave by King Herod, the stones of which exactly resemble the masonry of the Wailing Place in Jerusalem, still stands in its massive strength.

I have said that Hebron ought to be approached from the South or West. The modern traveller, however, reaches it from the North. You leave Jerusalem by the Jaffa gate, called by the Mohammedans Bab el-Khalil, i.e. Hebron gate. The Mohammedans call Hebron el-Khalil, City of the Friend of God, a title applied to Abraham both in Jewish and Mohammedan tradition. Some, indeed, derive the name Hebron from Chaber, comrade or friend; but Hebron may mean “confederation of cities,” just as its other name, Kiriath-arba, may possibly mean Tetrapolis. The distance from Jerusalem to Hebron depends upon the views of the traveller. You can easily get to Hebron in four hours and a half by the new carriage road, but the distance, though less than twenty miles, took me fourteen hours, from five in the morning till seven at night. Most travellers turn aside to the left to see the Pools of Solomon, and the grave of Rachel lies on the right of the highroad itself. It is a modern building with a dome, and the most affecting thing is the rough-hewn block of stone worn smooth by the lips of weeping women. On the opposite side of the road is Tekoah, the birthplace of Amos; before you reach it, five miles more to the north, you get a fine glimpse also of Bethlehem, the White City, cleanest of Judean settlements. Travellers tell you that the rest of the road is uninteresting. I did not find it so. For the motive of my journey was just to see those “uninteresting” sites, Beth-zur, where Judas Maccabeus won such a victory that he was able to rededicate the Temple, and Beth-zacharias, through whose broad valley-roads the Syrian elephants wound their heavy way, to drive Judas back on his precarious base at the capital.

It is somewhat curious that this indifference to the Maccabean sites is not restricted to Christian tourists. For, though several Jewish travellers passed from Jerusalem to Hebron in the Middle Ages, none of them mentions the Maccabean sites, none of them spares a tear or a cheer for Judas Maccabeus. They were probably absorbed in the memory of the Patriarchs and of King David, the other and older names identified with this district. Medieval fancy, besides, was too busy with peopling Hebron with myths to waste itself on sober facts. Hebron, according to a very old notion, was the place where Adam and Eve lived after their expulsion from Eden; it was from Hebron’s red earth that the first man was made. The Pirke di Rabbi Eliezer relate, that when the three angels visited Abraham, and he went to get a lamb for their meal, the animal fled into a cave. Abraham followed it, and saw Adam and Eve lying asleep, with lamps burning by their tombs, and a sweet savor, as of incense, emanating from the dead father and mother of human-kind. Abraham conceived a love for the Cave, and hence desired it for Sarah’s resting-place.

I suppose that some will hold, that we are not on surer historical ground when we come to the Biblical statement that connects Abraham with Hebron. Before arguing whether Abraham lived in Hebron, and was buried in Machpelah, one ought to prove that Abraham ever lived at all, to be buried anywhere. But I shall venture to take Abraham’s real existence for granted, as I am not one of those who think that a statement must be false because it is made in the Book of Genesis. That there was a very ancient shrine in Hebron, that the great Tree of Mamre was the abode of a local deity, may be conceded, but to my mind there is no more real figure in history than Abraham. Especially when one compares the modern legends with the Biblical story does the substantial truth of the narrative in Genesis manifest itself. The narrative may contain elements of folk poetry, but the hero Abraham is a genuine personality.

As I have mentioned the tree, it may be as well to add at once that Abraham’s Oak is still shown at Hebron, and one can well imagine how it was thought that this magnificent terebinth dated from Bible times. A few years ago it was a fresh, vigorous giant, but now it is quite decayed. The ruin began in 1853, when a large branch was broken off by the weight of the snow. Twelve years ago the Russian Archimandrite of Jerusalem purchased the land on which the tree stands, and naturally he took much care of the relic. In fact, he took too much care, for some people think that the low wall which the Russians erected as a safeguard round the Oak, has been the cause of the rapid decay that has since set in. Year by year the branches have dropped off, the snow and the lightning have had their victims. It is said that only two or three years ago one branch towards the East was still living, but when I saw it, the trunk was bare and bark-less, full of little worm-holes, and quite without a spark of vitality. The last remaining fragment has since fallen, and now the site of the tree is only marked by the row of young cypresses which have been planted in a circle round the base of the Oak of Mamre. But who shall prophesy that, a century hence, a tree will not have acquired sufficient size and antiquity to be foisted upon uncritical pilgrims as the veritable tree under which Father Abraham dwelt!

The Jewish tradition does not quite agree with the view that identified this old tree with Mamre. According to Jewish tradition, the Tree is at the ruins of Ramet el-Khalil, the High Place of the Friend, i.e. of Abraham, about two miles nearer Jerusalem. Mr. Shaw Caldecott has propounded the theory that this site is Samuel’s Ramah, and that the vast ruins of a stone-walled enclosure here represent the enclosure within which Samuel’s altar stood. The Talmud has it that Abraham erected a guest-house for the entertainment of strangers near the Grove of Mamre. There were doors on every side, so that the traveller found a welcome from whichever direction he came. There our father made the name of God proclaimed at the mouth of all wayfarers. How? After they had eaten and refreshed themselves, they rose to thank him. Abraham answered, “Was the food mine? It is the bounty of the Creator of the Universe.” Then they praised, glorified, and blessed Him who spake and the world was.

We are on the road now near Hebron, but, before entering, let us recall a few incidents in its history. After the Patriarchal age, Hebron was noted as the possession of Caleb. It also figures as a priestly city and as one of the cities of refuge. David passed much of his life here, and, after Saul’s death, Hebron was the seat of David’s rule over Judea. Abner was slain here by Joab, and was buried here–they still show Abner’s tomb in the garden of a large house within the city. By the pool at Hebron were slain the murderers of Ishbosheth, and here Absalom assumed the throne. After his time we hear less of Hebron. Jerusalem overshadowed it in importance, yet we have one or two mentions. Rehoboam strengthened the town, and from a stray reference in Nehemiah, we gather that the place long continued to be called by its older name of Kiriath Arba. For a long period after the return from the Exile Hebron belonged to the Idumeans. It was the scene of warfare in the Maccabean period, and also during the rebellion against Rome. In the market-place at Hebron, Hadrian sold numbers of Jewish slaves after the fall of Bar-Cochba, in 135 C.E. In the twelfth century Hebron was in the hands of the Christian Crusaders. The fief of Hebron, or, as it was called, of Saint Abraham, extended southwards to Beer-sheba. A bishopric was founded there in 1169, but was abandoned twenty years later.

We hear of many pilgrims in the Middle Ages. The Christians used to eat some of the red earth of Hebron, the earth from which Adam was made. On Sunday the seventeenth of October, 1165, Maimonides was in Hebron, passing the city on his way from Jerusalem to Cairo. Obadiah of Bertinoro, in 1488, took Hebron on the reverse route. He went from Egypt across the desert to Gaza, and, though he travelled all day, did not reach Hebron from Gaza till the second morning. If the text is correct, David Reubeni was four days in traversing the same road, a distance of about thirty-three miles. To revert to an earlier time, Nachmanides very probably visited Hebron. Indeed, his grave is shown to the visitor. But this report is inaccurate. He wrote to his son, in 1267, from Jerusalem, “Now I intend to go to Hebron, to the sepulchre of our ancestors, to prostrate myself, and there to dig my grave.” But he must have altered his mind in the last-named particular, for his tomb is most probably in Acre.

I need not go through the list of distinguished visitors to Hebron. Suffice it to say that in the fourteenth century there was a large and flourishing community of Jews in the town; they were weavers and dyers of cotton stuffs and glass-makers, and the Rabbi was often himself a shepherd in the literal sense, teaching the Torah while at work in the fields. He must have felt embarrassed sometimes between his devotion to his metaphorical and to his literal flock. When I was at Moza, I was talking over some Biblical texts with Mr. David Yellin, who was with me. The colonists endured this for a while, but at last they broke into open complaint. One of the colonists said to me: “It is true that the Mishnah forbids you to turn aside from the Torah to admire a tree, but you have come all the way from Europe to admire my trees. Leave the Torah alone for the present.” I felt that he was right, and wondered how the Shepherd Rabbis of Hebron managed in similar circumstances.

In the century of which I am speaking, the Hebron community consisted entirely of Sefardim, and it was not till the sixteenth century that Ashkenazim settled there in large numbers. I have already mentioned the visit of David Reubeni. He was in Hebron in 1523, when he entered the Cave of Machpelah on March tenth, at noon. It is of interest to note that his account of the Cave agrees fully with that of Conder. It is now quite certain that he was really there in person, and his narrative was not made up at second hand. The visit of Reubeni, as well as Sabbatai Zebi’s, gave new vogue to the place. When Sabbatai was there, a little before the year 1666, the Jews were awake and up all night, so as not to lose an instant of the sacred intercourse with the Messiah. But the journey to Hebron was not popular till our own days. It was too dangerous, the Hebron natives enjoying a fine reputation for ferocity and brigandage. An anonymous Hebrew writer writes from Jerusalem in 1495, that a few days before a Jew from Hebron had been waylaid and robbed. But he adds: “I hear that on Passover some Jews are coming here from Egypt and Damascus, with the intention of also visiting Hebron. I shall go with them, if I am still alive.”

In Baedeker, Hebron is still given a bad character, the Muslims of the place being called fanatical and violent. I cannot confirm this verdict. The children throw stones at you, but they take good care not to hit. As I have already pointed out, Hebron is completely non-Christian, just as Bethlehem is completely non-Mohammedan. The Crescent is very disinclined to admit the Cross into Hebron, the abode of Abraham, a name far more honored by Jews and Mohammedans than by Christians.

It is not quite just to call the Hebronites fanatical and sullen; they really only desire to hold Hebron as their own. “Hebron for the Hebronites" is their cry. The road, at all events, is quite safe. One of the surprises of Palestine is the huge traffic along the main roads. Orientals not only make a great bustle about what they do, but they really are very busy people. Along the roads you meet masses of passengers, people on foot, on mules and horses, on camels, in wheeled vehicles. You come across groups of pilgrims, with one mule to the party, carrying the party’s goods, the children always barefooted and bareheaded–the latter fact making you realize how the little boy in the Bible story falling sick in the field exclaimed “My head, my head!” Besides the pilgrims, there are the bearers of goods and produce. You see donkeys carrying large stones for building, one stone over each saddle. If you are as lucky as I was, you may see a runaway camel along the Hebron road, scouring alone at break-neck speed, with laughter-producing gait.

Of Hebron itself I saw little as I entered, because I arrived towards sunset, and only had time to notice that everyone in the streets carried a lantern. In Jerusalem only the women carry lights, but in Hebron men had them as well. I wondered where I was to pass the night. Three friends had accompanied me from Jerusalem, and they told me not to worry, as we could stay at the Jewish doctor’s. It seemed to me a cool piece of impudence to billet a party on a man whose name had been previously unknown to me, but the result proved that they were right. The doctor welcomed us right heartily; he said that it was a joy to entertain us. Now it was that one saw the advantages of the Oriental architecture. The chief room in an Eastern house is surrounded on three sides by a wide stone or wooden divan, which, in wealthy houses, is richly upholstered. The Hebron doctor was not rich, but there was the same divan covered with a bit of chintz. On it one made one’s bed, hard, it is true, but yet a bed. You always take your rugs with you for covering at night, you put your portmanteau under your head as a pillow, and there you are! You may rely upon one thing. People who, on their return from Palestine, tell you that they had a comfortable trip, have seen nothing of the real life of the country. To do that you must rough it, as I did both at Modin and at Hebron. To return to the latter. The rooms have stone floors and vaulted roofs, the children walk about with wooden shoes, and the pitter-patter makes a pleasant music. They throw off the shoes as they enter the room. My host had been in Hebron for six years, and he told me overnight what I observed for myself next day, that, considering the fearful conditions under which the children live, there is comparatively little sickness. As for providing meals, a genuine communism prevails. You produce your food, your host adds his store, and you partake in common of the feast to which both sides contribute. After a good long talk, I got to sleep easily, thinking, as I dozed off, that I should pass a pleasant night. I had become impervious to the mosquitoes, but there was something else which I had forgotten. Was it a dream, an awful nightmare, or had a sudden descent of Bedouins occurred? Gradually I was awakened by a noise as of wild beasts let loose, howls of rage and calls to battle. It was only the dogs. In Jerusalem I had never heard them, as the Jewish hotel was then well out of the town; it has since been moved nearer in. It is impossible to convey a sense of the terrifying effect produced by one’s first experience of the night orgies of Oriental dogs, it curdles your blood to recall it. Seen by daytime, the dogs are harmless enough, as they go about their scavenger work among the heaps of refuse and filth. But by night they are howling demons, stampeding about the streets in mad groups, barking to and at each other, whining piteously one moment, roaring hoarsely and snapping fiercely another.

The dogs did me one service, they made me get up early. I walked through a bluish-gray atmosphere. Colors in Judea are bright, yet there is always an effect as of a thin gauze veil over them. I went, then, into the streets, and at five o’clock the sun was high, and the bustle of the place had begun. The air was keen and fresh, and many were already abroad. I saw some camels start for Jerusalem, laden with straw mats made in Hebron.

Next went some asses carrying poultry for the Holy City, then a family caravan with its inevitable harem of closely veiled women. Then I saw a man with tools for hewing stone, camels coming into Hebron, a boy with a large petroleum can going to fetch water,–they are abandoning the use of the olden picturesque stone pitchers,–then I saw asses loaded with vine twigs, one with lime, women with black dresses and long white veils, boys with bent backs carrying iron stones. I saw, too, some Bethlehemite Christians hurrying home to the traditional site of the nativity. You can always distinguish these, for they are the only Christians in Palestine that wear turbans habitually. And all over the landscape dominated the beautiful green hills, fresh with the morning dew, a dew so thick that I had what I had not expected, a real morning bath. I was soaked quite wet by the time I returned from my solitary stroll. I had a capital breakfast, for which we supplied the solids, and our host the coffee. Butter is a luxury which we neither expected nor got. Hebron, none the less, seemed to me a Paradise, and I applauded the legend that locates Adam and Eve in this spot.

Alas! I had not yet seen Hebron. The doctor lived on the outskirts near the highroad, where there are many fine and beautiful residences. I was soon to enter the streets and receive a rude awakening, when I saw the manner in which the fifteen hundred Jews of Hebron live. Hebron is a ghetto in a garden; it is worse than even Jerusalem, Jerusalem being clean in comparison. Dirty, dark, narrow, vaulted, unevenly paved, running with liquid slime–such are the streets of Hebron. You are constantly in danger of slipping, unless you wear the flat, heel-less Eastern shoes, and, if you once fell, not all the perfumes of Araby could make you sweet again.

I should say that, before starting on my round, I had to secure the attendance of soldiers. Not that it was necessary, but they utilize Baedeker’s assertion, that the people are savage, to get fees out of visitors–a cunning manner of turning the enemy’s libels to profitable account. I hired two soldiers, but one by one others joined my train, so that by the time my tour was over, I had a whole regiment of guardians, all demanding baksheesh. I would only deal with the leader, a ragged warrior with two daggers, a sword, and a rifle. “How much?” I asked. “We usually ask a napoleon (i.e. 20 francs) for an escort, but we will charge you only ten francs.” I turned to the doctor and asked him, “How much?” “Give them a beslik between them,” he said. A beslik is only five pence. I offered it in trepidation, but the sum satisfied the whole gang, who thanked me profusely.

First I visited the prison, a sort of open air cage, in which about a dozen men were smoking cigarettes. The prison was much nicer than the Mohammedan school close by. This was a small overcrowded room, with no window in it, the little boys sitting on the ground, swaying with a sleepy chant. The teacher’s only function was represented by his huge cane, which he plied often and skilfully. Outside the door was a barber shaving a pilgrim’s head. The pilgrim was a Muslim, going on the Haj to Mecca. These pilgrims are looked on with mingled feelings; their piety is admired, but also distrusted. A local saying is, “If thy neighbor has been on the Haj, beware of him; if he has been twice, have no dealings with him; if he has been thrice, move into another street.” After the pilgrim, I passed a number of blind weavers, working before large wooden frames.

But now for the Jewish quarter. This is entered by a low wooden door, at which we had to knock and then stoop to get in. The Jews are no longer forced to have this door, but they retain it voluntarily. Having got in, we were in a street so dark that we could not see a foot before us, but we kept moving, and soon came to a slightly better place, where the sun crept through in fitful gleams. The oldest synagogue was entered first. Its flooring was of marble squares, its roof vaulted, and its Ark looked north towards Jerusalem. There were, as so often in the East, two Arks; when one is too small, they do not enlarge it, but build another. The Sefardic Talmud Torah is a small room without window or ventilation, the only light and air enter by the door. The children were huddled together on an elevated wooden platform. They could read Hebrew fluently, and most of them spoke Arabic. The German children speak Yiddish; the custom of using Hebrew as a living language has not spread here so much as in Jaffa and the colonies. The Beth ha-Midrash for older children was a little better equipped; it had a stone floor, but the pupils reclined on couches round the walls. They learn very little of what we should call secular subjects. I examined the store of manuscripts, but Professor Schechter had been before me, and there was nothing left but modern Cabbalistic literature. The other synagogue is small, and very bare of ornament. The Rabbi was seated there, “learning,” with great Tefillin and Tallith on–a fine, simple, benevolent soul. To my surprise he spoke English, and turned out to be none other than Rachmim Joseph Franco, who, as long ago as 1851, when the earthquake devastated the Jewish quarter, had been sent from Rhodes to collect relief funds. He was very ailing, and I could not have a long conversation with him, but he told me that he had known my father, who was then a boy, in London. Then I entered a typical Jewish dwelling of the poor. It consisted of a single room, opening on to the dark street, and had a tiny barred window at the other side. On the left was a broad bed, on the right a rude cooking stove and a big water pitcher. There was nothing else in the room, except a deep stagnant mud pool, which filled the centre of the floor.

Next door they were baking Matzoth in an oven fed by a wood fire. It was a few days before Passover. The Matzoth were coarse, and had none of the little holes with which we are familiar. So through streets within streets, dirt within dirt, room over room, in hopeless intricacy. Then we were brought to a standstill, a man was coming down the street with a bundle of wood, and we had to wait till he had gone by, the streets being too narrow for two persons to pass each other. Another street was impassable for a different reason, there was quite a river of flowing mud, knee deep. I asked for a boat, but a man standing by hoisted me on his shoulders, and carried me across, himself wading through it with the same unconcern as the boys and girls were wallowing in it, playing and amusing themselves. How alike children are all the world over!

And yet, with it all, Hebron is a healthy place. There is little of the intermittent fever prevalent in other parts of Palestine; illness is common, but not in a bad form. Jerusalem is far more unhealthy, because of the lack of water. But the Jews of Hebron are miserably poor. How they live is a mystery. They are not allowed to own land, even if they could acquire it. There was once a little business to be done in lending money to the Arabs, but as the Government refuses to help in the collection of debts, this trade is not flourishing, and a good thing, too. There are, of course, some industries. First there is the wine. I saw nothing of the vintage, as my visit was in the spring, but I tasted the product and found it good. The Arab vine-owners sell the grapes to Jews, who extract the juice. Still there is room for enterprise here, and it is regrettable that few seem to think of Hebron when planning the regeneration of Judea. True, I should regret the loss of primitiveness here, as I said at the outset, but when the lives of men are concerned, esthetics must go to the wall. The Jewish quarter was enlarged in 1875, but it is still inadequate. The Society Lemaan Zion has done a little to introduce modern education, but neither the Alliance nor the Anglo-Jewish Association has a school here. Lack of means prevents the necessary efforts from being made. Most deplorable is the fact connected with the hospital. In a beautiful sunlit road above the mosque, amid olive groves, is the Jewish hospital, ready for use, well-built, but though the very beds were there when T saw it, no patients could be received, as there were no funds. The Jewish doctor was doing a wonderful work. He had exiled himself from civilized life, as we Westerns understand it; his children had no school to which to go; he felt himself stagnating, without intellectual intercourse with his equals, yet active, kindly, uncomplaining–one of those everyday martyrs whom one meets so often among the Jews of Judea, men who day by day see their ambitions vanishing under the weight of a crushing duty. It was sad to see how he lingered over the farewell when I left him. I said that his house had seemed an oasis in the desert to me, that I could never forget the time spent with him. “And what of me?” he answered. “Your visit has been an oasis in the desert to me, but you go and the desert remains.” Surely, the saddest thing in life is this feeling that one’s own uninteresting, commonplace self should mean so much to others. I call it sad, because so few of us realize what we may mean to others, being so absorbed in our selfish thought of what others mean to us.

There are two industries in Hebron besides the vintage. It supplies most of the skin-bottles used in Judea, and a good deal of glassware, including lamps, is manufactured there. The Hebron tannery is a picturesque place, but no Jews are employed in it. Each bottle is made from an entire goat-skin, from which only the head and feet are removed. The lower extremities are sewn up, and the neck is drawn together to form the neck of the water bottle. Some trade is also done here in wool, which the Arabs bring in and sell at the market held every Friday. In ancient times the sheep used in the Temple sacrifices were obtained from Hebron. Besides the tannery, the glass factories are worth a visit. The one which I saw was in a cavern, lit only by the glow of the central furnace. Seated round the hearth (I am following Gautier’s faithful description of the scene) and served by two or three boys, were about ten workmen, making many-colored bracelets and glass rings, which varied in size from small finger rings to circlets through which you could easily put your arm. The workmen are provided with two metal rods and a pair of small tongs, and they ply these primitive instruments with wonderful dexterity. They work very hard, at least fifteen hours a day, for five days a week.

This is one of the curiosities of the East. Either the men there are loafers, or they work with extraordinary vigor. There is nothing between doing too much and doing nothing. The same thing strikes one at Jaffa. The porters who carry your baggage from the landing stage to the steamer do more work than three English dock laborers. They carry terrific weights. When a family moves, a porter carries all the furniture on his back. Yet side by side with these overworked men, Jaffa is crowded with idlers, who do absolutely nothing. Such are the contrasts of the surprising Orient.

Many of the beads and rosaries taken to Europe by pious pilgrims are made in Hebron, just as the mother of pearl relics come chiefly from Bethlehem, where are made also the tobacco-jars of Dead Sea stone. Hebron does a fair trade with the Bedouins, but on the whole it is quite unprogressive. At first sight this may seem rather an unpleasant fact for lovers of peace. Hebron has for many centuries been absolutely free from the ravages of war, yet it stagnates. Peace is clearly not enough for progress. As the Rabbinical phrase well puts it, “Peace is the vessel which holds all other good"–without peace this other good is spilt, but peace is after all the containing vessel, not the content of happiness.

I have left out, in the preceding narrative, the visit paid to the Haram erected over the Cave of Machpelah. The mosque is an imposing structure, and rises above the houses on the hill to the left as you enter from Jerusalem. The walls of the enclosure and of the mosque are from time to time whitewashed, so that the general appearance is somewhat dazzling. It has already been mentioned that certain repairs were effected in 1894-5. The work was done by the lads of the Technical School in Jerusalem; they made an iron gate for Joseph’s tomb,–the Moslems believe that Joseph is buried in Hebron,–and they made one gate for Abraham’s tomb, one gate and three window gratings for Isaac’s tomb, and one gate and two window gratings for Rebekah’s tomb. This iron work, it is satisfactory to remember, was rendered possible by the splendid machinery sent out to the school from London by the Anglo-Jewish Association. The ordinary Jewish visitor is not allowed to enter the enclosure at all. I was stopped at the steps, where the custodian audaciously demanded a tip for not letting me in. The tombs within are not the real tombs of the Patriarchs; they are merely late erections over the spots where the Patriarchs lie buried.

No one has ever doubted that Machpelah is actually at this site, but the building is, of course, not Patriarchal in age. The enclosure is as old as the Wailing Wall at Jerusalem. It belongs to the age of Herod; we see the same cyclopean stones, with the same surface draftings as at Jerusalem. Why Herod built this edifice seems clear. Hebron was the centre of Idumean influence, and Herod was an Idumean. He had a family interest in the place, and hence sought to beautify it. No Jew or Christian can enter the enclosure except by special iradé; even Sir Moses Montefiore was refused the privilege. Rather, one should say, the Moslem authorities wished to let Sir Moses in, but they were prevented by the mob from carrying out their amiable intentions. The late English King Edward VII and the present King George V were privileged to enter the structure. Mr. Elkan Adler got in at the time when the Alliance workmen were repairing the gates, but there is nothing to see of any interest. No one within historical times has penetrated below the mosque, to the cavern itself. We still do not know whether it is called Machpelah because the Cave is double vertically or double horizontally.

The outside is much more interesting than the inside. Half way up the steps leading into the mosque, there is a small hole or window at which many Jews pray, and into which, it is said, all sorts of things, including letters to the Patriarchs, are thrown, especially by women. In the Middle Ages, they spread at this hole a tender calf, some venison pasties, and some red pottage, every day, in honor of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the food was eaten by the poor. It is commonly reported, though I failed to obtain any local confirmation of the assertion, that the Jews still write their names and their requests on strips of paper and thrust them into this hole. The Moslems let down a lamp through the hole, and also cast money into it, which is afterwards picked up by little boys as it is required for the purposes of the mosque and for repairing the numerous tombs of prophets and saints with which Hebron abounds. If you were to believe the local traditions, no corpses were left for other cemeteries. The truth is that much obscurity exists as to the identity even of modern tombs, for Hebron preserves its old custom, and none of the Jewish tombs to this day bear epitaphs. What a mass of posthumous hypocrisy would the world be spared if the Hebron custom were prevalent everywhere! But it is obvious that the method lends itself to inventiveness, and as the tombs are unnamed, local guides tell you anything they choose about them, and you do not believe them even when they are speaking the truth.

There is only one other fact to tell about the Cave. The Moslems have a curious dread of Isaac and Rebekah, they regard the other Patriarchs as kindly disposed, but Isaac is irritable, and Rebekah malicious. It is told of Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, he who “feared neither man nor devil,” that when he was let down into the Cave by a rope, he surprised Rebekah in the act of combing her hair. She resented the intrusion, and gave him so severe a box on the ears that he fell down in a fit, and could be rescued alive only with much difficulty. It is with equal difficulty that one can depart, with any reverence left, from the mass of legend and childishness with which one is crushed in such places. One escapes with the thought of the real Abraham, his glorious service to humanity, his lifelong devotion to the making of souls, to the spread of the knowledge of God. One recalls the Abraham who, in the Jewish tradition, is the type of unselfishness, of watchfulness on behalf of his descendants, the marks of whose genuine relationship to the Patriarch are a generous eye and a humble spirit. As one turns from Hebron, full of such happy memories, one forms the resolve not to rely solely on an appeal to the Patriarch’s merits, but to strive to do something oneself for the Jewish cause, and thus fulfil the poet’s lines,

  Thus shalt thou plant a garden round the tomb,
  Where golden hopes may flower, and fruits immortal bloom.


Preface  •  “The Book of Delight”  •  A Visit to Hebron  •  The Solace of Books  •  Medieval Wayfaring  •  The Fox’s Heart  •  “Marriages Are Made in Heaven”  •  Hebrew Love Songs  •  A Handful of Curiosities  •  Notes