Machpelah, established from early Biblical times, was an important place of pilgrimage for medieval travellers like Benjamin of Tudela, who described the two stages by which a determined visitor gained access to the site.
The ordinary traveller was told by his guide that the outer area contained the remains of the patriarchs, but if one were determined and prepared to pay the guide extra it was possible to go further, descend some steps and enter an underground cavern which was the real burial place.
Regardless of the political problems of today, there is a poetic dimension of the Machpelah story which should not be forgotten.
The bones of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives come to life like the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision if you cast your mind’s eye back down Jewish history.
You encounter the spirit of the patriarchs and are immediately asked, “You Jews of the 21st century, four thousand years on from when we ourselves lived, do you fittingly honour our memory as the founding fathers of Judaism?
“Do you devote to Judaism the spiritual eagerness of Abraham, Isaac’s love of tradition, Jacob’s tenacity even in times of trouble?
“Do you honour our principles, not just our mausoleum?”