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Hebron - Introduction

Drawing of Hebron in 1839 Plate 55 - Lithograph of a watercolor painting by David Roberts of Hebron in 1839

Roberts, D. (1855). The Holy Land: Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia


Transliterated Name Language Name
Hebron English
Hevron Modern Hebrew יחֶבְרוֹן
Kiriath-Arba Biblical Hebrew
Mamre Biblical Hebrew
al-Khalil Arabic الخليل‎
al-Khalīl al-Raḥmān Arabic اَلْخَلِيل الرَّحْمَن‎‎
Castellion Saint Abraham French (Crusader)
St. Abram de Bron French (Crusader)

Hebron is a major biblical site due to its association with the patriarchs (Abraham is reputed to have purchased a burial plot for his family there) and choice as King David's initial capital city. It is mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Bible and has been inhabited since at least the Early Bronze Age (Avi Offer in Stern et al, 1993).

Identification and History

Hebron is the capital of the part of the Judean Hills that lies south of Jerusalem and was the major city of the region during most of its history. Its association with the patriarchs and King David's choice of it as his first capital have made it a major biblical site.

The only information about ancient Hebron comes from the Bible, where it is also called Kiriath-Arba and Mamre. These names are commonly considered evidence that the town was divided into quarters (arba', or "four," in Hebrew) or clans. Various locations are mentioned as being in the Hebron region: Elonei (oaks of) Mamre, the Eshcol and Hebron valleys, and the Cave (field) of Machpelah. Hebron and the Cave of Machpelah play a central role in the patriarchal narratives, particularly in the traditions about Abraham (Gen. 13:18, 14:13, 18:1, 23:1-20, 25:9-10), but scholars differ as to the periods reflected by these narratives. The ancient formulation of the Caleb tradition mentions the inhabitants of Canaanite Hebron, "Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of Anak" (Num. 13:22). These persons were probably members of a tribal unit, associated by some scholars with the Amorite unit y'nq, mentioned in sources from the second millennium BCE. The statement in the second part of Numbers 13:22, "Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt," was once thought to indicate that the founding of Hebron was contemporaneous with the Hyksos period in Egypt; more recently, it has been suggested that the verse refers to David's choice of Hebron as his capital, at approximately the same time as the establishment of the Egyptian city of Zoan during the Twenty-first Dynasty.

The conquest of Hebron is attributed variously to Joshua and the Israelites in general (Jos. 10:36-37), to the tribe of Judah (Jg. I:10) or to Caleb (Jos. 14:13-15); the Calebite tradition is apparently the most authentic. After the Calebites had defeated the Anakites and settled in the Hebron region, they played a major role in the consolidation of the tribe of Judah. Levites were also among those who settled at Hebron: the Hebronites were one of the most important Levite families, and Hebron was a city of refuge and a Levitical city (Jos. 21:11-13; 1 Chr. 6:55-57).

David was crowned king of Judah at Hebron, which served as his royal capital for seven years, until he moved to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 2:3-4, 5:5). It was in Hebron that Absalom rebelled against his father. The biblical account seems to imply that there was a temple at Hebron (as Absalom's excuse for going to Hebron was the need to "pay his vow" (2 Sam. 15:7-12). Hebron is mentioned again in the list of "cities for defense" whose fortification is attributed to Rehoboam (2 Chr. 11:5-12), but it should probably be dated to a late phase in the period of the monarchy. Hebron is mentioned in Hezekiah's time in the lamelekh seal impressions, and some scholars consider this evidence that the city was at that time an administrative and economic center. It appears once again in the list of cities of Judah (Jos. 15:54), which is commonly dated to the reign of Josiah. The last biblical reference to Kiriath-Arba is in the list of cities in the Book of Nehemiah (11 :25), but the significance and date of that list are unclear.

Hebron is referred to again in sources from the time of Judas Maccabaeus, who occupied it in the course of his war in Idumea (1 Mace. 5:65). During the Jewish Revolt against the Romans, Simeon Bar Giora conquered Hebron, but Vespasian reoccupied the city and burned it to the ground (Josephus, War IV, 529, 554). Eusebius describes Hebron as a "very large village" (Onom. 6:8). In the Byzantine period, both Christian and Jewish pilgrims visited Hebron. The pilgrim of Placenta describes the basilica containing the tombs of the patriarchs, and the religious ceremonies held by the Jews and the Christians on opposite sides of a partition wall (Antoninus Placentinus, ltinerarium 30, CCSL 175, 144). The bishop Arculf, who visited Hebron after the Arab conquest (in c. 680), describes the town as having been half destroyed: it had no wall and its inhabitants lived in scattered clusters of houses. The houses of the partriarchs, however, had not been damaged (Adamnanus, De Locis Sanctis II, VIII-X; CCSL 175, 209-210). Thereafter, the city is frequently mentioned in various sources from the Early Arab period, the Crusader period (when it was the seat of the Latin bishop), the Mameluke period, and the Ottoman period.

Summary of occupational history

The earliest known occupation of the mound was in the Early Bronze Age I, as part of a wave of settlement that occurred throughout the entire hill region. However, the only remains of this stratum exposed so far are a few sections of walls and rock shelters that apparently also served as dwellings.

Settlement continued through the Early Bronze Age II-III, but no remains have been excavated as yet. It is not clearly understood whether the site was completely abandoned during the Intermediate Bronze Age (Middle Bronze Age 1). In any event, the shaft tombs within the modern city limits testify that the area was at the very least a tribal-nomadic center, like other sites in the hill region.

During the Middle Bronze Age II the site was occupied by a fortified city, some 6 to 7 a. in area, surrounded by a cyclopean wall. This city was the major settlement in the Judean Hills during the Middle Bronze Age. The cuneiform tablet dated to this period testifies to the city's central role in the administration, apparently as the capital of a kingdom. The list of animals in the tablet, together with the bones found in the area, indicate that the local inhabitants were shepherds. The proper names on the tablet indicate a West Semitic (Amorite) population, with a Hurrian minority.

During the Late Bronze Age, the city of Hebron was abandoned; however, a tribal population continued to bury its dead in the environs, and even on the outskirts ofTel Hebron. It is possible that a small part of the site itself, besides serving as a necropolis, was also used for residential purposes. However, it would seem that during the Late Bronze Age there was no large, permanent settlement on the site. The permanent occupation of Hebron was resumed in the first phase of Iron Age I, apparently by the tribal unit known as the Calebites. Judging from the finds, it is unlikely that Hebron was a fortified town on the eve of the Israelite settlement. This detail in the Calebite tradition is probably etiological, a conjecture on the part of a late writer, who was probably familiar with the ancient cyclopean walls of Hebron and associated them with the tradition telling of the war with the Anakites. In fact, parts of these walls are still visible on the mound; in the Iron Age they rose to an even greater height and were probably a familiar sight and may well have been reused. The glacis (if such existed) was partly destroyed before the Iron Age.

The next occupational level at Tel Hebron represents the zenith of the city's history, between the eleventh century and the end of the tenth century BCE. During that time the city probably extended beyond the line of the Middle Bronze Age walls. The latter were presumably used as fortifications for the upper sector of the city. Historically speaking, this golden age at Hebron reflects the city's position as a tribal and religious center for the people of the Judean Hills and the first royal capital of King David.

In the later part of the Iron Age, Hebron's importance declined; the remains exposed from this phase are fragmentary. Hammond's excavations probably exposed more abundant evidence from the period of the monarchy, but it has not been published. The precise history of Hebron during that period, including the date of its final destruction, is unclear. An important find from the time of the monarchy are five lamelekh seal impressions on storage jar handles. All five feature the two-winged symbol, and the two inscribed ones include the name Hebron. Notably, of the four cities named in the lamelekh seal impressions, Hebron is the only one that has also been confidently identified and excavated; hence, the considerable significance of the find.

During the Persian period Tel Hebron was completely abandoned; in subsequent periods the city shifted to its present location in the valley, at the foot of the mound. As the city of Hebron has not been excavated, it cannot be determined whether occupation of the area actually began during the Persian period.

Occupation of the mound was resumed in the Hellenistic period, but most probably as a suburb of the city now located in the valley. During the Roman period, settlement in this area flourished; to this period are dated pool installations of an as yet undetermined (industrial?) nature. Two violent destruction levels belong to this period. The first should probably be associated with Vespasian's burning ofHebron, the second perhaps with the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. The remains from the Byzantine period comprise two phases, and occupation continued into the Umayyad, Crusader, and Mameluke periods. Only in the Ottoman period was the mound completely abandoned.

The Major Sites: their identification and exploration

  • Tel Hebron, located on a low spur of Jebel Rumeida, is the main site of the Bronze and Iron Age City. Biblical Hebron should be identified here.

  • Haram el-Khalil is a monumental structure from Second Temple times, built on a slope opposite Tel Hebron, on a site commonly identified with the Cave of Machpelah. A variety of evidence indicates the presence of several shaft tombs, dating to the Middle Bronze Age I and perhaps also the Iron Age, beneath the Haram and in its environs. The structure itself is undoubtedly from the Second Temple period, but its construction is unattested in the sources. It is commonly attributed to Herod the Great, although some scholars date it even earlier. Over the years the building has undergone various modifications and additions; it has served at different times as a church and as a mosque.

  • The city of Hebron lies in the Valley of Hebron, between Tel Hebron and Haram el-Khalil. This is probably the site of Hebron from the Second Temple period onward.

  • A large building from the Persian period stands on Jebel Nimra, which some believe preserves the name of ancient Mamre.

  • Farther away from the ancient nucleus, although still within modern Hebron, are the following sites:

    • Haram Ramet el-Khalil, a monumental enclosure, identified by some authorities with Mamre (q.v.).

    • Khirbet en-Nasara (Ruin of the Christians), a site whose beginnings are dated to the Iron Age, but whose main occupation occurred during the Byzantine and Early Arab periods (its old Arabic name was apparently Majdal Bani Fadil).

    • Jebel Batrak (Patriarch's Hill) is another Byzantine and Early Arab site.
Tel Hebron (erroneously called Tell er-Rumeida) was identified a surveyed in the 1920s by W. F. Albright, A. E. Mader, and F. M. Abel. From 1964 to 1966 an American expedition led by P. C. Hammond excavated at the site. Since 1984 the mound has been excavated by the Judean Hills Survey Expedition, directed by A. Ofer with the assistance of G. Suleimani. Haram el-Khalil has been described by many excavators, but no systematic examination of the remains under the building has ever been possible, nor a fortiori any excavation at the site. Neither have any proper excavations been conducted within the city of Hebron itself. The sites of Jebel Nimra and Mamre have recently been excavated by I. Magen on behalf of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums.

Aerial Views
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Aerial Views

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Notes and Further Reading


Roberts, D. (1855). The Holy Land: Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia - contains 250 lithographs by Louis Haghe of Roberts's watercolor sketches - open access at

Bibliography from Stern et al (1993 v. 2)

A. Ofer, ES/3 (1984), 94-95; 5 (1986), 92-93; 6 (1987-1988), 92-93

M. Anbarand N. Na'aman, TA 13- 14 (1986-1987), 3-12.

Bibliography from Stern et al (2008)

Main publications

J. R. Chadwick, The Archaeology of Biblical Hebron in the Bronze and Iron Ages: An Examination of the Discoveries of the American Expedition to Hebron (Ph.D. diss., Salt Lake City, UT 1992), Ann Arbor, MI 1993

D. Jericke, Abraham in Mamre: historische und exegetische Studien zur Region von Hebron und zu Genesis 11,27–19,38 (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 17), Leiden 2003.

Studies (including Tel Hebron/Tell Rumeida)

S. Applebaum, ABD, 5, New York 1992, 614–615

P. W. Ferris, Jr., ibid., 3, New York 1992, 107–108

B. Mazar, Biblical Israel: State and People (ed. S. Ahituv), Jerusalem 1992, 78–87

M. Spaer, Journal of Glass Studies 34 (1992), 44–62

H. Hizmi & Z. Shabtai, JSRS 3 (1993), xiii–xiv

D. Amit, ibid. 4 (1994), xxii

Y. Baruch, ESI 14 (1994), 121–122

M. L. Fischer, Mediterranean Language Review 8 (1994), 20–40

id., EI 25 (1996), 106*–107*

A. Frisch, Abr-Nahrain 32 (1994), 80–96

F. N. Hepper & S. Gibson, PEQ 126 (1994), 94–105

A. Elad, Pilgrims and Travellers to The Holy Land (Studies in Jewish Civilization, Creighton University, Center for the Study of Religion and Society, 7

eds. B. F. Le Beau & M. Mor), Omaha, NE 1996, 21–62

J. P. J. Olivier, Old Testament Essays 9 (1996), 451–464

P. C. Hammond, OEANE, 3, New York 1997, 13–14

Z. Safrai, The Missing Century: Palestine in the 5th Century—Growth and Decline (Palestine Antiqua N.S. 9), Leuven 1998, (index)

A. A. Taveres, 34. Rencontre Assyriologique International, Istanbul, 6–10.7.1987, Ankara 1998, 320–329

B. Grossfeld, The Solomon Goldman Lectures 7 (1999), 47–65

J. Sudilovsky, BAR 25/6 (1999), 14

D. M. Jacobson, Levant 32 (2000), 135–154

M. Kochavi, Les routes du Proche-Orient des séjours d’Abraham aux caravans de l’Anciens (MdB

ed. A. Lemaire), Paris 2000, 51–56

Y. Peleg (& Y. Feller), ESI 112 (2000), 104*

id. (& I. Shrukh), ibid., 105*

id. (& I. Eisenstat), Burial Caves and Sites in Judea and Samaria from the Bronze and Iron Ages (Judea and Samaria Publications 4

eds. H. Hizmi & A. De Groot), Jerusalem 2004, 231–259

A. D. Petersen, Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras, 3: Proceedinsg of the 6th, 7th, and 8th International Colloquium, Leuven, May 1997, 1998 and 1999 (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 102

eds. U. Vermeulen & J. Van Steenbergen), Leuven 2001, 359–383

S. Batz & Y. Peleg, ESI 114 (2002), 90*–91*

E. Eisenberg & A. Nagorski, ibid., 91*–92*

M. Patella, The Bible Today 41 (2003), 32–37

J. R. Chadwick, ASOR Annual Meeting 2004,

id., BAR 31/5 (2005), 24–33, 70–71

O. Keel & S. Munger, Burial Caves and Sites (op. cit.), Jerusalem 2004, 13, 240–241, 276–278

B. Yuzefovsky, ibid., 11–12, 83, 238–240.

Cave of Machpela (Haram el-Khalil)

L. F. De Vries, ABD, 4, New York 1992, 460–461

P. Richardson, Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans (Studies on Personalities of the New Testament), Columbia, SC 1996

Le opere fortificate de Erode il Grand, Firenze 1997

R. Riesner, Bibel und Kirche 52 (1997), 91–92

H. Busse, ZDPV 114 (1998), 71–94

D. M. Jacobson, BAIAS 17 (1999), 67–76

N. Jobeh, Les Dossiers d’Archéologie 240 (1999), 68–71

A. Lichtenberger, Die Baupolitik Herodes des Grossen (Abhandlungen des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 26), Wiesbaden 1999

A. D. Petersen, Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras, 3: Proceedinsg of the 6th, 7th, and 8th International Colloquium, Leuven, May 1997, 1998 and 1999 (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 102

eds. U. Vermeulen & J. Van Steenbergen), Leuven 2001, 359–383

J. Briend, MdB 140 (2002), 20–25

M. Patella, The Bible Today 41 (2003), 32–37

J. R. Chadwick, BAR 31/5 (2005), 24–33, 70–71

A. Lewin, The Archaeology of Ancient Judea and Palestine, Los Angeles, CA 2005, 144–147

A. de Pury, Transeuphratène 30 (2005), 183–184.

Wikipedia pages

Wikipedia page for Hebron

Wikipedia page for Old City of Hebron

Wikipedia page for Tel Hebron/Tel Rumeida

Wikipedia page for Deir Al Arba'een

Wikipedia page for the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Cave of the Patriarchs/Haram el-Khalil/Cave of Machpelah/Ibrahimi Mosque

Wikipedia page for Mamre

Wikipedia page for Oak of Mamre