On August 25, 1859, the Italian archaeologist and engineer Ermette Pierotti, tried to sneak into the sanctuary at the Cave of the Patriarchs with the assistance of some Muslim friends. But before they had even made it down five steps, they were caught by the guards who dragged them back out. "The beatings I received and the curses I was subjected to in no way diminished the satisfaction that I felt," Pierotti wrote in his diary, "I can say that I managed to see something of the cave – ossuaries of white stone... a wall of rock separating the lower and upper caves. When the day comes that someone is able to enter this dark place, they will see that my description was accurate."

The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron

Col. Richard Meinertzhagen, an officer under the command of General Allenby, made a somewhat more successful visit when the British captured Hebron in November 1917. He entered the subterranean caverns through an opening on the southwestern side of the famous above-ground structure to make sure there were no enemy forces hiding out there.

Next to Abraham's tombstone, Meinertzhagen found a door opening up into a narrow passageway that led to an "underground hiding place where there was a large rock surrounded by four flat-topped pillars with winding grooves."

Pierotti and Meinertzhagen, who visited the underground caverns below the above ground (Herodian) structure – Muslims today prevent any access to them – are not the only ones to have succeeded in peeking into the depths of the earth to try and unlock the site's secrets. All of them sought to confirm whether it is indeed the biblical Cave of the Patriarchs in the field that Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite.

Noam Arnon (Saria Diamant)

A 600-page doctoral thesis composed over the past eight years by Dr. Noam Arnon, reveals and explores the details of these visits, and much more. Arnon's research covers a period of 2,500 years in the history of the site, and, like his previous works on the Cave of the Patriarchs, deals with a broad complex of geographical, geological, archaeological, and Jewish and historical sources, that were not all available to those researching the cave in the past.

Up to the seventh step

Over the generations, the cave of the Patriarchs had a place of honor in heritage, tradition, and legend, but it was in religious faith and mysticism where it stood out. Arnon's work (completed at the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar Ilan University) now compiles for the first time a scientific database about the cave and its secrets. Its advantage lies in Arnon's intimate knowledge of the site, which he has lived, breathed, and researched for almost five decades.

Over the course of 700 years, ever since the conquest of the Land of Israel by the Mamluks in 1267, access to the site has been denied to Jews and other non-Muslims.

Reminder: Over the course of 700 years, ever since the conquest of the Land of Israel by the Mamluks in 1267, access to the site has been denied to Jews and other non-Muslims. Jews were only allowed as far as the "Seventh Step" on the stairway leading down to the structure, and this became synonymous with the discrimination against Jews at the site. Researchers exploring the site such as the British archaeologist Ernest Mckay, the French scholar, Father Louis-Hugues Vincent, or the British delegation led by Claude Reignier Conder in 1882 dealt in detail with the famous 2,000-year-old above-ground structure, but had great difficulty in gaining access – if at all – to the underground caverns below it.

Arnon, a resident of Beit Hadassah in Hebron, who is better known to the wider public as the spokesman of the Hebron Jewish Community touches on this issue as well. A fascinating part of his research deals with the secret visits made by him and others to the caves underneath the main building, as well as visits that took place openly with permission.

One of the earliest visits to the cave of the Patriarchs (in the second century CE) is documented in the Talmud, which tells of Rabbi Bana'ah who would mark out burial caves so that people would not suffer ritual contamination. A thousand years later in the 12th century, these caverns were entered by monks from the canonical order who located in the depths of the earth several rooms of different shapes and sizes that contained urns full of bones. The site was also visited in the 12th century by Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, Rabbi Petachiah of Regensburg, and Rabbi Yaakov ben Netanel HaCohen.

Pierotti and Meinertzhagen reached the depth of the Cave only centuries later and the next documented visit was that of a young British Jew, Jack Seklan, in 1933.

A secret kept for 80 years

Seklan's daughter Yehudit, who lives in Ofra, told Arnon about her father after he decided it was time to reveal the secret he had been keeping for almost 80 years. They met in 2012 when Seklan was already 97, but still sound of mind and with a fantastic memory. He described in detail to Arnon how, accompanied by the British officer in charge of the site, he descended three flights of stairs into the subterranean hall deep underground where they found another door.

The opening to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. (Video screenshot)

"From that door," recalls Arnon, "they descended another few steps and reached a barred window overlooking an underground hall. Seklan told me that the hall was quite large and built out of natural rock or stone. In the dim light, he managed to make out tombstones similar to those on the upper floor that is now open to the public. But unlike the upper tombstones that are covered with a magnificent parochet, the tombstones below ground were bare. The Muslim guide explained to them that these were the graves of the forefathers themselves and Seklan prayed kadish."

I was glad at least that on the eve of his death he had revealed his secret.

Arnon recalls how he was stunned by what he was hearing from Seklan. "We arranged to meet again the following Sunday so that I could show him drawings and photos and try to locate with him the caverns that he had described. On the Saturday night before our second meeting, I received a phone call from his daughter informing me that Seklan had been run over and killed by a jeep as he left Shabbat prayers at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. I just held my head in my hands. I was sorry for the man, who was truly a man of deeds, and also for the missed opportunity. I was glad at least that on the eve of his death he had revealed his secret."

Arnon received a similar account from Arieh Ariel, the grandfather of Tamar Ariel, Israel's first religious female pilot, who was killed in an avalanche in Nepal in 2014. Arnon met Ariel eight years ago at his home on Moshav Massuot Yitzhak near Ashkelon. He told Arnon how as a nine-year-old he accompanied his father on one of his visits to Hebron after the 1929 massacre. Together they joined British archaeologists who were visiting the caverns underneath the above-ground structure. "We went down the stairs and I remember that they said: 'these are the graves of the forefathers,'" Ariel told him.

About a month after the Six-Day War, Arieh Golan, a sergeant in the Paratrooper Corps reconnaissance unit, Sayeret Tzanchanim, entered the caves at the head of a force searching for terrorists and weapons. He too provided Arnon with a detailed description. The most famous incident in which Jews entered the caves occurred a few months after the Six-Day War. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was worried that the fact that Jews had set up a synagogue at the Cave of the Patriarchs could lead to inter-racial violence between Muslims and Jews. Dayan turned to Yehuda Arbel, the head of the Jerusalem District of the Shin Bet, and asked him to try and find a solution to separate the sides.

Burial Cave of Sarah (Wikipedia, Bet Shearim)

Dayan, who knew a thing or two about archaeology, noted that the Cave of the Patriarchs itself was located below the floor of the mosque at a lower level. "If we find an exterior entrance to the caves," Dayan told Arbel, "then we will have solved the problem – the Muslims will pray above and the Jews below."

Arbel waited for the right opportunity, which arrived just 10 days later when a grenade was thrown at Jewish visitors, resulting in the town being placed under curfew and the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs being closed. Arbel lost no time; he lowered his 13-year-old daughter Michal down via rope through the "candle shaft" on the floor of the Hall of Isaac so that she could document the underground passages. First of all, however, Arbel spent weeks training Michal how to draw and document built spaces.

Jacob's Tomb in the Cave of the Patriarchs (Saria Diamant)

Michal, who today is Dr. Michal Arbel, a lecturer in Hebrew literature, was lowered down via an opening just 28 centimeters wide on October 10 of that year. She was equipped with matches and candles in order to make sure there was enough oxygen to breathe, and, in addition, with a camera, paper, and pencils. The operation lasted for three-and-a-half hours. Michal identified three tombstones on the western wall, two of them smooth and one bearing an inscription. She also found an opening on the eastern side that led into a passageway. Michal drew every detail she managed to see, and her father passed the drawings on to Defense Minister Dayan. The young girl was lowered into the structure another two times, once on October 18 of that year, and again in November. However, she never reached the double chamber itself.

First Temple era pottery

Another secret operation at the site was carried out by the army in February 1973. Titled "Operation Adar" it was initiated for research purposes by the head of the IDF central command, Rehavam Zeevi. Lieutenant Avner Tzadok was chosen for the mission due to his small frame. Wearing just swimming trunks, his body was covered in grease to help him squeeze through the narrow opening. The photographs taken by Tzadok along with other items discovered during the operation remain, to Arnon's disappointment, classified to this day.

The cave itself was exposed only in 1981, during an operation organized one night during slichot - the prayers for forgiveness during the High Holidays. The chants of the worshippers, who sang the prayers with great fervor and particularly loudly, provided cover for Arnon and a team of volunteers to chisel their way through the stone on the floor of the Hall of Isaac. Cloaked in excitement they found themselves descending a steep stairway at the end of which was a long, dark and narrow tunnel that they crawled through until they reached a large underground hall.

"We started looking for an entrance to the original cave, the one we knew from historical descriptions," recalls Arnon. "We found various stones in the corners and on the walls. Some of them had Latin and Arabic inscriptions. Suddenly we felt a gust of wind coming up from the floor at the entrance to the room. With great effort, we lifted the stones from the floor, and in front of our eyes we saw the entrance to a cave carved out of the stone."

We were indeed in the Cave of the Patriarchs which consists of two caves, one in front of the other.

Arnon and his friends went deep into the cave. "It transpired that we were indeed in the Cave of the Patriarchs which consists of two caves, one in front of the other, in the style of the shaft tombs that were characteristic of the period of the forefathers. The first cave was larger and full of earth, almost up to its ceiling, but a passageway from that cave led to a second, much smaller cave. On the floor of the smaller cave, also full of earth, between fragments of ancient pottery, we found ourselves crawling among remains of human skeletons."

The double cave was dated back to the middle bronze age, the time of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The group removed four earthenware pieces from the cave which were examined by the chief archaeology officer for Judea and Samaria, Dr. Zeev Yavin, who found them to be from the First Temple period. It was only recently, some 40 years after that adventure, that a scientific analysis was conducted by Prof. David Ben Shlomo, head of the Land of Israel Studies and Archeology Department at Ariel University, and Prof. Hans Mommsen of the University of Bonn, a leading expert on identifying pottery through compositional analysis.

The analysis found that the items of pottery that were brought to the cave from various sites around Israel – the Hebron Hills, Jerusalem, and the Shfela (Judean Foothills) – by people who lived in these areas and had gone to the cave. This shows us that most likely the cave was a pilgrimage site during First Temple times.

Yavin, together with Doron Chen (a lecturer in archaeology) entered the cave a few months later with a delegation led by the then commander of the region, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. The two conducted an independent review and a few years later published a scientific study. Yavin too reached the conclusion that the caves were a bronze age burial site from the time of the forefathers. The bones in the cave were left there and were not analyzed. Yavin summarized his findings, writing: "An ancient tradition saw one of these caves [there are others in the area] as the burial site of the forefathers and therefore the monument was built above it." He also found a clear affiliation between the upper tombstone chamber and the caves below it.

Pottery found at the site (Yitzhak Fisch)

'Abraham is buried here'

But that wasn't enough for Arnon, and in 2014 the Midreshet Hebron college ordered a ground-penetrating radar analysis from the Geotech company. Interpretation of the results found that just as in the southern part of the Temple Mount (in the area around Solomon's Stables) vaults had been built at the Cave of the Patriarchs and the floor of the upper structure was built on top of them.

Q: Who really built the upper structure?

"Herod. The walls of the cave are double walls, and between them, there is a layer of concrete and stones. We climbed up there and removed some material. We found charcoal grains there and sent samples to the Weizmann Institute, which dated them back to the first century BCE It could be Hasmonean or Herodian era. But to me, given the historical circumstances, the style of building, and comparison with other buildings, it is clear that it was Herodian."

The Cave of the Patriarch, notes Arnon "is the only Herodian structure in Israel that has survived in its entirety and it is much smaller than the Temple Mount; just one 77th the size of the Mount, two dunams versus 144 dunams." He raises the hypothesis that "Herod's workers conducted a trial run in Hebron for the construction on the Mount" explaining that the upper structure of the Cave of the Patriarchs was built without any foundations on top of the native rock, which in certain parts of the building, under the southern and eastern walls of the structure, can still be seen. "It is probably the "edge of the field" that Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite, which is mentioned in the Book of Genesis," he says.

Q: And it is under that structure that the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried?

"We didn't find a grave on which it was written 'Abraham is buried here,' but when you weigh all the historical and archaeological data, the writings of travelers, biblical sources, topography; all of that together shows us that this is indeed the case."

Q: People will surely ask themselves: If Arnon reached the conclusion that it isn't the biblical site of the Cave of the Patriarchs, would he write that?

"Yes, he would write that."

Q: You write in your thesis that there is no possibility of conducting 'open research' at the site. Was there covert research conducted at the site?

"I can't answer that."

Arnon's thesis also reveals some Greek and Hebrew names from the Byzantine period (the 4th and 5th-century BCE) that were photographed by the Waqf after it peeled off the plaster from the walls of the structure. The names were those of Jews who had engraved them on the walls, such as "Nachum, Tanchum, and Yaakov."

One of Arnon's most interesting findings regards the existence of a synagogue on the site for some 600 years on the northern side of the structure, alongside a church that operated on the southern side. This, he says, is an example of Jewish-Christian cooperation that has support from historical sources, and is also supported by other testimonies and findings from the Hebron area. "This reality," says Arnon, "softens somewhat the plentiful information about the long rivalry between the two religions across the span of history."

The findings on the ground regarding the synagogue, notes Arnon, correspond with sources from the Cairo Genizah, which revealed the existence of a Jewish community in Hebron at the time – a community that held prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs and was headed by Saadia of Hebron. Saadia had several titles, all of which were connected to his roles at the cave. The synagogue it appears was destroyed during the Crusader conquest of the Land of Israel.

In his research, Arnon deals with Flavius Josephus' descriptions of the Cave of the Patriarchs and finds similarities between the archaeological findings at the cave and those at Tel Rumeida. He has no doubts that the Cave of the Patriarchs as we know it today is the same cave of the Patriarchs that is described in the Book of Genesis, but he clarifies that when it comes to the story of the cave, there is still plenty to discover and the limitations placed by the Muslims on research at the site leave much to be done by future generations.

This article originally appeared on Israel HaYom.