Sunday 4 July 1999

Israeli dig finds traces of lost city of Abraham

Matthew Kalman,
The Sunday Times
July 4, 1999

ARCHEOLOGISTS believe they have found the heart of the ancient city of Hebron, where Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch, lived 3,700 years ago.

On the site of an Israeli settlement, in territory claimed by both Arabs and Jews, excavations have uncovered a 9ft-thick city wall and fortified tower that have been dated to the middle bronze period, circa 1700BC.

Scholars say this is about the time when, according to the biblical story, Abraham - who was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of faith - came to the city.

Between the tower and the city wall, researchers have unearthed two stone-walled rooms that they believe also date back to the period of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose 12 sons became the founders of the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. Artefacts found in the rooms include silver jewellery, bronze axeheads, two scarabs and the handle of a dagger.

"You usually find such things in tombs because people were buried with their belongings, but to find them here on the floor gives us a more precise date," said Emanuel Eisenberg, in charge of the work. Royal seals from the period of the kings of Israel several hundred years later were found in another layer, clearly identifying the location as biblical Hebron. "This is the ancient city of Hebron - no doubt about it," said Eisenberg.

The archeological site is on the edge of Tel Rumeida, a mound across which scholars believe the city once stretched eight acres. By digging down through the tel, archeologists have been able to sift nearly 4,000 years of history.

Modern Hebron, however, has an uncertain future. Seven Israeli families have lived in temporary housing on Tel Rumeida since 1984. The enclave is one of three islands of Israeli settlement left in Hebron after Israel handed over control of most of the city, with its population of 120,000, to the Palestinians in 1996.

The archeological work was licensed two weeks before the Israeli general election in May as a "rescue excavation" to research the site before permanent homes are built there for the settlers. The Palestinians want all of Hebron to be handed over. They believe the city's 550 Israelis should leave.

Dr Hamdan Taha, director-general of the Palestinian ministry for archeology, said the excavation had been politically motivated. "We think the site should be protected as an archeological site without any ideological attempt to threaten and endanger a cultural heritage that represents the ancient history of Hebron," he said.

Officials at the Israeli antiquities authority privately agree. "If such a significant site were inside Israel proper, the law would prohibit anything being built on it," a senior Israeli archeologist said.

Persuading the settlers to go, however, will be difficult. David Wilder, spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, said the excavation proved their right to live there.

"We always knew this was the site of the ancient city; now these excavations have found positive proof of Jewish presence from the time of the patriarchs," said Wilder. "In terms of Jewish roots and heritage, what more do you need?"