Hebron (almost 1700 years ago)
Hebron is biblically famous for two sites, the place where an Angel of God first appeared and spoke with Abraham, and the place where Abraham and his family are buried. Both places were then called Marne.
At a later time (c. 324) when Helena Augusta (St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great) was building (the first) Christian churches at the sites of the Nativity (where Christ was born) and of the Ascension (where Christ rose into Heaven), Eutropia, Constantine's mother-in-law was restoring the sites at Hebron (which apparently were in complete disregard at that time). These obscure facts are recorded by Eusebius in his Life of Constantine.
The role of Eutropia as a Christian is quite remarkable because her husband, the (co-)emperor Maximian (ruler in the western Empire while Diocletian ruled the eastern empire) was perhaps the most notorious persecutor of Christians in the decades just prior to the rule of Constantine. Moreover, it is strange to consider that Helena and Eutropia may have been acting as a team. Eutopia was not only (second) mother-in-law to Constantine, but also the (second) mother-in-law of Constantine's father, Constantius, who after divorcing Helena married (Eutropia's daughter) Theodora. And finally, Eutropia's Christian mission would seem altogether most unlikely because her husband Maximian and her son, the usurptive emperor Maxentius, both died trying to resist Constantine.
I mention all this because I find it fascinating that after the leading men of the early fourth century Roman empire where busy fighting and killing each other, the leading women of the early fourth century Roman empire were busy building churches and restoring holy sites. Very metabolic.
site of first circumcisions
It seems that Mamre, the place of settlement and burial of Abraham, within today's Hebron, is also the site of the Abraham's and Ishmael's circumcision.
[1 January is the Christian feast of Christ's circumcision.]
At the east side of the Herodian enclosure are the foundations of the Basilica of the Terebinth of Mamre from the time of Constantine (4th-century AD), attributed to Constantine's mother-in-law, Eutropia. According to one source, when Eutropia visited the site, she found it defiled by idols and heathen sacrifices. When she informed Constantine of the situation the emperor wrote a letter (preserved in Eusebius' "Life of Constantine") to Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, and other bishops in Palestine, expressing his desire that the pagan altar be demolished and replaced by a church. This church was so important that it was depicted on the famous 6th century AD Madaba map. It was probably destroyed during the Persian invasion in 614 A.D.
--some results of a web search of eutropia hebron
Plan and reconstruction of the sacred enclosure of Mamre in Constantinian times (after Mader, 1957).
The site of Mamre. known in Arabic as Haram Ramet el-Khalil, lies approximately 3 kin (2 mi.) north of Hebron (map reference 1088.1602). on the ancient road linking the main Hebron-Jerusalem and Bcthlehem-Ziph routes. The Bible describes Elonei (oaks of) Mamre as Abraham's dwelling place, Ahere lie built an altar to God (Gen. 13:18, 18:1. 23:19). Sonic scholars locate the biblical Elonei Mamre within the town of ancient Hebron (Tell Rumeideh); others identify, it with the enclosure of Haram Ramet el-Khalil. which was already considered a sacred site in the Second Temple period.
Josephus relates that Abraham resided near Hebron, by an oak called ogyges, the oak of genesis (Antiq. 1, 186). Elsewhere he mentions a terebinth 6 stadia from Hebron that had stood there since creation ( War IV, 533); it is not clear whether both references are to the same place. In Antiquities he tells the biblical story, calling the tree Lin oak: whereas in War of the Jews he is describing a holy place in his own time. calling it a terebinth. Josephus is mistaken about the distance between Elonei Mamre Lind Hebron, which is not 6 but approximately 18 stadia (3 km). Neither does he mention a structure around the terebinth. Modern excavations have made it clear that the structure was already standing in his time.
The book of Jubilees (29:17-19; 37:14. 17) refers to Abraham's capital in the Hebron Hills as a tower (migdal). The reference is probably to Abraham's residence Lit Elonei Mamre. If so, the author, a contemporary of the Second Temple, was describing the enclosure at Elonei Mamre in terms associated with the Temple Mount--migdal or birah--both meaning tower or fortress. Talmudic literature refers to the place as Beth Ilanim or Botnah. and it is mentioned as the site of one of the most important fairs in Palestine: "There are three fairs: the fair of Gaza, the fair of Acco, the fair of Botnah, and the least doubtful of them all is the fair of Botnah," meaning that of the three fairs this was the one most definitely associated with idolatry and therefore Jews were forbidden to participate in it (J.T., A.Z. 39c; Gen. Rab. 47: 10). The fair is mentioned in two of Jerome's commentaries (In Hieremiam VI, 18, 6, CCSL 74, 307; In Zachariam 111, 11, 4-5. CCSL 76A, 851), where it is said that Hadrian brought the captive Jews to the famous marketplace at Terebinth. There he sold many into slavery. For this reason the Jews in Jerome's time shunned the annual fair. The same story is told in the seventh-century Chronicon Paschale (PG 92, col. 613) with some additions.
The Bordeaux Pilgrim (Itin. Burd. 599, 3-7) states that the emperor Constantine built a basilica there. Eusebius (Vita Constantini III. 51-53, GCS 7, 99-10 1) and Sozomenus (HE II, 4. GCS 50, 54-56) report the circumstances and the official documentation referring to the building. Both Julius Africanus (Chron. XVIII) and Eusebius (Vita Constantini III, 53, 100; Onom. 6. 12-14; 76. 1-3) mention a pagan altar at the site.
The most detailed description of the site is in the work of Sozomenos (op. cit.). He reports that the place. situated 15 stadia from Hebron, was the site of the terebinth, where the angels had appeared to Abraham. In summer, he states. a great fair was held there. attracting hordes of people from far away. who came to offer libations and burn incense, but also to trade; among them were pagans, Christians and Jews.
The Medeba map seems to differentiate between Botna and Mamre, as the mosaic depicts both a church and a terebinth. During the seventh century CE there was a monastery at the site that continued to exist after the Arab conquest (Adamnanus, De Locis Sanctis II, II. 6, CCSL 175, 211). In Crusader times, the site may have been occupied by the Church of the Trinity.
Itzhaq Magen, The New Encyclopedia of Archaelogical Excavations in the Holy Land, Jerusalem 1993, ad v. "Mamre" (extract).
In his survey of church-building Eusebius now returns to the subject of Palestine and the church built at the oak of Mamre, near Hebron, where Abraham received his three divine visitors (Gen. 18: 1-33), and thus the site of another theophany; since the building activity here involved destroying an existing temple, the account also serves to connect this section with what follows. The procedure adopted by Constantine is similar to that described by Eusebius for the Holy Sepulchre: the Emperor writes both the Marcarius and the other bishops of Palestine and to the civil authorities (51.2, cf. 53.2), instructing them to cooperate. The Comes Acacius (53.2) is to clear the area of pagan statues and worship, and then consult the bishops about building a church on the site. Eusebius can include a copy of the Emperor's letter of instructions because he was recipient of it himself (51.2 'he also dispatched to the author of the present history a reasoned admonition, a copy which I should, I think, add to the present work'), Though the letter is addressed by name to Marcarius, it is also sent to the other bishops including himself (52.1), and Eusebius accepts joint responsibility for Constantine's rebuke (51.2 'he took us to task'); Rubin, 'Church of the Holy Sepulchre', 88, unneccessarily sees this as further indication of Eusebius' hostility to Marcarius. Constantine had been told of the pagan worship on the site in letters from Eutropia, the mother of Fausta (52.1), who evidently also visited Palestine; Rubin, 'Church of the Holy sepulchre', 90, places her visit between the defeat of Licinius and the Council of Nicaea (see also Walker, Holy City, Holy Places, 276), and the reference to her becomes more comfortable if the visit took place before the death of her daughter Fausta in 326. Rubin ingeniously argues that Eusebius deliberately includes the letter so as to expose his rival Marcarius, who, however, was soon to assume the role of guide to Constantine's own mother Helena ('Church of the Holy sepulchre'. 88-91, accepted by Walker, Holy City, Holy Places, 276n.); it seems more likely that he includes the letter in order to make his dossier of Constantinian documents as complete as possible. Marcarius is not named by Eusebius, but this is in accordance with his normal practice (see e.g. on IV.61.2-3). Constantine's letter is placed out of chronological context here, which serves to reduce the importance of Eutropia (below, on 52.1-53.3). The church itself followed a form now familiar in general terms: a large basilica with an atrium, in this case surrounding the well, the altar of Abraham, and the oak-tree (Hunt, Holy Land Pilgrimage, 15, with earlier bibliography; Ovadiah, Corpus of Byzantine Churches, 131-3).
Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall (translators), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), pp. 299-300.
with reference to Z. Rubin, "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Conflict between the Sees of Caesarea and Jerusalem" in Jerusalem Cathedra, 2 (1982), 79-105.
There is no need to consider in this context a fourth Constantinian church in the Holy Land, the basilica at Mamre, since no ancient source associates it with Helena.
Hans A. Pohlsander, Helena: Empress and Saint (Chicago: Ares Publishers, Inc., 1995), p. 95.
A comparison of two translations from chapter 3 of the Vitae Constantini relative to the letter from Eutropia:
The greatest single service to us of my most saintly mother-in-law has been to inform us through her letters to us of the mad folly of evil men, which has so far escaped attention among you, so that the neglected fault may receive appropriate corrective and restorative action from us, late perhaps, yet necessary.
Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall (translators), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 141.
One benefit, and that of no ordinary importance, has been conferred on us by my truly pious mother-in-law, in that she has made known to us by letter that abandoned folly of impious men which has hitherto escaped detection by you: so that the criminal conduct thus overlooked may now through our means obtain fitting correction and remedy, necessary though tardy.
the online edition of the Vitae Constantini.
On Eutropia in Eusebius, Vitae Constantini
LI. That he ordered a Church to be built at Mambre.
Such was the principal sacred edifices erected by the emperor's command. But having heard that the self-same Saviour who erewhile had appeared on earth had in ages long since past afforded a manifestation of his Divine presence to holy men of Palestine near the oak of Mambre, he ordered that a house of prayer should be built there also in honor of the God who had thus appeared. Accordingly the imperial commission was transmitted to the provincial governors by letters addressed to them individually, enjoining a speedy completion of the appointed work. He sent moreover to the writer of this history an eloquent admonition, a copy of which I think it well to insert in the present work, in order to convey a just idea of his pious diligence and zeal. To express, then, his displeasure at the evil practices which he had heard were usual in the place just referred to, he addressed me in the following terms.
LII. Constantine's Letter to Eusebius concerning Mambre.
"Victor Constantinus, Maximus Augustus, to Macarius, and the rest of the bishops in Palestine. "One benefit, and that of no ordinary importance, has been conferred on us by my truly pious mother-in-law, in that she has made known to us by letter that abandoned folly of impious men which has hitherto escaped detection by you: so that the criminal conduct thus overlooked may now through our means obtain fitting correction and remedy, necessary though ardy. For surely it is a grave impiety indeed, that holy places should be defiled by the stain of unhallowed impurities. What then is this, dearest brethren, which, though it has eluded your sagacity, she of whom I speak was impelled by a pious sense of duty to disclose?
LIII. That the Saviour appeared in this Place to Abraham.
"She assures me, then, that the place which takes its name from the oak of Mambre, where we find that Abraham dwelt, is defiled by certain of the slaves of superstition in every possible way. She declares that idols which should be utterly destroyed have been erected on the site of that tree; that an altar is near the spot; and that impure sacrifices are continually performed. Now since it is evident that these practices are equally inconsistent with the character of our times, and unworthy the sanctity of the place itself, I wish your Gravities to be informed that the illustrious Count Acacius, our friend, has received instructions by letter from me, to the effect that every idol which shall be found in the place above-mentioned shall immediately be consigned to the flames; that the altar be utterly demolished; and that if any one, after this our mandate, shall be guilty of impiety of any kind in this place, he shall be visited with condign punishment. The place itself we have directed to be adorned with an unpolluted structure, I mean a church; in order that it may become a fitting place of assembly for holy men. Meantime, should any breach of these our commands occur, it should be made known to our clemency without the least delay by letters from you, that we may direct the person detected to be dealt with, as a transgressor of the law, in the severest manner. For you are not ignorant that the Supreme God first appeared to Abraham, and conversed with him, in that place. There it was that the observance of the Divine law first began; there first the Saviour himself, with the two angels, vouchsafed to Abraham a manifestation of his presence; there God first appeared to men; there he gave promise to Abraham concerning his future seed, and straightway fulfilled that promise; there he foretold that he should be the father of a multitude of nations.
For these reasons, it seems to me right that this place should not only be kept pure through your diligence from all defilement, but restored also to its pristine sanctity; that nothing hereafter may be done there except the performance of fitting service to him who is the Almighty God, and our Saviour, and Lord of all. And this service it is incumbent on you to care for with due attention, if your Gravities be willing (and of this I feel confident) to gratify my wishes, which are especially interested in the worship of God. May he preserve you, beloved brethren!"
Eusebius, Vitae Constantini (book III, chaps 51-53).