Visiting the tombs of the dearly departed in the hope of gaining celestial favor is a practice that goes back into prehistory. But whose support exactly are we getting? In the case of the purported "Tomb of Hulda the Prophetess" on the Mount of Olives in Israel, that question really is begged.
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“Don’t worry,” the service person who gave me my new cellphone told me. “All your numbers are in there.” A prophetess, she wasn’t: Virtually all were gone. Among the few that remained was the number for “Hulda’s tomb caretaker.” Whew! That meant I could still call Hulda’s tomb, and Hulda’s tomb could call me back to confirm. Well, not in the creepy sense, like poor Elva Keen getting a call from the grave in Twilight Zone’s 1964 segment, “Night Call.”
The phone number belonged to the guard with the key to Hulda’s Tomb, who is usually to be found at the Dome of the Ascension next door. Indeed, a lot of sites in the Holy Land are venerated by the believers of one religion and zealously guarded by another. But back to Hulda.
Who was Hulda?
Around 2,700 years ago, in the latest round of upheavals, King Josiah, the Israelite leader from 641 to 609 BCE, aspired to purge the land of idol worship, after his own grandfather King Manasseh permitted idolatrous worship in the Temple. Josiah ordered the Temple renovated for proper worship of the one god, during which a scroll – ancient even then – with Deuteronomic texts was found.
The star prophet of the time, Jeremiah, was apparently out of town. But Hulda, wife of Shallum son of Hope, one of the king’s courtiers (and, the sages suggest, Jeremiah’s cousin), was available for interpretation. She warned Josiah that indeed, the punishments listed by the book for idol worship would apply, though only after Josiah's time, because he was righteous (2 Kings 22:14–20; 2 Chron. 34: 22–28). Her warning led the Jews to renew their covenant with Yahweh.
Hulda’s tomb may have been located within Jerusalem at one point and later removed, for biblical reasons. In any case, by the Middle Ages, Jewish pilgrims write that they had visited Hulda’s tomb at the top of the Mount of Olives – apparently the same place you’ll find it if you call the caretaker for an appointment.
Rabbi Moshe Basulo, who visited Jerusalem in 1522, writes that the tomb was guarded by a Muslim, whom one would pay for oil to light a memorial lamp.
Not everyone was convinced the site was Hulda’s tomb. In the early nineteenth century, Rabbi Yehosaf Schartz wrote: “And now the hearer will hear and the viewer will see a wondrous thing: How a big mistake, a lie and a deceit and everything is in the hands of the masses of our people to say and believe that there is the grave of Hulda the Prophetessand now, dear reader. Does the knowledgeable and understanding heart not pain over this thing that Israel goes to worship at a foreign tomb, saying that it is the tomb of the righteous woman Hulda the Prophetess, may we be protected through her.”
When visiting the tomb, you descend a steep flight of stone stairs to the cenotaph (the tomb marker), which lies within a niche.
An ancient tradition says that if you walk all the way around the tomb, you earn a special blessing. Obviously the larger you are, the harder this is. Zev Vilnay writes that the guard at the tomb in his day told him: how “he once saw with his own eyes how an overweight woman tried to go around the tomb and reached a point where she could go neither backward or forward. She cried out ‘Mother Hulda, save me.’ Immediately she was relieved and went around the tomb with no difficulty. That is a sign that the great righteous woman was in her place in Paradise and Allah knows the truth.”
But to Christians, this very same tomb is occupied by St. Pelagia, a 5th-century actress and singer from Antioch known for her beauty who, at the behest of her bishop, St. Nonnus, left her old life behind, disguised herself as a man and came to Jerusalem, where she lived alone in a monastic cell and died in 457 CE.
St. Pelagia among the courtesans, with St. Nonnus praying for her, 14th-century manuscript. Photo: Wikimedia commons.
The squeezing tradition made it across the religious divide: Christian visitors paying their respects to St. Pelagia wrote that managing to circumnavigate even the narrow back of the tomb would get you a ticket to Paradise.
Saint Pelagia amongst her courtesans. Saint Nonnus prays for her (14th-century manuscript), Wikimedia Commons
Or somebody completely different
Moving onto Muslim tradition, this is the tomb of Sit’ Raba’a al-Aduwiyyeh. She was born a slave in Basra, Iraq, in the year 714. According to the story, when her master saw a golden halo surrounding her as she prayed, he decided to free her.
She rose to fame as a sufi, a mystic in the Islamic tradition, and is said to have written love poetry to God, whom she called “my hope, my tranquility, my joy.” She died in 815 CE.
So, who is buried there, if anybody? We don't know. But note that the Bible says no one knows Moses’ burial site (Deut. 34:6–7): "And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day", ostensibly so the site would not become a focus of idolatrous worship.
There are ardent seekers of righteousness and justice among all humanity. We split, splice, slice and dice ourselves into our own tiny human slots (or allow it to be done to us). The story of Hulda’s tomb might indicate we have more in common than we sometimes realize.