Amidst the mountains of Shomron (Samaria) is a four-thousand year old city named Shechem. Very few biblical locales have as rich a history as this storied city. In fact, when the first Jew arrived in the Holy Land, Shechem was his first stop. In this city, also known as Nablus, lie the remains of Joseph, viceroy of Egypt. In recent times, modern-day Jewish heroes have struggled to maintain a Jewish presence in Shechem and Joseph's Tomb.

History of Shechem

When Abraham first entered the Land in 2023 (1737 BCE), his first stop was the "place of Shechem," where G‑d appeared to him and promised: "To your descendants I will give this land." This was the first time that G‑d informed our Patriarch of this ultimate intention.

Two generations later, returning from Charan with his wives and children, Jacob came to Shechem and purchased a piece of land on the perimeter of the town. The prince of the town, also named Shechem, abducted and violated Jacob's daughter, Dina. Her brothers, Simon and Levi, rescued her and killed all the men of Shechem in retaliation.

Sixteen years later, Jacob sent 17-year old Joseph to "check on the welfare of his brothers" who were shepherding their father's herds near Shechem. When Joseph found his brothers, they sold him into slavery, setting off a chain of events that would lead to the Egyptian exile.

Many years later, when the entire family was already in Egypt, Jacob promised the city of Shechem to Joseph. It would make up part of the territory of Joseph's son, Ephraim.

Following the Exodus from Egypt, Joshua led the nation into the Land of Israel. As soon as they entered the Land, Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal, one of the two mountains flanking Shechem. (Recently, an archeologist claims to have discovered this altar on Mt. Ebal.)

Half of the nation then stood atop Mount Ebal and the other half atop Mount Gerizim, while the Levites who stood between the mountains shouted the curses they would be subjected to if they disobeyed G‑d the law, and the blessings they would receive if they obeyed.

The Jews then buried Joseph's remains – which had been carried along from Egypt – in the plot of land which Jacob had bought, and designated Shechem as a City of Refuge and a Levite city.

Joseph's Tomb as it appeared in the 19th century.
Joseph's Tomb as it appeared in the 19th century.

Before Joshua died, he gathered the nation in Shechem and made a covenant between them and G‑d. He set up a stone in Shechem, and said, "Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us; it shall be a witness against you, lest you deny your G‑d."

Throughout the period of the Prophets and the Kings, the city of Shechem played a pivotal role. When King Solomon died, the people gathered in Shechem, and it was there that the Ten Tribes seceded from Davidic rule and formed the Northern Kingdom.

Eventually, Shechem also served as a stronghold for the Samaritans, an ethnic group that was transferred to the Holy Land by Sennacherib King of Assyria. Though they officially converted to Judaism, they retained their pagan practices and beliefs, and were consistently a thorn in the Jews' side.

After the destruction of the Temple, the Romans changed Shechem's name to "Neapolis" (meaning "new city"); this then became "Nablus." Nevertheless, although the Jewish nation was dispersed and weakened, there remained a continuous Jewish presence in Shechem, and Joseph's Tomb stayed a focus of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer.

The late Dr. Zvi Ilan, one of Israel's foremost archeologists, described Joseph's Tomb as: " of the tombs whose location is known with the utmost degree of certainty and is based on continuous documentation since biblical times."

Shechem Today

In 1926, the Jewish inhabitants of Shechem were forced to leave in the face of Arab pogroms. A year later, an earthquake destroyed most of the Old City of Shechem, including the Jewish quarter.

With the Six Day War in 1967, Shechem and the surrounding areas reverted to Jewish control; however, while tourism in the area was encouraged, Jews were not permitted to live there.

Dedicated activists refused to accept this untenable situation, and as a result of their persistence there are now several established Jewish communities on the mountain ranges surrounding Shechem: Kedumim, Yitzhar, Har Bracha and Elon Moreh. Within Shechem itself, a yeshivah was formed at Joseph's Tomb in 1982, called "Od Yosef Chai" ("Joseph still lives"—the famous words spoken to Jacob following many years that he presumed Joseph to be dead).

Unfortunately, the situation today is far from ideal. In 1996, Shechem was given over the Palestinian Authority. Joseph's Tomb was to remain in Jewish hands, but in the early days of the 2000 terrorist offensive, that, too, was given up under fire. The Palestinian Authority promised to prevent damage to the site, but within a few hours a mob broke into the compound and destroyed everything. Furniture and holy books used by the yeshivah were burned and the place was reduced to rubble.

Joseph's Tomb in 2014 (credit: Meir Rotter).
Joseph's Tomb in 2014 (credit: Meir Rotter).

Jews weren't allowed to visit the site again until 2003. Now there are a few visits a year which take place in the middle of the night. Recent visitors found the tomb in ruins and covered with garbage.

Mark Twain on Shechem

In 1867 Mark Twain visited Shechem. He described this visit in his diary which was later published. The following are some interesting excerpts:

"At two o'clock we stopped to lunch and rest at ancient Shechem, between the historic Mounts of Gerizim and Ebal, where in the old times the books of the law, the curses and the blessings, were read from the heights to the Jewish multitudes below.

"About a mile and a half from Shechem we halted at the base of Mount Ebal before a little square area, enclosed by a high stone wall, neatly whitewashed. Across one end of this enclosure is a tomb . . . It is the tomb of Joseph. No truth is better authenticated than this.

"Few tombs on earth command the veneration of so many races and men of diverse creeds as this of Joseph. Samaritan and Jew, Muslim and Christian alike, revere it, and honor it with their visits. The tomb of Joseph, the dutiful son, the affectionate, forgiving brother, the virtuous man, the wise Prince and ruler. Egypt felt his influence – the world knows his history."

Regarding the city's Jewish community he writes:

"For thousands of years this clan have dwelt in Shechem under strict taboo and having little commerce or fellowship with their fellowmen of any religion or nationality. For generations they have not numbered more than one or two hundred, but they still adhere to their ancient faith and maintain their ancient rites and ceremonies. Talk of family and old descent! … This handful of old first families of Shechem…can name their fathers straight back without a flaw for thousands [of years]…. I found myself gazing at any straggling scion of this strange race with a riveted fascination, just as one would stare at a living mastodon or a megatherium…"

The courtyard of Joseph's Tomb in 2014 (credit: Meir Rotter).
The courtyard of Joseph's Tomb in 2014 (credit: Meir Rotter).