University of Oxford

File(s) not publicly available

E06087: Adomnán, in his On the Holy Places, reports the recent visit of the Franco-Gallic bishop Arculf to the tombs near Hebron and Mamre (Palestine) of the Old Testament patriarchs *Abraham (S00275), *Isaac (S00276), *Jacob (S00280), with their wives, Sarah (S00278), *Rebecca (S02281) and *Leah (S02282), and of *Adam (the first man, S00772). Written in Latin at Iona (north-west Britain), possibly 683/689.

online resource
posted on 2018-08-05, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Adomnán, On the Holy Places - Book Two

1. Ab orientali vero plaga eiusdem Chebron ager ille occurrit speluncae duplicis respiciens Mambre quem emit Abraham ab Effron Aetheo in possessionem duplicis sepulchri. (x.) 2. In huius agelli ualle sanctus ille Arculfus locum sepulchrorum Arbe uisitauit, hoc est .iiii. patriarchum, Abraham, Isaac, Iacob et Adam primi hominis; 3 quae plantae non sicut in aliis orbis regionibus ad orientem humatorum conuerti moris est sed ad meridiem uersae, et capita contra septemtrionalem plagam conuersa. 4. Horum locus sepulchrorum quadrato humili circumuenitur mur. 5. Adam protoplaustus [...] separatus a ceteris tribus haut longe in sazeo in petra sepulchro super terram ut ceteri de semine eius honorati quiescunt sed in terra humatus humo tectus et ipse puluis in puluerem uersus expectans resurrectionem cum uniuerso semine suo pausat et sic de tali sepulchro eius ad ipsum de se ipso prolata expletur diuina sententia. 6. Et iuxta exemplum primi parentis sepulchri caeteri tres patriarchae et ipsi uili puluere tecti dormientes pausant. Quroum .iiii. sepulchra habent circumcisas et dolatas de singulis lapidibus fabricatas iuxta mensuram longitudinis et latitudinis unius cuiusque sepulchri formatas.

7. Abraham, Isaac et Iacob tria sepulchra uicina tribus superpositis duris candidis lapidibus ad hanc de qua scribsimus figuram formatis, ut superius dictum est, proteguntur; Adam uero sepulchrum superposito quidem sed obscurioris lapide coloris et uilioris operis protegitur. 8. Trium quoque feminarum uiliores et minores memorias ibidem conspexit Arculfus, Sarrae uidelicet, Rebeccae et Liae, humatarum in terra. 9. Illorum itaque patriarcharum sepulcralis egellus a muro illius antiquissimae Chebron in unius stadii spatio orientem uersus distare dinosctitur [...]

East of Hebron, looking towards Mamre, one finds the field of the double cave, which Abraham bought from Effrom the Hethite for the possession of a double sepulchre. (10) In the valley in this field the holy Arculf visited Arbe, the site of the sepulchres, of the 4 patriarchs that is, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Adam the first man. In burial their feet are not turned towards the east as is customary in other regions of the world, but towards the south, and their heads are turned northwards. The site of the sepulchres is surrounded by a low square wall. Adam, the first man ... is at a small distance from the other three towards the extreme northern end of the square stone enclosure. He does not rest, like the other honoured men of his seed, in a stone sepulchre hollowed out in the rock above the earth's surface; but is buried in the earth, covered by the turf, and dust that he is, to dust returned, he rests awaiting the resurrection with all his seed. And thus is fulfilled the divine sentence about him proposed to himself concerning the character of his sepulchre. And according to the example of the sepulchre of the first parent, the other three patriarchs, covered too in vile dust, rest sleeping. Their four sepulchres have small memorials placed over them, dressed and shaped from single stones, and constructed rather after the fashion of a basilica according to the measure lengthwise and crosswise of each sepulchre.

The three sepulchres of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which adjoin one another, are protected, as was said above, by three white stones placed over them, which are shaped according to the pattern we described. The sepulchre of Adam is likewise protected by a stone, but of darker colour, and the work is cruder. There too Arculf saw the smaller, and cruder, memorials of three women, Sarah, that is, Rebecca and Lia, who are buried in the earth. One finds the burial field of those patriarchs to be at a distance of one stade east of the wall of the most ancient city of Hebron ...'

Text and translation: Meehan 1958, 80-81, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Abraham, Old Testament patriarch : S00275 Isaac, Old Testament patriarch : S00276 Jacob, Old Testament patriarch : S00280 Adam and Zoe/Eve : S00772 Rebecca, Old Testament wife of Isaac : S02281 Sarah, Old Testament matriarch, wife of Abraham : S

Saint Name in Source

Abraham Isaac Iacob Adam Rebecca Sarra Lia

Type of Evidence

Literary - Pilgrim accounts and itineraries


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Iona St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Major author/Major anonymous work


Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops


On the Holy Places records across three books the travels of Arculf, an otherwise unknown Gallic bishop (sanctus episcopus gente Gallus), through diverse sacred sites in Jerusalem (Book one); Palestine, Syria, and Egypt (Book two); and Constantinople and Sicily (Book three). In the preface, Abbot Adomnán of Iona (ob. 704) explains that ‘in response to my careful enquiries he dictated to me … this faithful and accurate record of all his experiences … first I wrote it down on tablets (tabulis): it will now be written succinctly on parchment (in membranis breui)’. Bede, writing in 731, would lreport that Adomnán gave a copy of the volume to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (northern Britain) on a visit to his kingdom (Ecclesiastical History, 5.15). We know from Adomnán himself and other Irish sources that at least two such visits took place, in 687 and 689, thus establishing the latter date as the probable terminus ante quem for the work. Its terminus post quem is more difficult to determine. Meehan supposed that the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81) might have occasioned Arculf’s visit to the imperial capital. This is attractive, although ultimately conjectural. Yet if it were the case, we might – helped by Adomnán’s claim that the bishop spent nine months at Jerusalem – date Arculf’s adventures to around 679-82, and thereby the composition of On the Holy Places to no earlier than about 683. The work appears to have been popular. It survives in 22 manuscripts, the earliest of which are 9th century continental productions. Bede spoke of its ‘many readers’ (legentibus multis), and produced his own abridged version of the text in around 703. On the Holy Places is more, however, than a straightforward itinerary. Adomnán embellishes and adapts Arculf’s account throughout with his own authorities on the Holy Land: chiefly the works of Jerome, but also texts such as Sulpicius Severus’ Chronicle, Hegesippus’ Histories, Iuvencus’ History of the Gospels, Eucherius of Lyon’s On the Layout of Jerusalem, as well as the Bible. Recent scholarship has also identified the degree to which the narrative of On the Holy Places is highly controlled and exegetical; this has asserted the text’s sophisticated theological qualities and, significantly, the authorial primacy of Adomnán, raising him above his status in older studies as merely Arculf’s amanuensis or ‘stenographer’ (O’Loughlin 2007). This has led in turn to the radical proposition that Arculf may perhaps have never existed, and been only a literary device of Adomnán. It appears strange, O’Loughlin has suggested, that Arculf’s journey appears to have accorded so well with Adomnán’s literary and theological interests; besides, the bishop is unheard of elsewhere, and the probability of him coming to Ireland or north-west Britain via a shipwreck (as Bede claimed), after a journey around the eastern Mediterranean, seems doubtful. This may go too far. Further work has now reasserted the degree to which – in addition to, and in dialogue with, its literary models – Adomnán’s text does contain important evidence for the later 7th century Near East, which must have almost certainly come from a recent, eyewitness account (Hoyland and Waidler, 2014). The arguments against Arculf’s existence are in any case not compelling. Franco-Gallic episcopal lists survive patchily enough from the 7th century to account for his disappearance from his homeland’s records, while the suggestion he came directly to Britain through a shipwreck, after being swept away by storms, is made only by Bede, writing some years later: Adomnán and Arculf’s encounter could well have involved less drama than the Northumbrian monk imagined. Other sources show that connections between Gaul and the 7th century Irish church were relatively strong. It should not seem too surprising that the abbot of Iona might have found the opportunity to interview a figure such as Arculf at some point, shipwreck or not. Adomnán’s account focuses almost entirely on biblical sites – many of his titular Holy Places are those directly associated with the life of Christ, and therefore not included in our database. Beyond these, the cult activity he reports almost exclusively revolves around Old and New Testament figures, most prominently Mary: of the post-biblical saints, only Jerome (E06084) and George (E06094) receive mention. Although Adomnán reports that Arculf visited a cult site of the latter in Palestine, he saves this story for his third book, set predominantly in Constantinople. This is noticeably distinct in tone from those that precede it, and the only part of the work to feature miracles, two of which explicitly involve the veneration of images and the gross ill-doing of those who offend them (E06094, E06117). If Brubaker and Haldon (2011) are correct in arguing that neither the Byzantine cult of images, nor the controversy over them, predated the period c. 680, then these closing passages of On the Holy Places would seem to confirm that Bishop Arculf’s journey was indeed a real one, and cannot have long preceded Adomnán’s adaptation and propagation of his account.


O'Loughlin notes that much of Adomnán's account of this site largely derives from Jerome and Isidore, with the 'major departure' of his remark that Adam does not lie in the same tomb as the other patriarchs, but buried in the earth: 'this is of major theological significance to Adomnán as it shows Adam's present state fulfilling the prophecy of Genesis 3:19. The man who is dust is now waiting in dust ... Jerome's silence on where Adam was buried left the question open for Adomnán and he sought out the answer using his convenient tool of 'prophecy-fulfilment' ... Adomnán's large agenda concerned his manner of presenting the resurrection of all the children of Adam and Eve in Christ ... the scene in the patriarchal graveyard seems far closer to the way that people were buried in contemporary Ireland than a great pilgrim monument where, according to Eusebius, the nations came to worship' (O'Loughlin 2007, 91-3).


Editions: Meehan, D.M., Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 3; Dublin, 1958), with English translation. Bieler, L., Adamnanus, De locis sanctis libri tres, in: Itineraria et alia geographica (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, 175; Turnhout, 1965), 175-243 (see also 249-80 for Bede’s version). Further reading: Brubaker, L., and Haldon, J., Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850: A History (Cambridge, 2011), 50-68, 781-2. Hoyland, R.G., and Waidler, S., "Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis and the Seventh-Century Near East," English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 787-807. Ní Dhonnchadha, Máirín, "Adomnán [St Adomnán], (627/8?-704)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), O’Loughlin, T., Adomnán and the Holy Places: The Perceptions of an Insular Monk on the Locations of the Biblical Drama (New York, 2007).

Usage metrics

    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



    Ref. manager