For hundreds of years, the shape of Rachel's Tomb resembled the grave of a vali (a Muslim saint). The building received its distinctive shape in 1622 when the Turkish governor of Jerusalem, Mohammad Pasha, permitted the Jews to wall off the four pillars that supported the dome and for the first time Rachel's Tomb became a closed building.9 This was allowed by the Turkish governor to prevent Arab shepherds from grazing their flocks at the site.10 Yet according to one report, an English traveler claims this was done "to make access to it more difficult for the Jews."11There's lots more, read the whole thing.
For centuries, Rachel's Tomb was considered only a Jewish holy place. The sixteenth-century Arab historian Mujir al-Din regarded Rachel's Tomb as a Jewish holy place.12 Beginning in 1841, the keys to the place were deposited exclusively with Jewish caretakers who managed the site until it fell into Jordanian hands in 1948.13 In contravention of the armistice agreement, Jordan prevented Jews from accessing the site during all the years of its rule (1948-1967).14 Following the Six-Day War, Jews returned to Rachel's Tomb, with millions of Jews from around the world having visited the site. According to Jewish tradition, Rachel died on the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan (October 19); in 2010, some 100,000 Jews visited Rachel's Tomb on that day.15
For many centuries, Jews were compelled to pay protection money and ransom to the Arabs who lived in the area so they wouldn't harm Rachel's Tomb and the Jews who visited it. In 1796, Rabbi Moshe Yerushalmi, an Ashkenazi Jew from central Europe who immigrated to Israel, related that a non-Jew sits at Rachel's Tomb and collects money from Jews seeking to visit the site.16 Other sources attest to Jews who paid taxes, levies, and presented gifts to the Arab residents of the region.
Dr. Ludwig August Frankl of Vienna, a poet and author, related that the Sephardi community in Jerusalem was compelled to pay 5,000 piastres to an Arab from Bethlehem at the start of the nineteenth century for the right to visit Rachel's Tomb.17 Other testimonies relate that in order to prevent damage to Rachel's Tomb, payment was transferred to Bedouin members of the Taamra tribe who lived in the region, who had also begun to bury their dead near the tomb during that era.18 There is a Muslim cemetery on three sides of the compound that mainly belongs to the Taamra tribe and the entire attitude of the Muslims to Rachel's Tomb derives to a large extent from this tribe, which began burying its dead at the site during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to its proximity to Rachel's Tomb. The origins of the practice, as the Land of Israel researcher Eli Schiller writes, is the popular Muslim belief that "the closer that the deceased is buried to the tomb of a sainted personality, the greater will be his rewards in the world to come."19
Taxes were also collected from the Sephardi Jewish community in Jerusalem to pay the authorities for various "rights," such as passage to the Western Wall, passage of funerals to the Mount of Olives, and for the protection of gravestones there, as well as payment to the Arabs of Bethlehem for safeguarding Rachel's Tomb.20
One of the scribes who managed the accounts of the Sephardi Kolel during the eighteenth century reported on the protection money that the Jewish community at that time had to transfer to the "non-Jews and lords of the lands who are called toeffendis...(15,000) Turkish grush...and these are the people who patrol the ways of Jaffa Road, Kiryat Yearim, the people of the Rama, the site of Samuel the Prophet, the people of Nablus Road, the people of the Efrat Road, the tomb of our matriarch Rachel...so they would not come to grave-robbing, heaven forbid. And sometimes they complain to us that we have fallen behind on their routine payments and they come scrabbling on the gravestones in the dead of night, and they did their things in stealth because their home is there. Therefore, we are compelled against our will to propitiate them."21
Rabbi David d'Beth Hillel, a resident of Vilna who visited Syria and the Land of Israel in 1824, testified about a Muslim cemetery in the region of Rachel's Tomb. "No person is living there, but there was a cemetery. On the opposite hill there is a village whose residents are Arabs and they are most evil. A stranger who comes to visit Rachel's Tomb is robbed by them."22
In 1856, fifteen years after Montefiore had built another room to Rachel's Tomb, James Finn, the British consul who served in Palestine during the days of Turkish rule, spoke about the payments that the Jews were forced to pay to Muslim extortionists at some holy places including Rachel's Tomb: "300 lira per annum to the effendi whose house is adjacent to the site of crying" (the Western Wall) for the right to pray there and "100 lira a year to the Taamra Arabs for not wrecking Rachel's Tomb near Bethlehem."23
In 1841 Moses Montefiore obtained a license from the Turkish authorities to refurbish Rachel's Tomb and add another room to it, which changed its appearance and improved its formerly neglected status. A door to the domed room was installed and keys were given to two Jewish caretakers, one Sephardi and the other Ashkenazi. Fourteen years previously, an official of the Sephardi Kolelim (religious study centers) in Jerusalem, Avraham Behar Avraham, laid the groundwork for Montefiore's activity at Rachel's Tomb when he obtained recognition from the Turkish authorities for the status and rights of Jews at the site. This was, in practice, the original firman (royal decree)24 issued by the Ottoman authorities in Turkey recognizing Jewish rights at Rachel's Tomb.
The firman was necessary since the Muslims disputed ownership by the Jews of Rachel's Tomb and even tried by brute force to prevent Jewish visits to the site. From time to time Jews were robbed or beaten by Arab residents of the vicinity, and even the protection money that was paid did not always prevail. Avraham Behar Avraham approached the authorities in Istanbul on this matter and in 1830 the Turks issued the firman that gave legal force to Rachel's Tomb being recognized as a Jewish holy site.25 Additionally, the governor of Damascus sent a written order to the Mufti of Jerusalem to fulfill the Sultan's order.
This is our order to you: (the following matter) was submitted to us by the subject of our order, the sage representative of honored Jerusalem's Jewry and his translator that the tomb of esteemed Rachel, the mother of our Lord Joseph...they (the Jews) are accustomed to visit it from ancient days; and no one is permitted to prevent them or oppose them (from doing) this....It turned out that at this holy site, they have been visiting since ancient times, without any person preventing them or trespassing on their property and they (have it) as was their custom. In accordance with the respected judgment, I order that our commandment be issued to you so you will treat them accordingly without addition or without subtraction, without hindrance and without opposition to them by anyone in any way whatsoever - written August 10, 1830.26
An additional firman from April 1831, eight months later, determined inter alia:27
To inform and demonstrate to all interested parties and the appointed officials, the right of the Jews who are residents of holy Jerusalem to visit the grave of Rachel, the mother of the Prophet Joseph, peace be upon him, without hindrance....The deputy translator and other public functionaries, members of the Jewish community of Jerusalem, approached me with many requests regarding the tomb of Rachel, may peace be upon her, the mother of the Prophet Joseph, peace be upon him, and it is known that this grave is located outside the city of Jerusalem opposite the town of Bethlehem, on the highway...and that since ancient times the Jews have tended to visit this holy grave without anybody preventing them from doing so, as an inviolable law. And now people have emerged who have begun to hinder them, although as aforesaid and as proven the Jews have a right to visit the grave according to the Sultan's order. Hence I approach his honor the governor, may he be exalted, reminding him of the contents of the existing order. I also order him to attempt to remove the obstacles from the Jews, residents of Holy Jerusalem and others, so they can visit the aforementioned holy grave unhindered. Rendered in Istanbul at the end of the month of Shawwal in the year 1246 to the Hejira. Signed: The Sublime Porte.
Ironically, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, whose government has been described as "neo-Ottoman" in outlook, told the Saudi paper al-Watan (March 7, 2010) that the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb "were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites
From reading accounts written by Christian pilgrims visiting the site, I thought that there was a mosque there. For example, from 1796:
A league further on we entered the plain of Rama, where y»u meet with Rachel's tomb. It is a square edifice, surmounted with a small dome: it enjoys the privileges of a mosque, for the Turks, as well as the Arabs, honor the families of the patriarchs.
About half-way between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is Rachel's tomb, one of the few places regarding the identity of which all antiquarians seem disposed to agree. A small Turkish mosque covers the cave, and here the wife of Israel has slept for nearly four thousand years.But from reading these and other accounts, I get the impression that the pilgrims assumed that a Turkish-style building on the tomb would be a mosque. Even so, Muslims did pray there.
In 1841 Montefiore purchased the site and obtained for the Jews the key of the tomb. To conciliate Muslem susceptibility, he added a square vestibule with a mihrab to be used as a place of prayer for Muslims
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1915, says:
The present tomb, which, apparently, is not older than the 15th century, is built in the style of the small-domed buildings raised by Moslems in honor of their saints. It is a rough structure of four square walls, each about 23 ft. long and 20 ft. high; the dome rising 10 ft. higher is used by Mohammedans for prayer, while on Fridays the Jews make supplication before the empty tomb within.So it appears that while Muslims prayed there on occasion, it was not a mosque. If it was it is doubtful that they would have allowed Jews to have the privileges they had on the site.
I emailed Nadav Shragai to clarify.