In Search of the Maccabees

Hanukkah is just days away, so it was entirely fitting that this month’s archaeological field trip with Yad Ben Zvi should have been devoted to sites associated with the Maccabees and their descendants, the Hasmoneans.

We started out under ominously threatening grey skies. In fact, I even had a fold-up umbrella tucked away in my backpack – although, as it turned out, I didn’t need it.

Our first visit of the day was to the Tel Gezer National Park.  Gezer has a very long history, dating back at least to Canaanite times.  Situated at the junction of the coastal highway  – the famous Via Maris – and the highway connecting it with Jerusalem, through the Valley of Ayalon, on the border of the Judaean Hills and the Shefelah, it was of great strategic importance. From Gezer, on a clear day, one can see all the way to Tel Aviv in the north-west, and as far south as Ashkelon and the Philistine cities on the coast.





Among the finds dating to the Canaanite period found at the site is a series of megaliths, large standing stones, whose exact purpose is unknown but which are presumed to have served some cultic purpose.  Some have suggested they are gravestones, but nobody knows for certain.


Other finds from this period include the remains of part of the city’s defenses – a tower and part of the wall on which it stood:



The Bible tells us Gezer was allotted to the tribe of Ephraim, but that the latter failed to dispossess its Canaanite inhabitants, who continued to live side by side with the Israelites, as servants to the latter (Joshua 16:10). At some time, the Egyptians gained the overlordship over the city, because the Tell-el-Amarna letters include letters from the king of Gezer, swearing loyalty to Pharaoh. At all events, the Bible tells us that when King Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter, Gezer was part of her dowry (1 Kings 9:16). Solomon then rebuilt the city, which Pharaoh had burnt, and fortified it.

A gateway, which resembles similar gateways from the Solomonic period at Megiddo and Hatzor, was identified by the Israeli archaeologist Yigal Yadin as being from the period of King Solomon, and is popularly known as Solomon’s Gate, but most archaeologists believe it is a couple of centuries later.





Probably the most famous artefact unearthed at Gezer, is the 10th century BCE Gezer Calendar, a limestone plaque unearthed in 1908, by the Irish archaeologist, R.A. Stewart Macalister. Written in an ancient Hebrew script, it appears to be an agricultural calendar, detailing the various agricultural activities to be carried out each month.  The original is now in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul, together with other archaeological finds (such as the Siloam Inscription) unearthed in the Holy Land during the Ottoman period. There is a copy in the Israel Museum, and another (larger) copy in situ at Gezer:



It was Macalister, also, who identified this spot as the site of ancient Gezer, when he found 1st century BCE boundary inscriptions cut on rocks, in ancient Hebrew and Greek letters, positioned in such a way that a traveller coming from one direction would see the Hebrew inscription, while someone coming from the opposite direction would see the Greek inscription.  It is likely these were markers showing the Sabbath boundaries – the distance it was permissible for a Jew to travel on the Sabbath.

Here is our guide with a picture of the boundary inscription. The Hebrew reads “Boundary of Gezer”.



Further confirmation that this is, indeed, the site of biblical Gezer, is to be found in the Arabic name for the place,  Tel el-Jazari.

Also to be found at Gezer is the largest and oldest water system of the ancient Near East. Crucial to the defence of the city, it was originally thought to date from the Solomonic period, but is now believed to be even older, probably Canaanite.  It consisted of a tunnel, down which the water carriers would descend to a spring. It was usually young girls who were sent to fetch water and the long descent down the ill-lit tunnel must have been quite scary – although one can imagine that they probably went in a group.



Fast forward to the Maccabees.  We learn from 1 Maccabees 9: 52, that the Greek Seleucid general, Bacchides, fortified several cities, among them Gazara (Gezer) and stationed troops there.  In 1 Maccabees 13: 43 – 48, we learn that Simon, the brother of Judah the Maccabee, captured Gezer, drove out the idolatrous residents – whose lives he spared – replacing them with observant Jews, fortified it and built himself a royal residence there. Testimony to the Jewish presence there in the Hasmonean period can be found in the existence of several mikva’ot (stepped pools for ritual bathing).

From Gezer, we proceeded to Modi’in. The precise location of the village or town from which the Maccabees came is uncertain, but it was in this general area. One of the candidates for the site of the Hasmonean town is the archaeological site of Khirbet Umm el-Umdan, on a hill to the north of the road joining the modern town of Modi’in with the Latrun Junction. The site was uncovered during salvage excavations carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, during development of one of the neighbourhoods of the modern town.

The excavations revealed six main settlement strata from the Persian, Hellenistic/Hasmonean, Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic periods. The major finds that were discovered – a rural settlement with a central lane flanked by residential structures and a public structure identified as a synagogue – date from the second century BCE to the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132 CE).
Also discovered were winepresses, a columbarium, water cisterns – and a mikveh (ritual bath), seen below.



Near the mikveh, two seals connected with the wine industry were discovered, indicating that those involved in the production of wine followed Jewish law regarding ritual purity.

And here, we can see the mosaic floor of one of the winepresses:



The most important find was, of course, the synagogue. Originally built in the Hasmonean period (2nd century BCE)  it is the first synagogue from that era to have been identified in archaeological research. In the Second Temple period, synagogues were, by and large, places of assembly and for communal Torah reading. After the destruction of the Temple, they became places of worship – although some scholars believe synagogues as places of worship existed even earlier.



The square slabs you can see protruding from the floor are the bases of pillars. The Arabic name Umm el-Umdan means “Mother of Pillars”. But the archaeologists who excavated the site believe it also preserves the name Modi’in.

Just outside the synagogue, to the east, is a large courtyard or assembly space.  It was on this side that the entrance to the synagogue lay. Perhaps it is fanciful of me, but it is not too difficult that to imagine that this was the very place where the officers of King Antiochus assembled the Israelites, to enforce the Seleucid king’s decree to sacrifice to the Hellenistic gods (1 Maccabees 2: 15 – 28) and where Mattathias, the priest, killed the Jew who was ready to perform the sacrifice, as well as the king’s commissioner, and fled with his sons to the hills, after raising the battle-cry: “Let everyone who is zealous for the Torah … now follow me!”

Our next stop was Emmaus, one of the fortresses constructed by the Seleucid general Bacchides around Jerusalem (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XIII, Chap.1, 3). The Greek name, Emmaus, was derived from the site’s Hebrew name, Hammat, meaning hot springs. Long after the Hasmoneans, the city continued to enjoy its hot springs – which may account for the  Roman bath-house found on the site.



Since, prior to its excavation, all of the lower part was below ground and only the upper floor with the domed roof was visible, local Arabs assumed it was the tomb of a sheik and called the place Sheik-Ubaidah, after Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, the commander of the invading Muslim Arab forces who fought the Byzantines, and who died of the plague in 639 CE. However, it was not until the 13th century that the site was converted into a Muslim shrine but it is in fact a Roman bath-house dating from the 3rd century CE, when the town was known as Nikopolis. Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah actually died and was buried in Syria.





It was at Emmaus that Judah the Maccabee, with only 3000 ill-equipped troops, defeated the vastly superior Seleucid forces commanded by Gorgias (5000 infantry and 1000 cavalry),  taking them by surprise after an all-night march, appearing from the east with the rising sun at their backs which dazzled the enemy forces (Josephus, Antiquities XII, Chap.7 ,3-4).

Emmaus is also of importance to Christians, being the site where Jesus, after his resurrection, is said to have met two of his disciples who did not recognise him, but who bade him stay with them for the evening was drawing near. According to Luke 24, 13 – 35, he did, indeed, go with them and broke bread with them, whereupon they recognised him, just before he vanished.
For this reason, Emmaus-Nikopolis became an important site during the Byzantine period, the seat of a bishopric. Two basilicas were built there, in the 5th and 7th centuries. Destroyed in the Arab invasion in the 7th century, the church was rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Crusader church was known as the Church of the Maccabees, according to the Franciscan Custos (Guardian) of the Holy Land, Boniface of Ragusa, Bishop of Ston, in his 16th century manual for pilgrims.



There is also a small museum on the site, where mosaics found there are displayed – some of them quite extensive and well-preserved:





Not all the mosaics are in the museum, however. Some remain in situ:



The site is now the home of the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes, which seeks to rediscover the Jewish roots of Christianity.

Our last port of call was the nearby Khirbet  el-‘Aqd, or Horvat Eked, a hill to the east of Roman Emmaus, where there are remains of what are believed to have been the fortifications of Bacchides:



As you can see from the photographs, the site commands a wide strategic view of Modi’in and Beit Huron to the north, the Shefelah to the south, the Judaean Hills to the east,  and the Valley of Ayalon to the west.



And it was as the sun sank slowly over the Valley of Ayalon that we took our leave of the Maccabees and headed back to Jerusalem.












We shall meet the Maccabees again next week. Sunday night marks the start of Hanukkah. Two nights later is Christmas Eve. To all of you who are celebrating either – or both – of these festivals, I would like to wish a hearty Chag Sameach – HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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3 Responses to In Search of the Maccabees

  1. Very nice pictures and fascinating history, as always. Hanukkah Sameyach!

  2. 15andmeowing says:

    Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing these amazing photos. I hope you had a nice Hanukkah.

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