The Maccabees—Mattathias and his five sons—are famous for having led a successful rebellion in the 160s B.C.E. against King Antiochus IV Epiphanes after the Seleucid ruler desecrated the Temple and forbade circumcision and Sabbath observance. The Maccabean revolt, as it’s come to be known, is celebrated in the festival of Hanukkah.
Investigations at the site of Horbat Ha-Gardi, less than 2 miles northwest of modern Modi’in, began in the 19th century. (There are several candidates for the precise location of ancient Modi’in, the Jewish village that the Maccabees called home.) When French explorer Victor Guérin excavated Horbat Ha-Gardi in 1870, he found a large ashlar structure (21 x 82 ft) and a burial chamber, all covered with what he believed was a pyramid-like construction such as that described in the Book of Maccabees. He contended that he identified seven tombs, one for each member of the Maccabee family.
“The ruins of the tomb correspond perfectly to the Tomb of the Maccabees as described in the historical sources,” Guérin wrote.
French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau, however, conducted his own excavation of the structure described by Guérin in 1871. Clermont-Ganneau discovered in the burial chamber a colorful mosaic floor dating no earlier than the fifth century C.E. and bearing a cross.
“It is possible that this structure was built by the Christians so as to commemorate the burial place of the Holy Maccabees, since they were exalted saints in the eyes of Christianity,” Clermont-Ganneau wrote. “It is quite possible that in the future, unequivocal evidence will be found indicating the site is the place where the Maccabees were buried.”
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Recently, the Israel Antiquities Authority decided to re-investigate the site of Horbat Ha-Gardi. The aim of the project, according to the IAA, is to “embark upon a campaign in search of the Tomb of the Maccabees, in order to solve the riddle surrounding the place once and for all, and to do so utilizing the tools of modern research.”
Led by IAA archaeologists Amit Re’em and Dan Shahar and aided by local volunteers, the archaeological team continued the excavations conducted in the 19th century by Guérin and Clermont-Ganneau. The team re-exposed the burial chamber, huge pillars that could support a second story, a forecourt and other related buildings.
Commenting on the investigation, Amit Re’em and Dan Shahar said, “The appearance of the place is impressive and stimulates the imagination. The archaeological evidence currently at hand is still insufficient to establish that this is the burial place of the Maccabees. If what we uncovered is not the Tomb of the Maccabees itself, then there is a high probability that this is the site that early Christianity identified as the royal funerary enclosure, and therefore, perhaps, erected the structure.”
Thus, the jury is still out as to whether the magnificent Tomb for the Maccabees, heroes of Hanukkah’s Maccabean revolt, has been found. The archaeologists, however, remain hopeful.
“The riddle remains unsolved–the search for the elusive Tomb of the Maccabees continues,” Re’em and Shahar said.
Learn more about the Maccabees in the BAS Library:
Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah and Alexander Onn, “Modi’in: Hometown of the Maccabees,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2014.
Andrea M. Berlin and Geoffrey B. Waywell, “Monumental Tombs from Maussollos to the Maccabees,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2007.
Hershel Shanks, “Inscription Reveals Roots of Maccabean Revolt,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2008.
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