Excavating the Hasmonean Border
For more than a century, the Hasmonean dynasty (167–37 B.C.E.) extended its power from the Negev in the south to the Galilee in the north. While ancient texts provide invaluable insight into the period’s history, archaeological excavations are working to clarify the extent and power of this Hellenistic Jewish kingdom. One such excavation is Horvat Tefen, a fortress located 10 miles east of the powerful Phoenician city of Akko. This excavation seeks to unravel an intriguing question: Who built the fortress and why?
Horvat Tefen was located strategically along the border between the expanding Hasmonean kingdom and the independent Phoenician city-state of Akko-Ptolemais. During the reign of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (r. 103–76 B.C.E.), this region was a flashpoint between the two powers as Alexander Jannaeus sought to conquer the important coastal port. Despite the importance of the site, Horvat Tefen was not excavated until 2019. Now, Roi Sabar, director of the excavations, believes he has an answer to the mystery of who built the hilltop fortress.
While other scholars have suggested that Horvat Tefen was constructed by the people of Akko in the second century B.C.E., Sabar disagrees. In a paper published in BASOR, Sabar instead suggests that Horvat Tefen was a short-lived military fort constructed by Alexander Jannaeus after he failed to conquer Akko early in his reign. The fortress fell out of use shortly after the death of the Hasmonean king and was only reoccupied, for agricultural activity, in the Byzantine period (324–634 C.E.).
Although previous theories had suggested that the fortress was built in the second century to defend Akko from enemies to the east, Sabar’s study presents a compelling alternative. Instead, he concludes that the fortress was constructed by the Hasmoneans as a way of keeping watch over Akko. The purpose of Horvat Tefen was likely both to threaten the city and to strengthen the Hasmonean border. The kingdom had grown rapidly during the Hasmonean period and, by the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, included most of the Galilee region.
The Hasmonean dynasty had sprung up following the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (c. 167–160 B.C.E.), as described in I Maccabees as well as Josephus’s The Jewish War. The Seleucids had wrested control of the region from the Egyptian Ptolemies during the early second century B.C.E. However, the Seleucids would experience their own decline decades later, allowing numerous local groups to gain their independence and establish their own kingdoms. Among those groups were the Nabateans, Itureans, Phoenicians, and the Hasmoneans.
Following the Maccabean Revolt, the Hasmonean dynasty quickly expanded its territory outside of its capital at Jerusalem. The kingdom had incorporated the Galilee by the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, who further expanded the border across the Jordan River into Transjordan, as well as numerous other areas. Despite an early victory against Akko, Alexander Jannaeus proved incapable of conquering the city when two Ptolemaic rulers, Ptolemy IX and his mother Cleopatra III, would both invade the region in succession and conquer Akko for themselves. Unable to gain this important region, Alexander Jannaeus instead built or refurbished a series of defensive fortifications along his borders, to protect the territory that he had fought so hard to gain.
The fortress of Horvat Tefen sits atop a long, narrow hill overlooking the ancient city of Akko. From its vantage point, a Hasmonean soldier or mercenary would easily be able to keep watch over Akko and its vicinity. Sabar and his team dated the construction of the fort through recovered pottery as well as several dozen coins, almost all of which are Hasmonean, dating to the last decade of Alexander Jannaeus’s reign. Given the limited quantity of finds from other periods, the team concludes that the fortress was only inhabited for a short period during the reign of the Hasmonean king. Since the site was inhabited for such a short period, its continued excavation will provide a better picture of Hasmonean life and material culture.
The fortress was constructed in a narrow rectangular fashion, encompassing a little over half an acre. The fort consists of seven towers of varying size, connected with a curtain wall. Constructed of massive fieldstones, the largest of the towers is 38 by 61 feet and was likely a bastion, while the smallest is 16 by 25 feet. Meanwhile, the curtain wall consists of roughly worked stones and averages between 3 and 5 feet wide. Four large cisterns were also discovered in and around the fortress. The construction of the fortress from these largely unworked stones could indicate the speed at which the Hasmoneans constructed the site.
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