Hanukkah Stories Brought to Light

Archaeologists uncover a fortress destroyed by John Hyrcanus I

The excavation in Lachish Forest, aerial view.
Photo credit: Vladik Lifshits, Israel Antiquities Authority

Just in time for Hanukkah, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced the discovery of a Hellenistic fortified structure believed to have been destroyed by the famous Maccabee leader John Hyrcanus I (r. 134–104). Dig directors date this destruction to around 112 B.C.E.—about a half-century after the Maccabees regained Jerusalem from the occupying Seleucid forces and rededicated the Temple (in December 164), as celebrated in the holiday of Hanukkah.

As we know from the apocryphal Books of the Maccabees and the works of the Roman historian Josephus Flavius, the Maccabean revolt against the foreign rule would then continue until 134, when Hyrcanus became high priest in Jerusalem and Judea was finally liberated from control of the Seleucids, one of the Alexander the Great’s successor dynasties. As a ruler of the young Hasmonean Jewish state, Hyrcanus then continued his territorial expansion, including to Edom/Idumea in the south. According to the dig directors, the fortress belonged to a chain of fortifications that defended the nearby Idumean capital city of Maresha during the Maccabean conquest.

A weapon uncovered in the Hellenistic fortress.
Photo credit: Saar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority

Built upon a hill in the Judean Shephelah to overlook the important Hellenistic city of Maresha, the fortress guarded the main road connecting Maresha to the coastal plain. This territory in modern-day southern Israel was one of the last Greek strongholds in the region, and the fortress was possibly Maresha’s last line of defense. During the excavations, the archaeological team discovered a thick destruction layer. Within the layer were hundreds of pots, weapons, and coins that had been buried when the fortress collapsed. These finds securely date the site’s destruction to John Hyrcanus’s campaign in Idumea around 112 B.C.E. As the excavations did not uncover any human remains, it is assumed that the defenders of the fortress must have fled as the Maccabean army approached. The fortress was then burnt to the ground, preserving in its ruins numerous artifacts. The massive walls of the fortress are nearly 10 feet thick and stand six feet tall. The 2400-foot-square fortress was originally about 16 feet high and included an outer glacis, or slope, to prevent enemies from scaling the walls.

According to Eli Eskozido, director-general of the IAA, “The stories of the Maccabees are coming to life before our eyes, and this is the most fascinating part of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s work, when dedicated, hardworking archaeologists breathe life into the historical annals of the people who passed through this land.”

Once fully excavated, the fortress will be open to the public as one of the sites along the archaeological trail called the Kings of Judah Road, which is currently under development.

Video collage from the excavations of the fortress.
Video: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

Read more in BHD:

Hanukkah, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the Apocrypha

Where the Heroes of the Maccabean Revolt Lie

Members, read more in the  BAS Library:

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Modi’in: Hometown of the Maccabees

The Hasmonean Kings: Jewish or Hellenistic?

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