Bible and archaeology news
Then they fortified the City of David with a great strong wall and strong towers, and it became their citadel. They stationed there a sinful people, men who were renegades.
—1 Maccabees 1:33–34
And he burnt the finest parts of the city, and pulling down the walls, built the Akra (citadel) in the Lower City; for it was high enough to overlook the temple, and it was for this reason that he fortified it with high walls and towers, and stationed a Macedonian garrison therein.
—Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 12.252
Where is the Hellenistic-period Seleucid Akra in Jerusalem? Both the Book of Maccabees and Jewish historian Josephus reference an akra (Greek for “citadel” or “fortress”) that Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes constructed following his conquest of Jerusalem around 167 B.C.E. to keep order in the city. In late 142–early 141 B.C.E., Simon, the Jewish leader of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids at that point, captured and, according to Josephus, completely demolished the Akra.1
The precise location of this Seleucid stronghold said to have overlooked the Temple has long been a matter of debate among archaeologists and historians, but, as Biblical archaeologist Eric Cline has said, “it is certain that it stood for some two decades as a symbol of Seleucid power over the Jews.”2 Now, archaeologists excavating in the Givati Parking Lot south of the Temple Mount in the City of David believe they have found the Seleucid Akra.
The excavations in the Givati Parking Lot are led by Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists Doron Ben-Ami, Yana Tchekhanovets and Salome Cohen. According to a recent IAA press release, the archaeologists exposed a portion of a massive wall, a large tower base measuring 13 x 66 feet and a glacis–an artificial slope built for defensive purposes. The excavations also uncovered remnants of battle dating to the Hellenistic period: lead sling shots, bronze arrowheads and ballista stones. The finds were stamped with images of a trident, the mark of King Antiochus.
This sensational discovery allows us for the first time to reconstruct the layout of the settlement in the city, on the eve of the Maccabean uprising in 167 B.C.E. The new archaeological finds indicate the establishment of a well-fortified stronghold that was constructed on the high bedrock cliff overlooking the steep slopes of the City of David hill. This stronghold controlled all means of approach to the Temple atop the Temple Mount, and cut the Temple off from the southern parts of the city. The numerous coins ranging in date from the reign of Antiochus IV to that of Antiochus VII and the large number of wine jars (amphorae) that were imported from the Aegean region to Jerusalem, which were discovered at the site, provide evidence of the citadel’s chronology, as well as the non-Jewish identity of its inhabitants.
The debate on the location of the Seleucid Akra, however, is likely far from over. For instance, archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer has recently cast doubt on the latest proposal from the IAA on his blog:
The quote from 1 Maccabees tells us that the whole of the City of David was fortified with a wall. The Hellenistic walls found [in the Givati Parking Lot] may indeed be part of these fortifications. Josephus, however, is speaking of a separate citadel—the Seleucid Akra. This fortress, we are told, “overlooked the temple.” In order for the Givati remains to belong to this citadel and also overlook the Temple, it must have been over 400 feet high at least … What hill is there to be seen in the Givati Parking Lot?
Read Ritmeyer’s examination of the Seleucid Akra, which includes schematic drawings of the Hellenistic-period Temple Mount, at Ritmeyer Archaeological Design.
1. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 13.6.213–14.
2. Eric H. Cline, Jerusalem Besieged (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2004), p. 79.
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