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Hellenistic-Era Fortress From 2nd Century BC Discovered in Israel

Hellenistic-era fortress
A Hellenistic-era fortress built at the time of the battle against the Maccabees has just been discovered in Israel. The existence of the fort is evidence of the story of Hanukkah, when the Maccabees triumphed over the Hellenistic forces. Credit: Facebook/Emil Aljem/Israel Antiquities Authority

Excavations undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in that country’s Lachish Forest in Judea, recently revealed the extensive remains of a Hellenistic-era fortress that was destroyed in a Jewish revolt that took place in 112 BC.

In an announcement on the discovery, the IAA said that the fortress had been “destroyed and burned by the Hasmoneans,” the successors to the Maccabees, who had battled the Greek Seleucid rulers in an ongoing fight against the Hellenization of Judea.

Researchers have found charred wooden beams, dozens of coins and even entire weapons at the site of the fortress; they state that these are evidence of a battle taking place between the Hasmoneans and the Seleucids 2,100 years before the present time.

Hellenistic-era Fortress destroyed by avenging Hasmoneans, angered by Seleucid Hellenization

Saar Ganor, Vladik Lifshits, and Ahinoam Montagu, excavation directors who are digging at the site under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority, state that “The excavation provides tangible evidence of the Hanukkah story.

“It appears that we have discovered a fortress, part of a fortified line erected by the Hellenistic army commanders, built to protect the large Hellenistic city of Maresha from a Hasmonean offensive. However, the finds from the site show that the Seleucid defenses were unsuccessful, and the building was badly burnt by the Hasmonean forces.”

The Hasmonean dynasty was the ruling dynasty of Judea and the surrounding area from approximately 140 BC to 37 BC. Between 140 and 116 BC, the dynasty ruled Judea semi-autonomously from the Seleucid Empire, and from roughly 110 BC onward, with the empire disintegrating, Judea gained further autonomy, expanding into the neighboring regions of Samaria, Galilee, Iturea, Perea, and Idumea.

The dynasty was established under the leadership of Simon Thassi, two decades after his brother Judas Maccabeus defeated the Seleucid army during the Maccabean Revolt.

It was after this initial revolt that the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated after it had been desecrated by the Seleucids. At that time the oil in the candles burned for eight days although there was only enough oil for one day; this is what believers see as the miracle of Hanukkah.

In an area of the world that was repeatedly conquered and reconquered by a range of rulers, the Hasmonean dynasty survived for an incredible 103 years before yielding to the Herodian dynasty in 37 BC.

The lands of the former Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judah had been occupied in turn by Assyria, Babylonia, the Achaemenid Empire, and Alexander the Great’s Hellenic Macedonian empire, around  330 BC.

Under Antiochus III, the Seleucids wrested control of Judea from the Ptolemies for the final time, defeating Ptolemy V Epiphanes at the Battle of Panium in 200 BC. Seleucid rule over the Jewish parts of the region then resulted in the rise of Hellenistic cultural and religious practices.

Amphorae Fortress
Amphorae and other artifacts found recently at the fortress by archaeologists working for the Israel Antiquities Authority. Credit: Facebook/Davida Eisenberg-Degan/Israel Antiquities Authority

Area repeatedly invaded by armies for many centuries

However, although Jewish religious practice and culture persisted and even flourished during certain periods. The entire region was heavily contested between the successor states of Alexander’s empire, the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt, during the six Syrian Wars of the 3rd–1st centuries BC.

The major source of information about the origin of the Hasmonean dynasty are the Biblical books 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, held as canonical scripture by the Catholic, Orthodox, and most Oriental Orthodox churches.

These books cover the period from 175 BC to 134 BC, during which time the Hasmonean dynasty became semi-independent from the Seleucid empire but had not yet expanded far outside of Judea.

They are written from the point of view that the salvation of the Jewish people in a crisis came from God through the family of Mattathias, particularly his sons Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan Apphus, and Simon Thassi, and his grandson John Hyrcanus. The books include historical and religious material from the Septuagint that was codified by Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

Beam from Fortress
A burned wooden beam that was once part of the Hellenistic-era fortress in Israel. Credit: Saar Ganor/Israel Antiquities Authority

Historian Josephus recounted story of the Hasmoneans

The other primary source for information on the Hasmonean dynasty is the first book of “The Wars of the Jews” written by the Jewish historian Josephus, who lived from 37–c. 100 AD. Josephus’ account is the only primary source covering the history of the Hasmonean dynasty during the period of its expansion and independence between 110 to 63 BC.

The author of the First Book of Maccabees regarded the Maccabean revolt as a rising of pious Jews against the Seleucid king who had tried to eradicate their religion and against the Jews who supported him. The author of the Second Book of Maccabees presented the conflict as a struggle between “Judaism” and “Hellenism”, words that he was the first to use.

The IAA states that “The Hasmonean rebellion against Hellenistic rule and the Seleucid dynasty was initiated after anti-Jewish decrees of Antiochus IV and led to the Hasmonean state’s southward expansion as described in the Books of the Maccabees and writings of Josephus.”

Destruction layer of the fortress yields weapons of the battle

The IAA states that the newly-discovered fortress, measuring 15 × 15 meters (49 X 49 feet), was constructed with “boulders 3 meters (9.8 feet) thick with a sloping outer glacis to prevent the wall from being scaled. The inside of the fortress was divided into seven rooms and was preserved to an exceptional height of roughly 2 meters (6.5 feet).”

The archaeologists also unearthed a stairwell leading to a second floor of the fort; this, however, was unfortunately not preserved.

What they called the “destruction layer” of the fort was an incredible half a meter thick, necessitating the removal of thousands of stones that had collapsed during the taking of the fort.

However, it was inside that layer that they discovered hundreds of artifacts dating back to the late second century BC, including “pottery, slingshots, iron weapons, burnt wooden beams, and dozens of coins,” the IAA states. “Based on the finds and coins, the building’s destruction can be attributed to the Idumea led by the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus around 112 BC,” the archaeologists noted.

Excavations are still ongoing in the area; as soon as they are complete, the fortress itself will undergo conservation before it is opened to the public. At that time, the IAA states, it will be part of the Jewish National Fund’s “Kings of Judah Road” project, which is now being developed.

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