The Hasmonean Wall

The Maccabees - the Back Story

Eli Ilan |06/12/2020|1190
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Telling Jerusalem’s Story through its Stones

This is a story about walls - built, destroyed and rebuilt throughout history.  Every one of Jerusalem’s stones can transport you to a different time in history, to a succession of rulers, diverse faiths and personalities, each leaving their mark here forever.  Now, in honor of the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah, we delve into one of the most curious and earliest walls which has been uncovered in the city - the Hasmonean wall.

The impressive wall, crosses the archaeological courtyard of the Tower of David Museum (inside the Citadel), into the excavations in the adjacent Kishle building. It was built by one of the most famous dynasties in the history of the Jewish people - the unshakeable heroes of the holiday of Hanukkah - yes, we’re talking about the Hasmoneans.

The story of the Maccabees who fought the Greeks, purified the Temple and rededicated the altar, is told every year, with the lighting of the Hanukkah holiday candles. Just as exciting is the back story, hidden between the stones of the ancient wall.

מבט על קטע מ"החומה הראשונה"
The Hasmonean Wall in the Courtyard

Another Brick in the Wall
Long ago, 2,300 years ago, the waves of Hellenistic conquest washed over our region as well.  Alexander the Great, who commanded the campaign, died at the young age of 33 and left a bloody war zone to his successors:  in Egypt - the Ptolemies; and in Syria - the Seleucids.  Most Greek Hellenistic governments allowed a degree of religious and national autonomy to minorities, but in 175 BCE a different sort of ruler came to the throne of the Seleucid Empire - Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  Sound familiar?  Yes  - this is the Evil Antiochus, the tyrant who enacted many decrees against the Jews like the prohibition against circumcision, forced violation of Shabbat, and even idol worship and defiling the Temple.  

Jerusalem became a Greek polis - city - and the office of the priesthood was corrupted due to the priests’ affinity for the Hellenistic government.  When Antiochus’ decrees were heard in the town of Modiin, home of Matityahu the Hasmonean and his 5 sons, they raised the banner of revolt in the year 167 BCE.  Three years later, the Temple was purified and the altar was rededicated.  At this point in the story, we usually stop and sing a song of praise...Rock of Ages/Maoz Tzur.  But this is only the beginning of the story of the Hasmonean dynasty.

A wall is a testament to the power and the cadence of a powerful, established government.  At the close of the second century BCE, the Hasmonean dynasty strengthened, and the areas under their control became larger, expanding to Samaria, the Mediterranean coastal plain and even to lands to the east of the Jordan River.  The heart of the Hasmonean kingdom was, of course, Jerusalem, which needed to be protected in every possible way.  To this end a wall was built, which Josephus Flavius, the Second Temple Period historian, referred to as the “First Wall”.  It is possible to identify the wall as described in I Maccabees: “And Jonathan lived in Jerusalem and began to rebuild and renew the city.  He directed the craftsmen to build the wall and encircle Mt. Zion with squared stones to better protect it; and this was done.”  (I Maccabees 10:10-11)

The wall, along with other findings discovered in the excavation of the Citadel, sheds light on the actions of the Hasmoneans and the Greeks in Jerusalem after the Hanukkah story of the revolt and the purification of the Temple.  As we say, the story was “to be continued.”  

ראשי חץ עשויים ברונזה, חלקם נושאים את ראשי התיבות המתייחסות לאנטיוכוס השביעי (מאה ה-2 לפנה"ס)
Bronze arrow heads, some of which are inscribed with the Greek letters beta and sigma, initials of Basileus Sidetes (2nd C. BCE)

John Hyrcanus, the grandson of Matityahu, founder of the dynasty, ruled the kingdom between 134-104 BCE, and was responsible for many conquests.  But it didn’t come easy for him.  Although the kingdom was expanding, the winds of change continued to blow.  The Greeks didn’t disappear into thin air, like the story of the holiday suggests.  The facts on the ground are that actually, the Seleucids had a fortress of their own in Jerusalem, the Acra (apparently in the area of the City of David’s Givati parking lot); and they continued to threaten the sovereignty of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty, for decades after the famous revolt.

In the year 134 BCE, thirty years after the previous round of fighting during the Hasmonean revolt, Hyrcanus was faced with one of the descendants of the evil Antiochus of the Hanukkah story.  Antiochus VII Sidetes laid siege to Jerusalem for 2 years hoping to topple Hasmonean rule.  The fighting was fierce and prolonged, as proven by findings in the archaeological garden of the Citadel.  About 200 hewn ballista stones were found in the Citadel courtyard, after being catapulted over the walls of the city, as well as numerous bronze arrowheads inscribed with the Greek letters beta and sigma, initials of Basileus (King) Sidetes himself!
Finally, Hyrcanus and Sidetes arrived at an agreement.  Hyrcanus committed to hand over territories he captured (such as Jaffa and Gezer) and destroy the walls of Jerusalem in exchange for his autonomy. Hyrcanus also agreed to conscript soldiers from the Hasmonean army to aid Sidetes in his battles to the East, and to pay a considerable sum of money taken, according to some sources, from the tomb of King David.

Only upon the death of Sidetes at the hands of the Parthians in 129 BCE, did the Seleucid threat on Hasmonean sovereignty finally dissipate.

אבני בליסטראות (מאה ה-2 לפנה"ס)
Catapult stones (2nd C. BCE)

Story of the Pantheon
As soon as the external wars were forgotten, internecine tensions began to bubble up to the surface.  After a few decades, the government of the kingdom found itself in the center of an argument between 2 potential successors - John Hyrcanus II and Judah Aristobolus II (grandsons of John Hyrcanus I).  The Roman Empire controlled wide swathes of territory in the area, and fixed its gaze on Judea as well.  The two quarreling brothers turned to the Roman general Pompey the Great to decide between them.

When two fight, the third one wins!  And so, in 63 BCE, the Roman Empire controlled Judea, and the status of the Hasmoneans weakened and was undermined.  Eventually, the Hasmonean dynasty’s authority was totally lost, and Jewish control of the land of Israel was forgotten for many years.

Sovereignty died then, but the story lived on.  Hundreds of years later, the Zionist movement dusted off the memories of an independent Judea, and called for a continuation of the Maccabee’s story.  The Maccabees became a very powerful symbol of determination, courage and steadfastness toward the goal of achieving independence and self-determination - culminating in the renewal of sovereignty as a result of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, after 2000 years!


לכל אירועי חנוכה תשפ"ב 2021 במוזיאון - לחצו כאן 


Lodewyk Siahaan
When the third temple will be build?

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