Archaeological Discoveries Tell the Story of the Days of the Hasmoneans

Mitchell Stein |20/10/2021|96
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Every year at Hanukkah, the triumphant tale of the Maccabees is recounted, which tells the story of the Jewish victory over the Hellenistic Greek conquerors of historic Judea. The Maccabean victory ushered in the Hasmonean dynasty, which restored Jewish sovereignty over Judea from 140 BCE to 37 BCE. At the Tower of David citadel, archaeological discoveries illuminate what life was like during the Hasmonean dynasty, told through artifacts found within the citadel walls, and frozen in time.

Between 167 - 160 BCE, the Jewish rebel group, the Maccabees, led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire and its attempt to implement Hellenistic influence on Jewish life. The Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes sought to suppress Jewish law in Judea, and in 168 BCE, desecrated the Temple, replacing Jewish sacrifice rituals with Hellenistic pagan rituals The Maccabean revolt successfully overthrew Greek rule and restored Jewish sovereignty over the land and the Temple. The story of Hanukkah commemorates a return to Jewish life in Judea and the miracle that allowed the oil of the Temple’s menorah to burn for eight days following the Maccabean victory. 

Illustration of the Maccabees protesting the desecration of the Temple, from the Tower of David Museum original exhibition

Visitors to the Tower of David Museum can witness the Hanukkah story come to life within the citadel’s ancient walls. In fact, the earliest remains on the site include portions of the city wall, and two large towers located in the citadel courtyard. It is believed that this wall is what historian Josephus Flavius called “The First Wall”, which was built alongside the ruins of an older wall from the First Temple period (9th-8th century BCE). Some also believe that this is the very same wall referred to in the First Book of Maccabees, which says: 

“Jonathan settled himself in Jerusalem, and began to build and repair the city. And he commanded the workmen to build the walls and Mount Zion round about with square stones for the fortification, and they did so.”                                          (I Maccabees, 10-11)

These same Hasmonean walls later became the foundations of King Herod’s palace, following the Roman conquest of Judea in 37 BCE, which ended Hasmonean rule over the region, and later saw the destruction of the Second Temple.

The First Wall in the courtyard of the Tower of David Citadel

Among the archaeological discoveries from the Hasmonean period were hundreds of ballista stones dating back to the second century, BCE. Located directly below the walls within the citadel, these ballista stones are likely remains of the attacks by the Seleucid army, led by Antiochus VII Sidetes. Today, a large portion of these stones can be seen in the citadel courtyard, frozen in time in the spaces near which they first landed over 2,500 years ago.

Ballista stones found in situ

As we prepare to celebrate Hanukkah, we invite you to visit the Tower of David to learn more about the Hasmonean dynasty and witness this significant moment in Jewish history and the history of the city of Jerusalem.

Happy Hanukkah from the Tower of David Museum!

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