Annihilated Fortress Discovered From Maccabees’ Revolt Against Antiochus

A destroyed Seleucid fortress near the Lachish forest—courtesy the Hasmonean revolt
The work of unveiling the fortress begins.
Saar Ganor/Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists working on the edge of the Lachish forest have uncovered a site of ancient destruction: remains of a Hellenistic fortress, razed to the ground during the second century b.c.e. According to Sa’ar Ganor, codirector of the excavation: “It appears that we have discovered a building that was part of a fortified line erected by the Hellenistic army commanders to protect the large Hellenistic city of Maresha from a Hasmonean offensive.” As shown by the excavators, this part in the Seleucid defensive line failed utterly.

Foundation remains reveal a square fortress, 15 x 15 meters, with impressive 3-meter-wide walls boasting a sloped glacis. The building would have been at least two stories high, situated strategically on a high hill overlooking the main thoroughfare to Maresha, the largest Hellenistic city in the area and the capital of the territory Idumea (Edom) during this period.

Having cleared the demolished upper floor, archaeologists work inside the preserved lower remains.
Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority

The first task of the excavators (which included high school students majoring in the Ministry of Education’s archaeology program) was to clear away the enormous quantity of large stones from the second floor that had collapsed in on the structure. Beneath the stones lay a thick, half-meter destruction layer composed of burned wooden beams, ash, iron weapons, slingshots and dozens of coins. “Based on the finds and coins, the building’s destruction can be attributed to the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus’s conquest of the region of Idumea in around 112 b.c.e.,” the archaeologists reported. This relates to the rule of Antiochus viii Grypus, during whose reign the Maccabean revolt continued, having been touched off earlier that century during the reign of Antiochus iv Epiphanes.

The rebellion began in 167 b.c.e. in response to Antiochus Epiphanes’s brutal tyrannical rule over the Jews—attempting to outlaw the Jewish religious way of life, turning Jerusalem’s temple into a pagan one, banning practices such as circumcision, and mandating the sacrifice of non-kosher foods. The Book of Maccabees relates: “Where the book of the covenant was found in the possession of any one, or if any one adhered to the law, the decree of the king condemned him to death” (1 Maccabees 1:57). Still, the Jewish revolt was not immediate. It was not until a rural priest from Modi’in named Mattathias the Hasmonean was pressured to make a sacrifice to Greek gods that he flatly refused, killing a Hellenized Jew who stepped up to take his place, as well as the Greek government official overseeing the event. Mattathias and his sons fled to the mountains; from there, they began organizing a guerilla war effort, calling on all Jews to join them. The attacks against the Seleucids were led most notably by Mattathias’s son, Judas Maccabeus (“Judah ‘the Hammer’”).

Judas Maccabeus before the army of Nicanor, Antiochus Epiphanes’ general (1 Macc. 7:26-32; Gustave Doré, 1866)
Public Domain

The traumatic events of this time were prophesied centuries in advance by the Prophet Daniel: “[T]hey shall pollute the sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the daily sacrifice, and they shall place the abomination that maketh desolate. And such as do wickedly against the covenant shall he corrupt by flatteries: but the people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits” (Daniel 11:31-32; King James Version). The sheer quantity of remarkably accurate prophecies regarding this time period are at the core of the debate about the dating of Daniel and whether or not the book really “could have been” written during the sixth century b.c.e.—for more on this subject, see the article here.

Corroded blades, sling stones and reconstructed pottery items discovered at the site
Davida Eisenberg-Degen/Israel Antiquities Authority

The fortress discovery report states: “The Hasmoneans, whose rebellion against Hellenistic rule and the Seleucid dynasty followed the anti-Jewish decrees of Antiochus iv, waged many battles against the Seleucid army. [The later] John Hyrcanus’s conquests, described in the Books of the Maccabees and the accounts of the historian Josephus, led to the Hasmonean state’s southward expansion.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority’s general director, Eli Eskosido, commented on the findings:

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. In a few days, we will be celebrating Hanukkah, whose central theme is the Hasmoneans’ defeat of the Hellenists, leading to the establishment of the first independent sovereign Jewish entity. The Hasmoneans could have had no idea that 2,000 years later, students living in the State of Israel would be following in their footsteps. It is extremely exciting.

High school students from Ramot Beer Sheva excavate the site of their forefathers.
Saar Ganor/Israel Antiquities Authority
Let the Stones Speak