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Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Tomb of the Maccabees

TIME Magazine, November 27, 1995.

Wonderful-to-read Israeli blogger Imshin links to this at Not a Fish.

A site 30 km northwest of Jerusalem, where Route 443 is being widened, police stood guard last week as half a dozen black-clad, ultra-Orthodox demonstrators vented their anger at the workers. "You are stealing bones!" they shouted, protesting the disturbance of Jewish graves. One of the demonstrators lay curled on the ground, uttering prayers. All were finally arrested.

The objects of their wrath were not highway workers but an archaeological team that was excitedly excavating a remarkable new find: a burial cave used by the Maccabees, the family of Jewish warriors whose successful revolt against their Seleucid rulers in the second century B.C. is celebrated in the festival of Hanukkah and documented in the Apocryphal Books of Maccabees. Artifacts found in the cave are the first physical evidence of the existence of the Maccabees, who until now have been known only from ancient writings.

"For years scholars had been searching for this elaborate site," says Yeshayahu Gafni, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Its existence was known for hundreds of years after the Maccabean period, and it is depicted in a sixth century mosaic map at Madeba in Jordan. But then it was lost."

Earlier in the week a tractor leveling ground at the highway site had lurched to a stop after its blade uncovered the opening to a cave. In compliance with the law in antiquity-rich Israel, the construction crew halted work immediately and notified the Antiquities Authority, which dispatched staff archaeologist Shimon Riklin and a team of laborers to the scene.

Before long the team had opened up an entrance courtyard that led to two more burial caves and 23 ossuaries--stone boxes containing bones--stored in niches constructed out of chalk blocks. One of the ossuaries was inscribed with the partly obliterated Hebrew word Hasmonean, another name for the Maccabean clan. "This is the first time that word has been found on archaeological evidence," says Riklin. Several other ossuaries were inscribed with such names as Sarah, Mariama, Eliezer and Elazar, all in Greek letters, and Simon in Hebrew. The cave also yielded coins and oil lamps unique to Hasmonean times.

Experts at the Antiquities Authority, noting the style of burial, the Jewish names and the artifacts typical of the times, have no doubt the findings are Maccabean. Indeed, many of the names are those of the original Maccabees. Says Efrat Orbach, spokeswoman for the authority: "We know from historical writings that the Hasmoneans lived and were buried in this area." Riklin speculates that the cave may contain three generations of Hasmoneans, perhaps even its most famous members, Judah Maccabee and his brothers.

It was Judah Maccabee who led the second century B.C. revolt against Seleucid King Antiochus IV, who had persecuted the Jews and desecrated their temple. Judah's forces were successful, conquering Jerusalem and reconsecrating the temple in 165 B.C., a feat that is celebrated during Hanukkah. The Hasmonean era ended in 63 B.C., when the Roman Emperor Pompey conquered Judea.

The discovery is particularly exciting for Israelis, says Professor Gafni, "because the Hasmonean period was the last era of Jewish independence in the land of Israel until the modern state of Israel."
Imagine, Jewish independence in the land of Israel. Put that in your hannukiyah and light it!