In recent weeks the Israel Antiquities Authority, together with local residents and young people, has been conducting an unusual archaeological excavation in search of the real location of the Tomb of the Maccabees.
According to historical sources, the Maccabees – Matityahu the Hasmonean and his five sons, from the ancient city of Modi’in, led the uprising against Greek rule and were responsible for cleansing the impurity from the Second Temple.
The aim of the archaeological excavation was to determine if there is any substance to the legends and stories that have sprung up around the Horbat Ha-Gardi site, located a short distance from the city of Modi‘in, and whose name is associated with the Tomb of the Maccabees.
The Tomb of the Maccabees was described in two ancient books two thousand years old: The Book of the Maccabees and the Antiquities of the Jews, which was written by Josephus Flavius. The tomb was described as a tall, impressive structure surrounded by columns; it was said to overlook the sea and was built of fine stones and was covered with pyramid-like roofs.
The proximity of the Horbat Ha-Gardi site to the Arab village of Al-Midya, and the similarity of the name of the village and that of ancient Modi‘in, attracted archaeologists, scholars and the curious to it c. 150 years ago. Some of them documented the site in their writings and drawings, and some even succeeded in carrying out excavations there. The latter revealed an imposing mausoleum borne atop enormous pillars that supported huge stone slabs, above which was probably a second story. Magnificent burial vaults were discovered at the bottom of the structure.
The excitement was intense, and the first researchers even issued written announcements: “Indeed, there is no room for doubt. I found the Tomb of the Maccabees and the tunnel I exposed held the ashes of Matityahu”; “The ruins of the tomb correspond perfectly to the Tomb of the Maccabees as described in the historical sources”.
The enthusiasm was dampened by a French archaeologist named Charles Clermont-Ganneau. His excavations at the site revealed mosaics adorned with a cross in the floors of the burial vaults. Consequently, he asserted that the purpose of the structure is unknown and it is Christian in nature. He added that “It is possible that this structure was built by the Christians so as to commemorate the burial place of the Holy Maccabees, since they were exalted saints in the eyes of Christianity. It is quite possible that in the future unequivocal evidence will be found indicating the site is the place where the Maccabees were buried”. Since the publication of that archaeologist’s report, the site was abandoned and has remained deserted.
In an unusual step the Israel Antiquities Authority recently decided to embark upon a campaign in search of the Tomb of the Maccabees, in order to solve the riddle surrounding the place once and for all, and to do so utilizing the tools of modern research. Such a discovery is without doubt of national and scientific significance of the highest level.
In recent weeks, the magnificent mausoleum was located, and it was re-excavated with the help of many local residents from Modi‘in and the Hevel Modi‘in settlements. They were swept up in the adventure and have contributed to the excavation by volunteering their time and energy and have become an integral part of the professional team.
According to Amit Re’em and Dan Shahar, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “There is no doubt that the structure that was uncovered is unusual. The descriptions from 150 years ago were revealed right here in front of our eyes, and we discovered the magnificent burial vaults, enormous pillars that apparently supported a second story, a forecourt that led to the tomb and other associated buildings.
To our disappointment, the building seen by our predecessors had been robbed, and its stones were taken to construct settlements in the vicinity; nevertheless, the appearance of the place is impressive and stimulates the imagination. The archaeological evidence currently at hand is still insufficient to establish that this is the burial place of the Maccabees. If what we uncovered is not the Tomb of the Maccabees itself, then there is a high probability that this is the site that early Christianity identified as the royal funerary enclosure, and therefore, perhaps, erected the structure. Evidently one cannot rule out the assumptions of the past, but an excavation and a lot of hard work are still required in order to confirm that assumption unequivocally, and the riddle remains unsolved–the search for the elusive Tomb of the Maccabees continues”.
The Israel Antiquities Authority financed the excavation of the tomb from its budget, and additional resources are currently required in order to garner as much information as possible from the area in the hope of arriving at a solution to this riddle.