The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and residents of the city of Modi'in located west of Jerusalem recently uncovered a massive mausoleum, which archaeologists believe may be the actual tomb of the Maccabees who fought off Greek occupation over 2,000 years ago.
A free event will be held at the excavation site over the upcoming Sukkot holiday, as the IAA calls on the public to donate and volunteer in trying to uncover the truth behind the fascinating site.
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, in an event marked yearly during the festival of Hanukkah.
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: The Book of the Maccabees and the Antiquities of the Jews, the latter of which was written several centuries later by the famous Roman-era Jewish historian Josephus Flavius.
The tomb was described as a tall, impressive structure built of fine stones surrounded by columns. It was said to overlook the sea, 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 some 150 years ago.
Some of the curious visitors 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, but that it was certainly Christian in nature and therefore built much later.
However, he noted it was not impossible that early Christians had built the monument at the site of a Maccabean buriel tomb, given the importance of the Book of the Maccabees for many Christians.
"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,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, 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, hoping to solve the mystery once and for all. Unlike their predecessors, Israeli archaeologists were able to utilize the latest tools of modern research, which led them to their fascinating discovery.
In recent weeks, the magnificent mausoleum was located, and it was re-excavated with the help of many local residents from the modern-day Modi‘in and the Hevel Modi‘in communities. Locals inspired by the unfolding discovery volunteered their time and energy and have become an integral part of the professional team.
According to Amit Re’em and Dan Shachar, 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."
However, the absence of archaeologists over the past century and a half had taken its toll on the exposed site.
"To our disappointment, the building seen by our predecessors had been robbed, and its stones were taken to construct settlements in the vicinity," they said. "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," they cautioned, adding: "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".
Aerial photograph Skyview Company, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
The site Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
Cleaning one of the burial niches Dan Shachar, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority