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A 2,000-Year-Old Greek Fortress Has Been Unearthed in Jerusalem

The fort played a role in the Jewish revolts that inspired Hanukkah

(Li Rui/Xinhua Press/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

For more than a decade, archeologists have been excavating a site in Jerusalem known as the Givati Parking Lot. This week, The Times of Israel reports, they have finally confirmed what they discovered: A citadel and tower that solve "one of the great archaeological riddles in the history of Jerusalem." The site is believed to be a famous, 2,000-year-old Greek fortress, known as Acra, which played a key role in the Jewish revolts that inspired Hanukkah.

Hanukkah, which commemorates the story of the Maccabean uprising, celebrates the defeat of Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanies and the re-dedication of the Second Temple. The king had outlawed Jewish rites in 167 B.C., ordering Jews to instead worship Zeus. To protect the Jews who had adopted Greek culture—and to effectively garrison Seleucid troops—Antiochus built a massive fortress, or "acra" in Greek, within the City of David. In 1 Maccabeesthe fortress is described:

Then they [the Seleucids] fortified the city of David with a great strong wall and strong towers, and it became their citadel. And they stationed there a sinful people, lawless men. These strengthened their position; they stored up arms and food, and collecting the spoils of Jerusalem they stored them there, and became a great snare. It became an ambush against the sanctuary, an evil adversary of Israel continually.

For more than a century, scholars have debated the precise location of this fortress. In recent months, archaeologists finally unearthed a massive wall, a tower and a sloping embankment at the Givati site. These discoveries strongly suggest that the fortress was built on the site, south of the Old City walls and the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock sits.

"The new archaeological finds indicate the establishment of a well-fortified stronghold that was constructed on the high bedrock cliff overlooking the steep slopes of the City of David hill," Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists Doron Ben-Ami, Yana Tchekhanovets and Salome Cohen say, according to a statement from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "This stronghold controlled all means of approach to the Temple atop the Temple Mount, and cut the Temple off from the southern parts of the city."

A bevy of artifacts have also been found at the site: lead sling shots, bronze arrowheads and catapult stones stamped with Antiochus' symbol. Coins discovered at the dig date back to Antiochus’ reign, and wine jars imported from the Aegean "bear witness to the citadel's age, as well as the non-Jewish identify of its inhabitants," the archeologists say.

According to Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, as well as the writings of first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, the Maccabean Jews were eventually able to starve and overwhelm the Greek garrison in 141 B.C., driving them out of the fortress. After conquering the Acra, the Maccabees rededicated the Second Temple—the victory that's celebrated during Hanukkah.

As archaeologists continue to excavate the Givati site, they'll surely learn more about Jerusalem’s long, layered history—and maybe even solve other great riddles.

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