Israeli Archaeologists Unveil Hellenistic Fortress Destroyed by Jewish Forces in 112 B.C.E.

Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus I, a nephew of Maccabean Revolt leader Judah Maccabee, razed the fortified structure during his conquest of Idumea

Dig Site
The Seleucid fortress boasted stone walls measuring nearly ten inches thick. Israel Antiquities Authority / Saar Ganor

Every year, Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. According to the Talmud, the tradition dates back to the Maccabean Revolt (167 to 160 B.C.E.), in which Jewish rebels recaptured the Temple of Jerusalem from occupying Hellenistic forces and lit a candle that was only supposed to burn for one day. Instead, it lasted eight days.

Ahead of the holiday, which begins on November 28 this year, archaeologists in Israel have unveiled a small fortress destroyed by the nephew of the rebellion’s leader, Judah Maccabee, reports Rossella Tercatin for the Jerusalem Post. At a dig in the Lachish Forest, located about 40 miles southwest of Jerusalem, researchers with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) discovered charred wooden beams, weapons, pottery and coins from the fortified structure. Per Agence France-Presse (AFP), the structure’s stone walls measured nearly ten feet thick.

“The excavation site provides tangible evidence of the Hanukkah stories,” say excavation directors Saar Ganor, Vladik Lifshits and Ahinoam Montagu in a statement. “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.”

Hellenistic Fort Burned by the Hasmoneans Uncovered in Lachish Forest

During the Maccabean Revolt, Jews under the command of Judah (also known as Judas Maccabeus) rebelled against the occupying forces of the Seleucid Empire, a Hellenistic kingdom formed from lands once conquered by Alexander the Great. After successfully recapturing Jerusalem in 164, Judah briefly wielded power, only to die in battle in 160.

According to Haaretz’s Elon Gilad, Judah’s surviving brothers continued his fight against the Seleucids but eventually agreed to an unsteady peace. One sibling, Jonathan, was elected high priest of Jerusalem and enjoyed a relative amount of autonomy but was betrayed and murdered by a Seleucid general in 143. Simon, the last living brother, succeeded Jonathan, firmly establishing the rule of the so-called Hasmonean dynasty before his own assassination in 135.

Simon’s son John Hyrcanus I, who became king of Judea upon his father’s death, led the Hasmonean soldiers who destroyed the Seleucids’ seven-room, 2,422-square-foot fortress in the Lachish Forest, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz.

“Based on the finds and coins, the building’s destruction can be attributed to the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus’ conquest of the region of Idumea around 112 B.C.E.,” say the site directors in the statement

Archaeologists discovered many of the artifacts under a 20-inch layer of detritus. They removed thousands of stones that fell after the fortress was attacked, unearthing items including slingshots, iron weapons and coins.

Artifacts found at the site of the razed fortress Davida Eisenberg-Degen / Israel Antiquities Authority

“The impressive discoveries from the excavations in the Lachish region demonstrate the history of our great and wonderful land and the story of Hanukkah,” says Israeli housing and construction minister Zeev Elkin in the statement.

No human remains were discovered during the archaeological dig, leading experts to believe the fort was evacuated prior to the attack.

“Our theory is that the Seleucids blocked the entrance of the fortress and fled to the city as their enemies approached,” Montagu tells the Jerusalem Post. “As the Hasmoneans reached the structure, they set it on fire.”

She adds, “We uncovered only a few animal bones and a fragment of a sword. If a battle was fought here, there would have been a lot more remains, including human remains and artifacts.”

The fortress was first discovered a few years ago during a survey. Archaeologists are continuing the excavation in hopes of finding more artifacts. After the dig comes to a close, the building will undergo conservation and be opened to the public.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.