An Alternative Hanukkah Tour of Israel: From Hasmonean Archaeology to Turtles

Six ideas for places to go and see where the Hanukkah spirit all began (or tastes like).

Man-made caves at Beit Guvrin-Maresha (Tzvika Tzuk)
Among the stunning man-made caves at Beit Guvrin-Maresha, one place you could visit on Hanukkah. Tzvika Tzuk

Here’s an idea for the intrepid reveler: This year, beyond celebrating one of Judaism’s happiest holidays by lighting candles, binging on sufganiyot and engaging gifts, why not head out on the road to discover the real roots of the holiday!

Hanukkah marks the prevailing of the Hasmonean dynasty, originating with the High Priest Mattathias, over the Hellenists - Greek Syrians who defiled the Temple in Jerusalem and sought to stamp out Judaism in their drive to Hellenize the empire. This 2nd century BCE clash of civilizations was acted out throughout Israel, just a short chariot drive from home.

Here are six ideas for Hanukkah exploration, ranging from the geohistorical to the gastronomic.

1. Matthias' home town, maybe

One of Israel’s fastest growing cities is Modi’in, named for Mattathias’ home town, which was allegedly somewhere in the vicinity. But where exactly? Perhaps it was Khirbet Umm al-Umdan, discovered in a salvage dig in 2001 but only now opened to the public,in a neighborhood of modern Mod’in. The archaeologists Alexander Onn and Shlomit Wexler-Bdolah found a late 2nd century BCE village that includes residential homes and alleyways; a round building that may have been a watchtower; wine presses and water cisterns; a ritual bath; and a synagogue that is one of the oldest in the world. Make your way to Modi’in, park at the lot on Reuven Street (don’t ask me, ask Waze) and walk down the footpath.

Khirbet Umm al-Umdan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

2. Watching giant turtles and thinking of empire: Nahal Alexander

You may say that watching the enormous soft-shelled turtles frolicking in the clean waters of the Alexander stream, a formerly polluted wasteland, does not seem like a quintessential Hanukkah activity. But then consider the namesake of this 32-kilometer long waterway, which wends its way from the Samarian heights near Nablus to the Mediterranean Sea at Michmoret, north of Netanya. Alexander Yannai, great-grandson of Mattathias and one of the more bloodthirsty Hasmonean kings, conquered the coastal area to the north of the stream and expanded the Jewish kingdom, not shying from massacring his fellow Jews. It is comforting to visit this now-tranquil area and to realize that the noble, primordial turtles have outlasted and outclassed the warmongering Yannai, also known as Alexander Jannaeus, about whom Chabad writes "The circumstances are surely tragic when the day a Jewish king dies is declared to be a holiday."  You can easily access Nahal Alexander via either of two exits on Route 4, at the Ruppin or HaOgen junctions.

A noble beast, the Nahal Alexander turtle.

3. Tel Maresha: Get down and dirty

Archaeology is the science of revealing the material culture of past civilizations. What better way to spend a few hours of your Hanukkah vacation than to get your hands dirty finding ancient pottery, coins and everyday objects in an actual excavation that takes place in an underground manmade cavern? Somewhat ironically, the dead culture you will be digging up is that of the Hellenistic Edomites who lived at Maresha (15 minutes south of 20th century Beit Shemesh). So who won? Us or them? Archaeological Seminars, the private company that operates the dig, can be reached at office@archesem.com or +972-2-5862011. The experience lasts about three hours, and includes an unforgettable cave crawl.

Among the 2,000+ caves carved out of the soft limestone at Beit Guvrin-Maresha. Photo: AP.

4. Tel Kedesh: If you can find it

When Judah Maccabee fell in battle, he was succeeded as leader of the revolt by his younger brother Jonathan, who went on to win a decisive battle against the Seleucid king Demetrius near this Roman city. Kedesh is one of the lesser-known gems in northern Israel, and to ensure that that remains the case, it is entirely devoid of tourism infrastructure – no signage, no information sheet, and no trash bins, either. It’s a mess. But that shouldn’t detract from the pleasures of discovering exquisite sarcophagi, mausoleums and one of Israel’s few Roman temples. The Roman ruins of Kedesh lie at the foot of an immense tel that begs additional excavation, though with Lebanon a couple of hundred meters away, the tel might be begging a while longer. If you go, prepare in advance for your quest: Google “Kedesh Roman city temple” and print out some informational literature. It is located along Route 899 on the road to Kibbutz Malkiya.

A temple at Tel Kedesh. Photo: AP.

5. The Banias, home of dancing goats

While up north, visit this beautiful bastion of Hellenism: spectacular ruins of the Greek temples tucked into the cliff face at Banias, an ancient city named for the resident demigod-of-choice, the half-man/half-goat Pan. Hellenistic paganism reached absurd heights here: See the odeon where the local faithful were entertained by – and worshiped – a troupe of dancing goats. And if you have an hour to spare, hike over to the “suspended trail” that cantilevers over Nahal Banias, the easternmost tributary of the Jordan River. This is also the place where the Syrian Greeks (the Seleucids) defeated the Egyptian Greeks (the Ptolemaids) in a decisive battle that put Antiochus and his dynasty into the driver's seat in israel, leading 30 years later to the Jewish Revolt.

A temple to the god Pan at the Banias. Photo: Gugganij, Wikimedia Commons.

6. Levinsky Market: Flavors of Hanukkah

Strangely, some readers couldn't care less about the clash of civilizations between Jews and Greeks, and are driven mainly by their salivary glands. For them, we recommend a Hanukkah-week visit to the Levinsky Market in southern Tel Aviv. It is a little known fact that in spite of their avowed abhorrence of all things Greek, Mattathias and his sons would often make furtive sorties to Pinso or Eema for their exquisite Grecian cheese bourekas.

Selling nuts and dried fruits at Levinski. Photo: AP.

And this is a boureka.

A boureka, actually usually known here as a "Turkish boureka". Photo: Eyal Toueg.