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In late 1995, not far from the city of Modi'in, whose construction had begun a short time earlier, several excavated burial caves were found. The find aroused tremendous excitement initially, mainly because on one of the ossuaries an engraved inscription was interpreted to read "Hasmonean." Had they found a burial plot belonging to the family of the Hasmoneans?

When the discovery was announced, the archaeologist digging there, Shimon Riklin, explained that this was not the grave built by Simon the son of Mattathias the Priest for his father and his brothers, which is described in the Book of Maccabees I. The use of ossuraies - stone containers for secondary burial, in which the bones of the dead who had been removed from their original burial place were placed - began in the second half of the first century BCE, more than a century after the beginning of the Hasmonean Revolt. However, the discovery reinforced the theory that the town of Modi'in, where the revolt broke out in 167 BCE, lay not far from the burial caves, in the area of the present-day Arab village of Midya.

A short time later, the excitement died down. A thorough examination made it clear that the word "Hasmonean" was not engraved on the ossuary. The settlement from which the Hasmoneans embarked on the revolt against the Seleucid ruler Antiochus is still waiting to be discovered, as is the burial plot in which Mattathias and his sons were buried.

New candidates for an old city

In the decade that has passed, two prominent candidates have joined the steadily lengthening list of locations that have been proposed as the site of ancient Modi'in. The most recent is Khirbet Umm al-Umdan, a site revealed in salvage digs conducted in 2001 by Alexander Onn and Shlomit Wexler-Bdolah of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in the area of the city of Modi'in, on a hill north of the road that connects it with Latrun.

Wexler-Bdolah and Onn propose that the site be identified as ancient Modi'in, because in their opinion, it best suits the information in the sources about the settlement in which the Priest Mattathias lived. According to ancient sources, Modi'in was a rural settlement that lay between the lowlands and the hills, alongside the main road linking Lod with Jerusalem.

"In our opinion, the settlement that we have excavated in Umm al-Umdan is a Jewish village. There are houses there separated by alleyways. It is not a large, planned urban settlement, but neither is it a lone house," says Wexler-Bdolah. "But the most important find is the synagogue we discovered in the village. The synagogue is one of the earliest ever built - it was constructed during the Hasmonean period, apparently toward the end of the second century BCE or at the beginning of the first century BCE, and it continued to be in use, with certain changes, until the Bar Kokhba Revolt [132 CE]. Next to it a mikveh [ritual bath] was built in the first century CE."

The synagogue is evidence that, in spite of its relatively modest dimensions, the settlement that was discovered at Umm al-Umdan was an important one, says Wexler-Bdolah. Its location, adjacent to an internal Roman road that led from Lod to Jerusalem, and the series of communities surrounding it - Beit Horon, Kfar Ruth, Tel Hadid, Anaba, Lydda-Diospolis, Emmaus-Nicopolis and Timna - also accord with the description of Modi'in on the Madaba map, a mosaic map located in Jordan, on which Modi'in is called Modita. Moreover, the name of the site, Umm al-Umdan, stems, in the opinion of Wexler-Bdolah, from letters in the Hebrew name Modi'in, making it the most suitable candidate for identification with the ancient city.

However, this is only a suggestion, not a certain conclusion. "Because we didn't find an inscription that specifically says that Modi'in was here, at the moment you could say that there is no better candidate for this role than Umm al-Umdan," she explains.

Huge settlement in modern Modi'in

Dr. Shimon Gibson, who conducted the excavations on behalf of the IAA in the area of modern Modi'in in the mid-1990s, when the momentum of construction and development in the area began, actually believes that he has a more worthy candidate. That would be Titura Hill, an archaeological site in the heart of modern Modi'in. In his opinion, one day we will discover that Titura Hill is a site of national importance. At the second Modi'in Conference - a one-day seminar scheduled to take place in the city tomorrow - Wexler-Bdolah and Gibson will present their reasons for identifying each of the sites with the ancient settlement.

At the top of Titura Hill a Crusader fortress was built, but in the excavations Gibson conducted with Egon Lass, he found the remains of settlements from many periods. The most ancient settlement was established there during the Iron Age - in the eighth century BCE - and the hill was populated in later periods as well.

Because an inscription declaring the identity of the site was not discovered on Titura Hill either, we can only rely on circumstantial evidence. Among such evidence, Gibson includes the dimensions of the settlement exposed there. "On Titura Hill there was a real city, Umm al-Umdan is only a village. During the Hasmonean period there was a huge settlement on Titura Hill. This fact is of importance, because the Hasmoneans tended to construct monumental buildings, out of a desire to prove their greatness."

Gibson, a fellow at the Albright Archaeological Institute, says that Titura Hill has another advantage in the competition: On a clear day you can see the sea from there. From Umm al-Umdan, as well as another site mentioned as possibly being Hasmonean Modi'in, this is not possible. This fact accords with the description in Maccabees I, chapter 13, about the burial plot built by Simon son of Mattathias for his family. According to the description, the burial structure was tall and impressive. It included seven small pyramids and large columns with attractive carving that the sailors could see as well. In other words, from the hill one could see the sea. According to a description written hundreds of years after the death of the Hasmoneans, the burial plot remained in place for a long time afterward. It is described in manuscripts from the Byzantine period, by historian Eusebius in the fourth century CE, and on the sixth-century Madaba map. Crusaders who came to the Land of Israel during the 12th and 13th centuries also reported seeing it. But about 400 years ago, the reports about the Hasmonean graves ended.

The search begins

The matter was pushed to the margins of awareness until the second part of the 19th century, when European archaeologists and scholars began to make an effort to locate the town of Modi'in and the graves. The first proposal was that of a French Franciscan monk, who believed that the name of the Arab village of Midya preserved the name Modi'in. Others considered Tel al-Ras, a hill with ancient ruins, not far from Midya, the site they were looking for. In about 1870, a French scholar proposed that the ancient structure near the gravesite of Sheikh al-Arabawi adjacent to Midya was the Hasmonean grave, but another Frenchman, Charles Clermont-Ganneau, rejected the suggestion. In the early 20th century, students from the Hebrew Gymnasia high school in Jerusalem were hiking in the area, and they came to a site called Kubur al-Yahud, Arabic for "the graves of the Jews." The place is still called "the graves of the Maccabees," even though it is clear that the structures there were constructed during the Byzantine period, long after Hasmonean times.

The location of the burial plot constructed by Simon the Hasmonean, and the town where the revolt began, have still not been identified with certainty. Wexler-Bdolah says Khirbet Umm al-Umdan is the site with the greatest likelihood of being ancient Modi'in, but she has doubts, too. Gibson believes that Titura Hill is ancient Modi'in. And he can explain why no traces have been found of the monumental construction of the burial plot or the public buildings on Titura Hill: The buildings were dismantled during a later period, and used to construct other structures, like the Crusader fortress on top of the hill.