Archaeologists have solved a lot of Jerusalem's mysteries over the last 100 years: They know where exactly the boundaries of the city lay at different times, where the main streets ran and where the monumental buildings were.
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But one mystery remained unanswered – the precise location of the Akra, a Hellenistic citadel erected in the heart of Jerusalem by the Seleucid conquerors, after they first destroyed the city in 168 BCE.
The fortified compound was torn down by the Maccabee rebels in the 2nd century BCE. Not a recognizable stone was left standing – but in recent months, excavations in the Givati parking lot in Silwan, the City of David, has found remains of fortifications, weapons, ceramics and coins from the Hellenistic era. Based on these, the Israel Antiquities Authority researchers postulate that Epiphanes' lost compound in Jerusalem has been found.
Simon the Maccabee conquers
The compound was built by Antiochus Epiphanes IV, king of the Seleucids, in 167 BCE.
When the Hasmoneans triumphed against the Seleucids, claimed Jerusalem, and ritually purified the Temple, it was only a partial triumph, as the citadel remained un-won.
The stronghold stayed sticking like a bone in Hasmonean Jerusalem's throat. Judah the Maccabee tried to conquer it, but he failed. So did his heirs Yohanan and Jonathan.
Finally Simon the Maccabee managed to conquer the stronghold, on the 23rd day of Iyar, in the year 141 BCE, which has gone down in Jewish tradition as a day of rejoicing.
Josephus tells the story
According to the sources, the Akra citadel was peopled by a Seleucid garrison with Hellenized Jews who supported the Seleucid rulers.
Simon razed the citadel, the sources say. Over the centuries, the difficulty in finding its remains was exacerbated by the fact that King Herod built his large, Second Temple period Jerusalem on top of the small Hasmonean city. Almost nothing of the Hasmonean city remains.
Texts by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius provide two clues as to the site of the Akra:
"and when he had overthrown the city walls, [Epiphanes] built a citadel [Greek: Acra] in the lower part of the city, for the place was high, and overlooked the temple; on which account he fortified it with high walls and towers, and put into it a garrison of Macedonians. However, in that citadel dwelt the impious and wicked part of the multitude, from whom it proved that the citizens suffered many and sore calamities."
So, it was in the "lower part of the city" but still at a site that was "high, and overlooked the temple." The Jerusalem archaeologists based the search on that and – and claimed to have found it practically everywhere around Temple Mount. Theories abounded. Some thought it was within today's Temple Mount itself, or in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, and so on and so forth.
After oceans of ink had been fruitlessly used up on the subject, one man, a historian, not an archaeologist, Bezalel Bar Kochba, suggested in the 1980s that the citadel lay in the City of David. And so it does.
The finds the IAA presented today from the dig in the Givati parking lot, across the street from the entrance to the city of David national park, are from the citadel, the authority claims. Other researchers who saw the finds confirm with high probability that the ancient mystery has been solved.
The most important finds are parts of the fortification walls and a section of watchtower measuring four meters by 20. The dig also uncovered remains of the steep artificial slope designed to frustrate attackers.
A wealth of artifacts was also found, including dozens of coins dating, based on the names of the kings they bear, exactly to the period of the Akra's existence. Arrowheads made of bronze and sling-stones made of lead characteristic of the Seleucid army were found, as were 200 handles of the large amphora jars used to store wine. The handles bear seals attesting that the jars had been imported from Rhodes, which would be appropriate for a non-Jewish population living in the heart of Hasmonean Jerusalem. Like the coins, the handles date exactly to the era of the citadel's activity.
The location of the Seleucid stronghold smack in the center of the City of David ostensibly contradicts Josephus' theory that it overlooked Temple Mount. The City of David is lower than the Mount today – but Josephus knew Herodian Jerusalem, which was 200 years after the citadel had been destroyed.
The Givati parking lot excavation is the biggest in Jerusalem, and has been ongoing for ten years now, under the direction of Doron Ben Ami of Hebrew University and Yana Tchekhanovets of the IAA. Over the years, discoveries from different periods have come to light, including mikvas from the Second Temple period, a large house from the Roman era, gold treasure from the Byzantine time and a bakery from the Muslim era. The dig is financed by the Elad association.
"Simon the Hasmonean tore the citadel to the ground, so it was always clear there was no chance of finding any of it," says Ben Ami. "But we got lucky and have a very strong foundation to claim that we have found it." The excavation has had many high emotional points but this had a whole other value, Ben Ami adds.
Based on the findings, Ben Ami suggests that another wall, found years ago on the other side of the City of David, was part of the citadel fortifications. If that theory is right, and it indeed marks the other side of the citadel, then the Maccabees' reign in Jerusalem – at least until they tore the stronghold down – was very limited, as between the city itself and the Temple was a great hulking enemy stronghold.