Israeli Archaeologists Find Hellenistic Stronghold Enthusiastically Destroyed by the Hasmoneans

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Remnants of the Hellenistic stronghold in central Israel destroyed by the Hasmoneans in 112 B.C.E.
Remnants of the Hellenistic stronghold in central Israel destroyed by the Hasmoneans in 112 B.C.E.Credit: Emil Aljam / Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the heart of central Israel lies the ancient city of Maresha. Going back at least 2,800 years, the city is in the middle of the territory purportedly promised by Yahweh to the children of Judah, and is famed partly because of its multiple biblical mentions and mainly because of its extraordinary subterranean domain: thousands of cavities carved out of the soft limestone bedrock during the Hellenistic phase of its existence. Even dovecotes were built underground.

First excavated over a century ago by the famed team of F.J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister, Maresha is still capable of surprises. Now archaeologists say they’ve found the ruins of a stronghold on a hilltop 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the city itself, which they believe was destroyed, utterly and completely, by the raging Judean forces en route to conquering Maresha under the command of the Hasmonean king and high priest John Hyrcanus in 112 B.C.E.

“The ash in the destruction layer is half a meter thick,” says Saar Ganor, co-director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, adding that he has never seen anything like this.

Before being burned to the ground, this stronghold was not small. It was 225 square meters large (2,422 square feet), rose two stories to possibly 5 meters high, and the interior was divided into seven rooms.

It was built to be formidable. The outer stone walls were 3 meters thick, and the building featured a sloping glacis, or outer bank.

Of course the second story is long gone, but the archaeologists found the staircase leading to it, the Israel Antiquities Authority explained when announcing the discovery on Tuesday.

Another look at the destroyed stronghold.Credit: Saar Ganor / Israel Antiquities Authority

Promised to Judah

Yahweh promised Maresha to the children of Judah, according to the Book of Joshua (chapter 15), and the second Book of Chronicles names it as one of 15 cities to be built and fortified by King Solomon’s son King Rehoboam, according to Josephus (“Antiquities of the Jews,” Book 8, Chapter 10. Also on the list are Lachish and Bethlehem).

Josephus also describes how nearly 3,000 years ago an Ethiopian army under King Zerah the Nubian reached as far north as Maresha before being trounced by the righteous Asa, king of Jerusalem, at the head of a reportedly vast army in the Battle of Zephath.

“And there came out against them Zerah the Ethiopian with an army of a thousand thousand, and three hundred chariots; and he came unto Mareshah.” (2 Chronicles 14:8)

The Hasmoneans, the Maccabees, were so destructive they left half a meter of ash.Credit: Saar Ganor / Israel Antiquities Authority

Even if it was originally Judahite, and even if it really housed the zealous prophet Micah (a contemporary of Jerusalem-based Isaiah), by about 2,300 years ago Maresha had become Hellenistic, peopled by a mix of locals including descendants of Macedonian soldiers. It was dominated by Idumeans, who were descendants of the Edomites.

It bears adding that for all the shade thrown at them by the Bible, some suspect they were a type of Jewish community, worshipping the same god. Testimony to the city’s Hellenistic character appeared in previous excavations, which found more than a thousand seal impressions featuring Greek gods, symbols and erotica. This was found in an underground closet carved into the bedrock. The seals thought to have been on papyri are long gone.

And then came the Maccabean Jewish rebellion against the Hellenistic Seleucid regime, starting in about 167 B.C.E., following anti-Jewish decrees by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Antiochus IV didn’t rule the Seleucid domain for long; from 175 B.C.E. until 164 B.C.E., when he died. But during that time he held sway over Judea and was not loved.

During an abortive campaign to capture Egypt, Antiochus (whom some contemporaries suspected was barking mad) heard about an uprising in Judea that he believed was a full-blown rebellion. As the second Book of Maccabees describes it, he vowed to turn Jerusalem into “a cemetery of Jews” in retaliation. He issued onerous anti-Jewish decrees and ordered that Zeus be adored in the Temple, the Book of Maccabees says.

Some of the artifacts found at the site.Credit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen

Ultimately, a couple of decades after the abortive Maccabean Revolt, internal strife among the Seleucids and their conflicts with Rome would create the opportunity for the rise of the Hasmonean kingdom in about 140 B.C.E., and in about a year the Hasmoneans gained control of Jerusalem.

Maresha was the biggest city in the area, strategically located, Ganor explains, and as the Hasmoneans gained power and spread south, their forces set out to seize Maresha from the Hellenistic overlords. Now the archaeologists believe they have uncovered a destroyed fort from that time.

The true Maresha

It can be difficult to link specific archaeological sites in Israel to tales in the Bible, Josephus’ writings or other historical sources. The location of ancient Jerusalem is not disputed; the location of the “true” Bethsaida has unleashed quite the quarrel, for instance. Maresha is one city that has been definitively identified based on that rarest of archaeological finds, an inscription naming the place.

In short, Maresha was important, and thus it came to pass, Ganor notes, that the Hellenistic rulers didn’t just build a wall around it. They erected a whole fortified line of towers and walls to protect the city from the Hasmoneans spreading south. It didn’t work.

A blade found at the site.Credit: Saar Ganor / Israel Antiquities Authority

The crushed stronghold seems to have been part of that fortified line, 6 kilometers from Maresha as the vulture flies. “You can see Maresha from here,” Ganor says. “In 112 B.C.E., the forces under John Hyrcanus arrived, conquered the city, and I’m now standing in a building that was totally destroyed.”

Embedded in the ash were a wealth of archaeological finds, from half-burned roof timbers to pottery to weapons, as well as stone equipment such as flour-grinding wheels – and coins, which were crucial to dating the site.

The archaeologists also found slingshot stones – spherical shapes distinguishable from river pebbles because they had been worked to comfortably fit in the palm of one’s hand, Ganor adds.

And at the end the day, the Seleucids lost that stronghold to the Hasmoneans, who didn’t knock on the door, they destroyed it to such a degree that today we find half a meter of ash. That's a lot.

Another look at the ash, a sign of the Hasmoneans' wrath.Credit: Saar Ganor / Israel Antiquities Authority

There is one jarring note in Josephus’ narrative of Maresha, Ganor says. In his book “Antiquities of the Jews,” Josephus writes that John Hyrcanus forcibly converted the city’s people to Judaism, but leaving aside that he allegedly razed the city in his zeal, Jews don’t do that. They don’t set out to convert the heathen. No missionaries.

Again, some scholars suggest the Idumeans were a type of Jewish community, and that any conversion might have been more cultural rather than religious. When John Hyrcanus came to Hellenistic Maresha, he may have caused much destruction but left the Yahweh-worshipping Idumean villagers in peace. And they seem to have slogged on, under Hasmonean rule, until in 40 B.C.E the city was destroyed once and for all by Parthians invading from what is today Iran.

Survivors moved next door to Beit Guvrin, which the Romans would call Eleutherpolis, and Maresha would be left forever ruined and bereft, at least until the archaeologists showed up.

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