The Construction Work That Triggered the Bar Kokhba Revolt

What can coins minted by the rebels and Jerusalem’s Roman rulers tell us about the chain of events that eventually led to today’s Lag Ba’omer bonfires?

Emil Salman

The failed Bar Kokhba revolt, which is marked today by Jews around the world with the holiday of Lag Ba’omer, itself celebrated with bonfires, was one of the most traumatic events in the history of the Jewish people, a history with no shortage of traumatic events. As a result of the revolt the Jewish community in Judea was eliminated, the Roman province of Judea became the province of Palestine and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem.

Ongoing archaeological excavations in Jerusalem’s Old City are helping us to solve one of the most interesting questions in Jewish history: What triggered the revolt, which began in 132 C.E., 62 years after the Great Revolt that ended in defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem?

The geopolitical situation during the Bar Kokhba period was even worse than during the period of the Great Revolt, and the rebellion against the Romans was clearly a desperate, if not suicidal, act. In fact, the revolt did end in defeat for the Jews and tremendous destruction.

During the revolt the Roman government was involved in a huge construction project in Palestine – the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina.

There are two basic historiographic approaches to the link between the founding of Aelia Capitolina on the ruins of Jerusalem and the Bar Kokhba revolt.

According to the second-century Roman historian Lucius Cassius Dio, the construction of the city, with a temple to the god Jupiter in the center, was itself the spark that ignited the rebellion: The Jewish extremists could not tolerate the fact that a pagan Roman city was being built on the ruins of Jerusalem.

But the fourth-century historian Eusebius, who served as the bishop of Caesarea before turning his hand to writing history, argued that Aelia Capitolina was a result of the revolt — part of the Roman Empire’s punishment for its outbreak — not the cause.

“There was a chicken-and-egg debate here,” says Israeli archaeologist Shlomit Wexler-Bedolah, “What came first and what led to what – the revolt to the construction of the city, or the construction of the city to the revolt.”

Since the days of Cassius Dio and Eusebius, rivers of ink have been spilled on the debate. In recent years Wexler-Bedolah and the late. Alexander Onn conducted several excavations in the area of the Western Wall. The excavations, done on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and financed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, helped to provide a precise date for the construction of Aelia Capitolina.

Wexler-Bedolah’s conclusion is that the construction work on the new city began at least several years before the outbreak of the revolt. In other words, it is quite possible that the excuse for the rebellion was the sight of the laborers rebuilding Jerusalem as a pagan city.

The dating of the city’s construction was made possible by coins discovered beneath the layer of paving stones in the city and findings from a pile of trash, apparently from the Roman military camp in the city. This dating confirms an earlier study by Hanan Eshel and Boaz Zisu, which discovered hoards of coins from the Judean Desert that included both coins minted by the rebels and coins from Aelia Capitolina. But this is the first time that dating is based on excavations inside Jerusalem itself.

The largest dig was conducted in recent years in the back part of the Western Wall plaza, on the site where there are plans to build the main building, an office building and a Western Wall Heritage Foundation museum. At the site they discovered a magnificent paved Roman street, which was one of the main streets of the city.

Also discovered during the dig was the fact that the Romans invested considerable effort into adapting the surface area of Jerusalem to the format of the Roman city – efforts that included the demolition of existing buildings and quarrying deep into the bedrock. That means it took the Romans several years to level the area and to quarry stones before they began actually building the city.

“If there were Second-Temple buildings still standing after the destruction, the Romans destroyed everything that remained,” says Wexler-Bedolah. “It appears that the construction work was prolonged and thorough, our findings indicate that the work began no later than the first quarter of the second century.”

Another conclusion from the excavations is that even in the new city the Temple Mount remained an important center. That is why it is increasingly likely that the city’s main temple, honoring Jupiter Capitolinus, was built on the ruins of the Second Temple. In that case, there is a greater chance that the construction was the spark that ignited the revolt.

Another important date in this period was the visit to Palestine by the Emperor Hadrian in 129-130. Many scholars connected the visit with the decision to build Jerusalem. But Wexler-Bedolah believes the quarrying and the laying of the city’s foundations began much earlier. “Hadrian comes to power in 117-118, we suggest that already when he came to power he decided to establish a city, unrelated to the visit.

An expert on the Roman period in Jerusalem, Prof. Yoram Tsafrir of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, suggests a somewhat different interpretation for the sequence of events, which combines the two approaches. He suggests that Hadrian “didn’t plan to build a new city called Aelia Capitolina. Perhaps he planned to rebuild Jerusalem, without changing its name. He didn’t even exclude the possibility that the Jews would thank him for building Jerusalem. But when the work begins, and it’s clear to the Jews that they’re building a city with a Hellenistic façade and temples to Jupiter, then the extremists incite the revolt. Changing Jerusalem’s name was already part of the retaliation for the revolt, as was the change in the name of the province.”