Hasmonean Jerusalem

The defilement of the Temple by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV "Epiphanes" of Syria hardened the resolve of the Jews. Fired by the apocalyptic book of Daniel, loyal Jews came alive. In 167 BC resistance broke into open rebellion. One day a group of Syrian soldiers came to the hamlet of Modein, near Lod, a day's journey northwest of Jerusalem. As was their custom upon entering a new town, they built an altar to force reluctant Jews to publicly demonstrate their loyalty to Zeus and the self-declared "living god," Antiochus.

Living in Modein was a dedicated family of priests known as the Hasmoneans, led by the aged Mattathias. When the Syrian soldiers gathered the Jews into the center of town, one Jew accepted the call to come forward and prostrate himself before the pagan altar they built. Mattathias stepped forward and killed the Jew as he was about to pay homage. He called out, "Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!" (1 Maccabees 2:27), he and his followers fled into the hills to launch guerrilla warfare against Antiochus.

For three years Mattathias and his five sons led the Jews in battle against the Syrians. Mattathias soon died, but his eldest son Judah, known as the Maccabee ("hammerer" or "extinguisher"), a nickname that was eventually applied to all heroes of the rebellion, took his place. Assisted by the ultra-orthodox and extreme nationalistic Hasidim ("pious ones"), and an army of 6,000, Judah launched an offensive against Syrian positions:

"Coming unexpectedly upon towns and villages, Judah set them on fire. He captured strategic positions, and put to flight a large number of the enemy. He preferred the nights...for such attacks. Soon the fame of his valor spread everywhere." (2 Maccabbes 8:6-7)

Finally, the tide turned in favor of the revolutionaries when Antiochus overextended his army to other battle fronts and ran into economic problems. After winning many smaller victories, the Hasmoneans/Maccabees waged their most important battle: the fight for Jerusalem.

With the attention of the Syrian leadership drawn elsewhere, the Maccabes seized an opportunity to make a truce with their enemy. With Jerusalem under their control, they stormed the Temple and destroyed the statue of Zeus. They dismantled the Greek altar, cleaned out the halls and courtyards and rededicated the Temple to God. Legend has it that when they began cleaning out the desecrated Temple they discovered a small cruse of consecrated olive oil, but only enough to burn for one day. The small amount of oil was lit. Miraculously it burned for eight days and nights, the flame going out only when fresh jars of oil were brought into the Temple.

Out of this miracle came the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah ("rededication"), celebrated for eight days in December (Hebrew month of Kislev). It commemorates the ritual cleansing of the Temple by the Maccabees in December 164 BC. Also called the Festival of Lights, one candle in an eight-branched Menorah (hanukkiyah) is lit each successive evening in remembrance of the legend. History itself threatened to end the celebration; the rededicated Temple was destroyed some 200 years later. But the Hanukkah festival survived and is observed even to this day.

Hasmonean era

Antiochus died in 163 BC in a battle against the Parthians; he was succeeded by his young son Antiochus V Eupator. However, the Jewish the struggle for political and religious freedom continued. The period following the Persecution Era under Antiochus Epiphanes became known as the Hasmonean era.

In 162 BC Judah's brother Eleazar was killed in battle at Beth-zechariah. In the name of Antiochus V, anti-Jewish decrees were issued in Jerusalem, and the high priest Menelaus was executed. In 161 BC Judah dispatched a delegation to sign a treaty of friendship with Rome.

In 160 BC the Maccabees were defeated by Bacchides at the battle of Elasa and Judah was killed. However, his brother Jonathan became high priest and captured the old Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Gaza. Jonathan was later captured and killed by the Syrians. The eldest Maccabee brother, Johanan was murdered.

Simon, the last of the brothers, subdued the northern port of Acre (New Testament Ptolemais; modern Akko) and was appointed hereditary high priest (140 BC). Simon was murdered by his son-in-law in 135 BC and was succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus (ruled 134-104 BC). The Syrian ruler, Antiochus VII invaded Judea and laid siege to Jerusalem. To forestall the danger of famine during a water shortage, Hyrcanus expelled all the people of the city except the fighting men. Many died and the survivors were finally readmitted in time for the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn. During a week's truce Hyrcanus sued for peace. He paid tribute, turned over hostages and demolished the city's defenses, whereupon the siege was lifted.

A period of prosperity followed during which time Hyrcanus gained control of Samaria and the Jezreel Valley to the north, and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim in Shechem, a rival to the Temple in Jerusalem. He also gained control of Idumea, the desert region south of Judea, and forcibly converted (mandatory circumcision of men) its people to Judaism to gain their loyalty. As for Jerusalem, he rebuilt the walls dismantled during the siege by Antiochus and, according to Josephus, built a tower or fortress, called "Baris," at the northwest corner of the Temple enclosure.

During this time three religious groups formed: Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. While all three claimed loyalty to the Torah, each took different stances.

The Hasmonean empire reached its greatest extent under Alexander Janneus (103-76 BC). However, he openly flaunted the despised Hellenism that his ancestors fought so hard to eradicate. During a celebration of the Feast of the Tabernacles he conducted at the Temple in his capacity as high priest, he was pelted with lemons by the Pharisees, who called him unfit for office. 6,000 died. A nine-year rebellion resulted in another 50,000 deaths. It ended with the crucifixion of 800 Pharisee leaders at a public banquet attended by Janneus and his concubines.

In 76 BC, the kingdom passed to Janneus' long-suffering wife, Salome Alexandra. She made peace with the Pharisees. An era of prosperity ensued, but it did not last long. After nine years of rule, the queen died and her son, the high priest John Hyrcanus II, assumed leadership of Judea. After a troubled reign of three months, his brother Aristobulus II drove him from power. Hyrcanus sought counsel from Antipater, governor of Idumea (south of Judea, between the Dead Sea and Gaza). Antipater was not a Jew; he was an Edomite, an Arab whose people had been conquered and forcibly converted by Hyrcanus' grandfather John Hyrcanus I. Seeing the weak-willed Hyrcanus as a possible tool for his own desire to control Judea, Antipater induced him to wage war on Aristobulus. After a brutal struggle, the two brothers appealed for help. Recalling a friendship treaty with Rome they asked the great general Pompey to act as arbitrator. It was just the kind of situation that the Romans, the new masters of the world, were seeking.

In 63 BC Pompey led his legions to Jerusalem. After a three-month siege, he seized the city, massacring anyone who stood in his path, including the Temple priests, who continued their sacrifices even as the battle waged around them. Pompey left the Temple treasury untouched but he was determined to see for himself what the Jews really worshiped. It was widely known that the Jews would not honor any of the Roman gods, but there was some mystery about the nature of their God. He had to find out for himself. So he made his way up the hill on which the Temple stood and crossed the surrounding courtyard. Passing through the great doors and through the outer hall, he found himself in a long room, shut off by a curtain from a secret room on the far end — the sanctuary of the Jewish God. And as he walked toward it, with only the sound of his own footprints, he could feel a sense of awe. What lay beyond those curtains? Was it some strange animal image or a cult stand aglow with flame? Pompey swept back the curtains hiding the Most Holy Place, accessible only to the high priest once a year, and gazed in. He saw nothing, only bare walls. This was the secret of the Jews. No wonder they made a mystery of it; no one had seen the object of their worship because their was nothing to see. But the damage had been done. in the eyes of pious Jews, Pompey was an abomination.

Pompey divided up the Hasmonean empire, restored Hyrcanus to the high priesthood and named him ethnarch ("ruler of the people"), but not king, with limited powers over a territory that included Judea, southern Samaria, Galilee and Perea (east of the Jordan River). Thousands of Jewish war prisoners were packed into ships bound for Rome. The independence of Palestine was over...

Hasmonean Jerusalem

The Hasmonean period in Jerusalem was generally prosperous. The city occupied an area 165 acres, and was inhabited by some 30,000-35,000 people. Once again the city expanded to the area of the western hill, which had remained empty for over 400 years.

Sites and archaeological discoveries related to Hasmonean Jerusalem

The Hasmoneans fortified the city as far west as the present Jaffa Gate, often using existing walls and wall lines, repairing sections where necessary. Their wall contained 60 towers, one of which forms the base of the present Tower of David (right) in the Citadel, adjacent to the Jaffa Gate on the west side of today's Old City. The name Tower of David dates to the Middle Ages, when Christian pilgrims, awed by the imposing ruins, mistakenly attributed them to Israel's most illustrious king. 

Additionally, inside the Citadel (left), archaeological excavations have revealed a segment of the western wall of Hasmonean Jerusalem. Note the wall remnant in the right-hand corner.



In the northern part of the Jewish Quarter, beneath a modern apartment block, are the remains of yet another Hasmonean tower, built adjacent to an earlier (7th century BC) tower that had defended the city against the Babylonians; these two towers then functioned as a unit. To the west, more than 160 feet of the Hasmonean-era wall has also been traced.

The remains of two more Hamonean towers can be seen in the excavations of the City of David, south of the Temple Mount. They flank the old Jebusite-era "Stepped-Stone Structure" seen earlier.

Hasmonean-era tombs

Carved into the rock slope at the foot of the Mount of Olives, on the eastern side of the Kidron Valley, are a number of tombs dating to the Hasmonean period: The structure with two columns (left side of photo) is popularly called the Tomb of St. James from a tradition that St. James took refuge here during the period between Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection, and was later buried here. However, an inscription, in square Hebrew script, carved on the beam above the pair of columns identifies the deceased as the Bene Hezir (sons of Hezir) — three generations of a family of priests during the Hasmonean period. (The name Hezir is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 24:15 as a priest at the time of David; and in Nehemiah 10:20 as one of the heads of the people who sealed a covenant with Nehemiah).

The structure carved out of the bedrock to the south is popularly, but mistakenly, known as Zechariah's Tomb (right in above photo). It too dates to the Hasmonean era. Several people in the Bible bore the name Zechariah, including a king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and one of the so-called minor prophets. Its form reflects the influence of Hellenism when art was a blend of styles from the different lands settled by the Greeks, with a pyramid-shaped roof suggesting Egyptian influence and a Greek-style portico with classic columns. Both these tombs predate the time of Jesus, and would have been seen by him as he walked through the Kidron Valley heading for Gethsemane.

Hasmonean improvements to the city's water supply

Among the most exciting changes that occurred during the Hasmonean era involved the city's water supply. The Hasmonean rulers brought water in from a new source, from several springs rising in the hills south of Bethlehem. Two aqueducts were constructed along the contour of the hills so gravity could carry the water a distance of more than 45 miles to the Temple Mount (a direct line would have been only 15 miles). The so-called Lower Aqueduct carried the water from three large storage reservoirs known incorrectly as Solomon's Pools, about 2.5 miles south of Bethlehem.

Solomon's Pools were made of stone and masonry and each pool is about 525 feet long by 164 feet wide and 65 feet deep. The three cisterns are carved in rock, approximately 160 feet apart with at a total length of about a third of a mile, extending east to west. They were constructed in steps, each 19 feet above the next. Four different springs fed the pools, the most prominent with the name Ein Aran or Etam. Why they were called "Solomon's Pools" is not clear. According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the area was one of Solomon's favorite places: "Now there was a certain spot eight miles distant from Jerusalem which is called Etam, delightful for, and abounding in, parks and flowing streams, and to this place he would make excursions, mounted high on his chariot." Almost certainly the pools date from a later time. But the name of Solomon came to be associated with them, possibly because of Ecclesiastes 2:5-6: "I [Solomon] made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees." An Arab traveler mentioned them as the Pools of al-Marji (or "return"), which, according to legend, is the place where the brothers of Joseph are thought to have returned after they dropped him in the well (see Genesis 37).

The Romans kept the pools and aqueducts in good working order, as did the Ottoman Turks, who built a fortress known as Murad's Citadel or Qalat al-Buraq ("Fortress of the Pools") in the 17th century AD to protect them (it can be seen opposite the upper pool). At times it served as a khan, a resting place for caravans, and a restaurant. Later, the British installed a pumping station to increase transport efficiency. The pools continued to supply water to East Jerusalem until the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967.

Right, the drained
lower pool.

As part of the ongoing Bethlehem 2000 Project, renovation work was carried out on the  pools and the old Ottoman fortress. A conference center and crafts center were built.

The Baris

Northwest of the Temple compound was a large fortress known as the Baris (Greek) or Birah (Hebrew) frequently mentioned in various early descriptions of Jerusalem. Originally, it was probably built by the exiles returning from Babylon in the 6th century BC, and is possibly the "citadel" (NIV) or "palace" (KJV) referenced in Nehemiah 2:8:

"And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king's forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple..."

The Baris guarded the vulnerable north side of the city, the only side not protected by steep-sided valleys. During the Hasmonean period it was strengthened and rebuilt and used as a royal palace as well as a fort. When Herod extended the Temple Mount northward in the 1st century BC, he completely destroyed the Baris, replacing it with the even larger Antonia Fortress.

The remains of the Baris, consisting of a pair of 12-foot-wide foundation trenches, were discovered during archaeological excavations initiated by Israel's Ministry of Religious Affairs in order to uncover the underground stone courses of the Temple Mount north of the "Western Wall." This created the "Western Wall Tunnel." Between 1968 and 1982, and again from 1985 to the present, over 900 feet of the giant stones of the Herodian-era wall have been uncovered. As a bonus, excavations also uncovered a Hasmonean aqueduct (right) used to carry large quantities of water needed to clean the altar area of the Temple where priests slaughtered sacrifices.

The "Western Wall Tunnel" emerges onto the Via Dolorosa, near the First and Second Stations of the Cross, not far from the Lions/St. Stephen's Gate. It is literally a time tunnel, transporting visitors back through earlier eras of Jerusalem's history, where one can see artifacts and touch stones hidden for over two thousand years.

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