A descendant of Greek rulers including Alexander IV of Macedon and Seleucus I Nicator, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruled the Land of Israel with an iron fist. In contrast to his father and predecessor, Antiochus III, who had treated the Jews of Israel in a benign manner, Antiochus IV forbade the study of the Torah and many additional aspects of traditional Jewish life. Recent excavations have uncovered a veritable treasure trove of knowledge regarding Antiochus and his citadel. While the Jewish rebellion that began in the year 168 BCE under Judah Maccabee, and the Maccabees’ miraculous triumph, tell an inspiring story, Antiochus’s military stronghold provides a fascinating tale in its own right.
Antiochus IV erected a fortress known as the Acra, and used it during his siege of Jerusalem. This fortress, mentioned both in the Book of Maccabees and by the historian Flavius Josephus, eventually fell to Shimon Maccabee, Judah’s brother. The fortress’s location allowed the Acra to control all approaches to the Temple. It also cut off the Temple from southern Jerusalem. Antiochus’s strategic placement of the Acra is consistent with what we know to be the Selucid Greek’s broader goal: the imposition of Hellenistic culture to replace Judaism. Antiochus IV’s efforts at Hellenization included the placement of Greek pagan idols in the Temple itself and the abolition of Temple sacrifices. He also banned three specific practices that undergird the Jewish worldview: the Sabbath, the weekly Jewish day of rest; the celebration of the Jewish New Month; and circumcision.
Ruins of the Acra were excavated in November 2015, after over a century of searches by archaeologists. Evidence of the fortress’s existence included “…a section of a massive wall, a tower of impressive dimensions (width about 12 ft, length 60 ft, estimated height 54 ft.) and a slanted slope which was built next to the wall, a defensive element made of layers of earth, stone and stucco, designed to keep attackers from the base of the wall. The slope came down to the Tyropoeon ravine that split the city in ancient times, which was an additional obstacle in defending the fort.” (1)
At the site, archaeologists found numerous weapons, including ballista stones imprinted with pitchforks (Antiochus’s symbol), bronze arrowheads, a catapult, and lead sling stones. A cache of coins dated between the reigns of Antiochus IV and Antiochus VII was uncovered there, as well. According to researchers involved, the coins and “…the large number of wine jars (amphorae) that were imported form the Aegean region to Jerusalem and were found at the site bear witness to the citadel’s age, as well as to the non-Jewish identity of its inhabitants.” (2)
What lessons can we take from the unearthing of the Chanukah villain’s ancient stronghold? Perhaps this discovery can fortify our faith in the enduring nature of the Jewish People. Antiochus and his ilk had it all: wealth, power, and the most advanced weaponry that the old world had to offer. Yet, they did not realize that their society was indeed ancient, and that the very people whom they struggled to subjugate would, one day, be found picking through their artifacts. More importantly, the Jewish People would still be living by their timeless Torah long after the demise of the mighty Greek Empire. Despite the Greeks’ seemingly indomitable military and cultural machine, they were brought down by a fiercely dedicated band of Jews who resisted Greek influence with all of the strength that they could muster.
Our continued survival is the greatest miracle that G-d has ever performed for the Jewish People. We will continue to thrive and to reach heavenward, come what may, like the burning wicks that we kindle nightly at this very special time of year.
1. "Ancient Mystery Solved: Hellenistic Citadel that Restricted Jewish Rule in Hasmonean Jerusalem", The Jewish Press. http://www.jewishpress.com/news/israel/jerusalem/ancient-mystery-solved-hellenistic-citadel-that-restricted-jewish-rule-in-hasmonean-jerusalem/2015/11/03/0/?print
2. "The History and Archaeology of Chanukah," Jewish Home LA. https://jewishhomela.com/2015/12/09/the-history-and-archaeology-of-chanukah/