In recent weeks the Israel Antiquities Authority and citizens have been conducting an unusual archaeological excavation in search of the real location of the Tomb of the Maccabees.
According to historical sources, the Maccabees – Matityahu the Hasmonean and his five sons, from the ancient city of Modi'in, led the uprising against the Greek Seleucids, who had been left to rule after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. The Maccabees also ritually cleansed the Second Temple after its profanation by the pagans.
There have long been legends that the Horbat Ha-Gardi site, located a short distance from the city of Modi‘in, may have been harboring the remains of the valiant Jewish warriors and whose name is associated with the Tomb of the Maccabees.
Bird's eye view of the Maccabees site
The Tomb of the Maccabees was described in the Book of the Maccabees and the Antiquities of the Jews, which was written by Josephus Flavius, a Romanized Jew. The tomb was described as overlooking the sea and as an impressive structure surrounded by columns. Built of fine stone, it is said to have had pyramidal roofs.
Horbat Ha-Gardi is close to the Arab village of Al-Midya. The similarity of the name of the village and that of ancient Modi‘in, attracted archaeologists and scholars 150 years ago and today.
Some excavations were undertaken at the site. One of these revealed an imposing mausoleum borne atop enormous pillars that supported huge stone slabs, above which was probably a second storey. Magnificent burial vaults were also discovered at the bottom of the structure. Some of the archaeologists of the time were ecstatic:
"Indeed, there is no room for doubt. I found the Tomb of the Maccabees and the tunnel I exposed held the ashes of Matityahu” said one, while another wrote, “The ruins of the tomb correspond perfectly to the Tomb of the Maccabees as described in the historical sources."
Charles Clermont-Ganneau's later excavations at the site revealed mosaics adorned with a cross in the floors of the burial vaults, and thus asserted that the site was Christian. The French archaeologist wrote "It is possible that this structure was built by the Christians so as to commemorate the burial place of the Holy Maccabees, since they were exalted saints in the eyes of Christianity. It is quite possible that in the future unequivocal evidence will be found indicating the site is the place where the Maccabees were buried.” Since then, the site was abandoned and has remained deserted.
View of Christian mosaic at the Maccabees site
The Israel Antiquities Authority recently embarked on solving the riddle once and for all, and using modern research methods.
In recent weeks, the magnificent mausoleum was re-excavated with the help of local residents from Modi‘in and the Hevel Modi‘in settlements. They have become an integral part of the professional team.
According to scholars Amit Re’em and Dan Shahar of the Israel Antiquities Authority stated, “There is no doubt that the structure that was uncovered is unusual. The descriptions from 150 years ago were revealed right here in front of our eyes, and we discovered the magnificent burial vaults, enormous pillars that apparently supported a second story, a forecourt that led to the tomb and other associated buildings. To our disappointment, the building seen by our predecessors had been robbed, and its stones were taken to construct settlements in the vicinity; nevertheless, the appearance of the place is impressive and stimulates the imagination."
"The archaeological evidence currently at hand is still insufficient to establish that this is the burial place of the Maccabees. If what we uncovered is not the Tomb of the Maccabees itself, then there is a high probability that this is the site that early Christianity identified as the royal funerary enclosure, and therefore, perhaps, erected the structure. Evidently one cannot rule out the assumptions of the past, but an excavation and a lot of hard work are still required in order to confirm that assumption unequivocally, and the riddle remains unsolved–the search for the elusive Tomb of the Maccabees continues."