We all know the Chanukah story of how the Maccabees beat the Greeks, but where did it actually happen? Do we know where in Israel these Jewish heroes lived and died?
Most Jewish historians agree that Modiin was the hometown of the Maccabees, the family of Mattathias, the High Priest from the Hasmonean family. This was a Jewish village at that time and many contemporary accounts identify Modiin as the starting point of the Maccabees rebellion against King Antiochus in 164 BCE.
Excavations have been carried out in recent years at site known in Arabic as Umm el-‘Umdan (Arabic for “Mother of Columns”) near the site of the modern city of Modiin. They discovered a previously unknown synagogue dating back to the reign of King Herod, which includes eight large stone columns, which explains the Arabic name for the village. However, King Herod came to power after the fall of the Maccabees, so the archeologists kept digging!
Beneath the Herodian synagogue they found the remains of a smaller synagogue which probably stood during the period of the Hasmonean dynasty, and underneath that they found an earlier building dating back to the late second century BCE – the time of the Maccabean revolt.
Near Modiin there is a site known as the Maccabean Graves, between Shilat Junction and the Ben Shemen Forest on Route 443. Although there is a tradition that this is where Mattathias and his five sons were buried, the tombs here probably date from about 500 years later than the Maccabean Revolt. The Arabic name of the site is Kubur al Yehud, which means the tombs of the Jews, but that does not prove which Jews were buried here!
Another site in the area is called the Yohanan Hagardi Ruins, where some magnificent burial rooms were discovered 150 years ago, by scholars searching for the tombs described in the first Book of the Maccabees and mentioned by the Roman Jewish historian Josephus. To support their theory, archeologists changed the name of the site from the Arabic name of Sheikh Gharbawi, who is also buried in this area, to the name “Yohanan Hagardi”, referring to Yohanan the Weaver, one of the Maccabees. You can explore this site today and find impressive ancient tombs from different eras, and a military trench from the 1948 War of Independence. A stone marking the tomb of Mattathias, Judah’s father, has been placed here, although there is no real evidence to support its location.
There is no doubt from the textual account of the story of the Maccabees that the area of Modiin is associated with their family and their heroic revolt against the Greek army. Near to this bustling Israeli city is another town called Hashmonaim, meaning Hasmoneans, which also references the Chanukah story. There are some interesting places to visit around here and there are always fun activities for all the family during Chanukah, in Modiin and all over Israel.
For example, at Neot Kedumim near Modiin there are family activities during Chanukah with an olive oil theme, including pressing olives and making candles.
So do we know where the brave Maccabees lived and where they were buried? Can we realistically expect to find specific graves or buildings that were associated with Jewish heroes who lived over 2000 years ago? The absence of identifiable markers proves nothing except that we need to keep digging?
If you are interested in Israeli Archeology or if you are planning to visit Israel during Chanukah, talk to the experts at Shatour about including some exciting activities in your itinerary.