A coin of Alexander Jannaeus
A coin of Alexander JannaeusIsrael news photo: IAA / Clara Amit

Israeli archaeologists have made a stunning historical discovery: a Hasmonean king conquered Gaza and the Negev, and for decades prevented the Nabateans of 2,000 years ago from using the Incense Road.

It was the Incense Road that the Nabataeans used to transport precious spices such as myrrh and frankincense to the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt.

According to Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai) conquered Gaza in 99 BCE, and built a fortress with four towers inside an earlier Nabataean caravanserai (roadside inn). With the aid of this fortress, Yannai thus blocked all Nabataean activity along the Incense Road, and in effect forced them out of the Negev.

Alexander Yannai was the great-grandson of Matityahu, the Jewish High Priest who led the Hasmoneans in fighting for Jewish religious freedom and autonomy from the Seleucids (Syrian Greeks), as marked by the holiday of Chanukah (see below). 

Horvat Ma'agurah(Israel news photo: Nachshon Sneh)

IAA researchers are currently processing finds from archaeological excavations at sites located along the Incense Road that were previously exacavated by the late Dr. Rudolph Cohen of the Department of Antiquities. One such site is Horvat Ma'agurah, located on a ridge 3.4 kilometers west of Sde Boker. The site is situated at a strategic point overlooking Nahal Besor, where the Incense Road was located, connecting Petra with Gaza.

"We are talking about a revolutionary discovery that will redraw the maps of the region which describe that era and greatly increase the territory governed by the Hasmoneans," said Erickson-Gini, who serves as scientific editor of the excavation.

"Despite the evidence of the historial Josephus, according to which King Alexander Jannaeus conquered the southern coast of the Land of Israel and the harbor in Gaza -- which was of paramount importance to the Nabataeans -- and even further south, no clear archaeological proof of this has been found in the field. And it was because of this lack of proof that historians were inclined to dismiss the possibility that the Hasmoneans did indeed control the Negev," he said.

It is now clear that the Hasmoneans kept hold of the fortress located on the Incense Road -- the principal trade route of their Nabataean enemies -- until the year 66 BCE, thus blocking any enemy movement along the road between Halutza and the Northern Sinai. This cut off trade between Petra and the ports, dealing a death blow to trade throughout the Negev for decades.

The discovery also validates the claim that another Nabataean site -- Nessana, where a multitude of coins of Alexander Jannaeus were discovered -- was actually ruled by the Hasmonean king.

"Another interesting fact is that the army that Alexander Jannaeus engaged was for the most part a mercenary force composed of non-Jewish soldiers," noted Erickson-Gini. "We were able to confirm this based on the imported vessels that were found alongside the Jewish vessels there, and from the wine that was brought there from abroad.

Chanukah Begins Friday Night

The eight-day Jewish holiday of Chanukah, also known as the Festival of Lights, begins at sundown this Friday night. It commemorates the victory of the band of Jews (the Maccabees), led by Matityahu, who recaptured the Second Temple from the [Seleucid] Syrian Greeks. After cleansing the Temple, the Maccabees rededicated it using the only cruze of undefiled oil prepared for the purpose that was left in the building. Miraculously, the single container intended to last only one day burned continuously for eight days and nights, until the Maccabees were able to prepare new oil for the Eternal Light.