Video Tour: Tomb of Maccabees Uncovered?

Ancient riddle: were mosaics adorned with a cross added to the graves because of Christian adoration of Maccabees?

Eliran Aharon ,

Tomb of Maccabees?
Tomb of Maccabees?
Skyview / IAA

An ancient riddle awaits solution at Modi'in, west of Jerusalem, where Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently uncovered a massive mausoleum that archaeologists believe may be the actual tomb of the Maccabees, who fought off Greek occupation over 2,000 years ago and restored the Temple.

Amit Re'em, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), took Arutz Sheva viewers on a tour of the site, where a free event will be held over the upcoming Sukkot holiday:

The site's character and location appear to jibe with ancient descriptions of the Tomb of the Maccabees – but the depictions of crosses in the mosaics on the floors of the burial vaults seem to rule this out.

As Re'em explained Monday, however, there is a way to reconcile the crosses with the burial site of the Maccabees – if one assumes the crosses were added at a later period by Christians, who revered the Maccabees as martyrs.

The Maccabees – Matityahu the Hasmonean and his five sons, from the ancient city of Modi'in – led the uprising against Greek rule and were responsible for cleansing the impurity from the Second Temple, in an event marked yearly during the festival of Hanukkah.

The aim of the archaeological excavation was to determine if there is any substance to the legends and stories that have sprung up around the Horbat Ha-Gardi site, located a short distance from the city of Modi‘in, and whose name is associated with the Tomb of the Maccabees.

The Tomb of the Maccabees was described in two ancient books: The Book of the Maccabees and the Antiquities of the Jews, the latter of which was written several centuries later by the famous Roman-era Jewish historian Josephus Flavius.

The tomb was described as a tall, impressive structure built of fine stones surrounded by columns. It was said to overlook the sea, and was covered with pyramid-like roofs.

The proximity of the Horbat Ha-Gardi site to the Arab village of Al-Midya, and the similarity of the name of the village and that of ancient Modi‘in, attracted archaeologists, scholars and the curious to it some 150 years ago. Excitement grew when excavations revealed an imposing mausoleum borne atop enormous pillars that supported huge stone slabs, and magnificent burial vaults.

Enthusiasm was dampened, though, by a French archaeologist whose excavations at the site revealed mosaics adorned with a cross in the floors of the burial vaults. Consequently, he asserted that the structure was Christian in nature and therefore built much later.

However, he noted it was not impossible that early Christians had built the monument at the site of a Maccabean burial tomb, given the importance of the Book of the Maccabees for many Christians.

Nevertheless, since the publication of that archaeologist’s report, the site was abandoned and has remained deserted.

In an unusual step the Israel Antiquities Authority recently decided to embark upon a campaign in search of the Tomb of the Maccabees, hoping to solve the mystery once and for all. Unlike their predecessors, Israeli archaeologists were able to utilize the latest tools of modern research, which led them to their fascinating discovery.

In recent weeks, the magnificent mausoleum was located, and it was re-excavated with the help of many local residents from the modern-day Modi‘in and the Hevel Modi‘in communities. Locals inspired by the unfolding discovery volunteered their time and energy and have become an integral part of the professional team.

According to Re’em and Dan Shachar, excavation directors: “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."

However, the absence of archaeologists over the past century and a half had taken its toll on the exposed site.

"To our disappointment, the building seen by our predecessors had been robbed, and its stones were taken to construct settlements in the vicinity," they said. "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," they cautioned, adding: "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."