Seleucid fortress destroyed by Hasmonean army revealed ahead of Hanukkah

The remains of a Hellenistic building were found in Israel’s Shephelah region.

Raw footage of the excavation of a Seleucid fortress in Lachish forest.

Some 2,100 years ago, the Hasmonean army was marching toward the Hellenistic city of Maresha in Israel’s Shephelah region, also known as the Judean foothills. Leading them was John Hyrcanus, a high priest and the ruler of Judea, a nephew of the Hanukkah hero Judah Maccabee, who a few decades earlier had led the victorious revolt against the Seleucids in the region.

The Judean army was first spotted by Seleucid soldiers stationed in a fortress on a hill overlooking the city.

Some two millennia later, the structure was uncovered in an archaeological excavation – a unique testimony to the conflict that raged through the land of Israel in the second century BCE – just ahead of Hanukkah, the Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Tuesday.

“Our theory is that the Seleucids blocked the entrance of the fortress and fled to the city as their enemies approached,” said archaeologist Ahinoam Montagu, excavation director on behalf of the IAA together with Saar Ganor, Vladik Lifshits. “As the Hasmoneans reached the structure, they set it on fire.”

The building, around 15m. x 15m. (approximately 50 ft. x 50 ft.), featured seven rooms. Steps that are likely connected to a second floor are still visible and well preserved. Burnt beams offer dramatic insight into its last moments.

 Works at the site, aerial view.  (credit: EMIL ALADJEM/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY) Works at the site, aerial view. (credit: EMIL ALADJEM/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

“The structure presents a clear destruction layer, which was preserved because the area was not resettled,” Montagu said. “Likely the roof collapsed first and then the highest parts of the wall followed.”

The archaeologists found hundreds of pottery shards and several coins that allowed them to date the building with precision.

Among the artifacts were also a few well-preserved small jugs, often used to store expensive liquids – and possibly not so different from the little jug that according to the Jewish tradition was instrumental for the Hanukkah miracle, in which a small jug that contained pure olive oil kept on refilling itself to allow the menorah in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to be lit for eight days.

 Works at the site. (credit: Saar Ganor/Israel Antiquities Authority) Works at the site. (credit: Saar Ganor/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Montagu said their interpretation that no fighting took place in the fortress is also supported by the fact that no human remains were found.

“We uncovered only a few animal bones and a fragment of a sword,” she said. “If a battle was fought here, there would have been a lot more remains, including human remains and artifacts.

“Our goal is to finish uncovering the destruction layers and find more artifacts,” she added. “After we finish digging, the site will be opened to the public.”

The archaeologists believe that the building was not the only fortified structure guarding Maresha. More might have been built on the other hills surrounding the area where the city stood, still visible today.

Maresha was conquered by John Hyrcanus around 112 BCE.

The newly-revealed fortress was first uncovered a few years ago during a survey, and has been excavated since 2020 as part of the Kings of Judah Road project, conducted in cooperation with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, funded by the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, with the collaboration high-school students majoring in the Ministry of Education’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology program, and students from the Asher Ruach Bo pre-military program in Mitzpe Ramon for youths at risk.

“The stories of the Maccabees are coming to life before our eyes, and this is the most fascinating part of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s work, when dedicated, hardworking archaeologists breathe life into the historical annals of the people who passed through this land,” said IAA general director, Eli Eskozido. “In a few days, we will be celebrating Hanukkah, whose central theme is the Hasmoneans’ defeat of the Hellenists, leading to the establishment of the first independent sovereign Jewish entity. The Hasmoneans could have had no idea that 2,000 years later, students living in the State of Israel would be following in their footsteps. It is extremely exciting.”