The Hasmoneans' forgotten castle

The Horkania fort is not readily accessible to the public and has absolutely no tourist infrastructure - which also makes it relatively untouched and free of charge.

Horkania fort 521 (photo credit: Renaya Anbar)
Horkania fort 521
(photo credit: Renaya Anbar)
As we drove down what seemed like an implausibly rough dirt track, my impressions of the steep defile amounted to: “We’ll never make it down this.”
This didn’t faze our licensed tour guide Avi Margolin, who had been nice enough to arrange for a trip into the wilderness to a site that I’d always kept on my list of things to see and do in Israel.
Horkania rises like an apparition out of the Judean Desert, just 7 kilometers from the Dead Sea and 14 km. southeast of Jerusalem. The desert fortress, constructed by the Hasmoneans around 120 BCE and named after the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus, is a little off the beaten path, but deserves to be added to the itinerary of anyone who is interested in history, archeology or exploring.
The fort was one of half a dozen castles constructed by the Hasmonean kings in the Jordan Valley. It represented their attempt to extend the power of the Jewish state not only over the valley, but into modern-day Jordan. The Hasmoneans, it should be recalled, were eminent warlords who crushed, slaughtered and in some cases forcibly converted their pagan and Hellenized neighbors both in Jordan and what is now southern Israel. Many of their forts were reused by King Herod, the Romans and Byzantines before being abandoned for 1,300 years from about 700 CE.
According to Prof. Estee Dvorjetski of Oxford University, “one cannot make a clear break between the two periods [Herod and the Hasmoneans] in terms of the goals” of the forts. The forts are often mentioned in classical histories, such as those by Josephus Flavius, Pliny the Elder and Strabo. After falling into ruin, Horkania, like Masada, was home to a rudimentary Byzantine monastery, part of the large network of such monasteries that stretched from Mar Saba to Ma’aleh Adumim and Jericho.
For years, beginning in the 1960s, archeologists have been making little attempts to excavate the site. In 2007, Oren Gutfeld, who was then studying for a PhD in archeology at the Hebrew University, set out to examine a tunnel that goes underneath the site. After securing funding from the Rothschild Foundation and other support, he attempted to excavate material that had gathered in the shaft. Using a drill and installing oxygen pumps, he made some progress.
Danny Herman, a tour guide with an archeological background, was one of the diggers who accompanied Gutfeld.
“We were in a remote place in the middle of the Judean Desert, at the bottom of a dry riverbed, below a hill atop which was the ancient fortress of Hyrkania,” he recalls on his website. “Who knows how deep the tunnel is....It may terminate in a dead end or it may contain a water pool. It may even end in an intact royal tomb – or a sealed hoard of the temple treasures.”
They kept digging – one imagines it must have been savage in such heat, with the tools making a racket and the sweat falling from their brows – but in the end, they found nothing. According to Doron Bar, a scholar and lecturer at the Schechter Institute, the shaft was subsequently sealed up with concrete.
Today, Herman thinks that the main problem with the site is that “it is waiting for its Yigal Yadin [the excavator of Masada]. There isn’t much to see.”
Yoel Oren, another tour guide who specializes in hiking and more extreme adventures, suggests that the best way to get into the fort is to hike from Kedar. The only deviation from the jeep path is that the hike descends into a wadi before reaching Horkania. In the wadi are some leftover ruins from a period when Byzantine monks, coming down from the famous desert monastery Mar Saba, lived in them in the 5th century. Oren suggests arranging for a car to meet you on the other side of Horkania in its eponymous valley.
Repeated calls to the staff officer for archeology in the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria went unanswered, but it appears the Antiquities Authority is not overseeing any excavations at the site and, as Herman points out, the place is relatively untouched. This is probably one of its most alluring features: the chance to see a Masada or Herodion before it is taken over by archeologists, the government and tourists.
Given the political circumstances in the West Bank, there is every reason to go sooner rather than later, when the status of the area may well change. This is a poignant issue, considering that these political conditions render such important sites as Mar Saba, Mount Gerizim, the Qarantal monastery, Joseph’s Tomb and Sebastia virtually inaccessible.
Contact the IDF to receive permission to visit the site: Tel: (02) 530-5372; Fax: (02) 530-5511. Include information regarding when you intend to go and how many people are in your group (it is best to plan a week ahead).