Glorious past, bright future

The site of the original Hanukka story, Modi'in is an intriguing place to visit.

modiin aerial298 88 cour (photo credit: Modi'in Municipality (
modiin aerial298 88 cour
(photo credit: Modi'in Municipality (
odi'in, slated to be Israel's fourth largest town, was until recently more famous for its past than its present. This was the village where the miraculous story of Hanukka started more than 2,000 years ago. Today, as cars congest Route 443, which joins Jerusalem and Tel Aviv via Modi'in, it's not easy to imagine Matityahu the Hasmonean priest fleeing from Jerusalem on the parallel road along Ma'ale Beit Horon to avoid the harsh decrees of Antiochus, the Greek-Syrian leader who ruled over Israel. Keeping Shabbat, studying Torah, circumcision and even observing the new moon were all forbidden. Antiochus was determined that the Jews were to be Hellenized, and anyone attempting to keep up their Jewish practice was to be put to death. The Temple in Jerusalem had been overrun and defiled, and he was sure that it was just a question of time before Judaism disappeared from the face of the earth. Jews who were determined to keep their faith fled the capital and hid among the hills in places like Modi'in, intending to keep a low profile while maintaining their religious Jewish lifestyle. But Antiochus dispersed his soldiers to flush out the pockets of resistance. The soldiers set up an altar in Modi'in and demanded that the Jews show their allegiance to Antiochus by sacrificing a pig on the altar or be put to death. One hapless Jew stepped forward to perform the sacrifice but Matityahu, incensed at the thought of such treachery to Judaism, grabbed a soldier's sword and ran it through the Jew. Before the soldiers realized what was happening, Matityahu's sons had killed them too, and together the family and many other Jews fled from Modi'in to the hills to hide. Now they were outlaws, and the rebellion had begun. Matityahu and his sons, known as the Maccabees, led a guerrilla war against the enemy. They had the advantage of knowing the area and the narrow passes around the hills and villages, and although they couldn't take on a whole army, they lured the soldiers into treacherous narrow passes and killed them one or two at a time. Miraculously, the small number of Jews prevailed over the vast Greek army, and the Temple was once again resanctified and restored to Jewish hands. One thing that always puzzled archeologists was the location of the tombs of this famous Hasmonean family. On Route 443, just opposite the modern town of Modi'in, you will see a sign pointing out the Maccabean graves, but archeologists have long known that these were not the real graves. They are typically Byzantine and show no sign of being Jewish graves at all. The most reliable description we have of the real tombs is from the famous Jew-turned-Roman historian, Josephus Flavius. He described them as being seven pyramidal tombs, enclosed in a large building that was visible from the sea. A few hundred meters deeper into the Ben-Shemen forest, an area was discovered that a local Arab told archeologists had always been known as Hirbet al Yahud, the Jewish graves, a few meters from another well preserved, domed burial site which he called the Sheikh's tomb. Archaeologists discovered signs of a large building of some sort with seven burial niches, and found a two-meter square slab of white monolithic stone - typical of burial stones during the Hasmonean era - that was sent to a stone expert to try to determine what it had been. The expert declared that it had been the base of some pyramid-shaped structure. The archeologists had little doubt that this was the real site of the Hasmonean family's graves. There are also those who believe that the larger dome-shaped tomb must be that of Matityahu himself, and not a sheikh. There is documented evidence that human bones found there many years ago were taken out of the country. But if you go looking for this burial site, you'll be disappointed. Without a guide, it will look like just another shallow ditch in the forest. Bureaucracy and lack of finances have meant that the area was never properly excavated, and the signpost leading to the non-Hasmonean graves remains in place. A few years ago, when route 443 was being widened, work was stopped when the machines uncovered a cave on the side of the road. The cave revealed a typical Jewish Hasmonean type burial site with shelves in the wall where the bodies were laid after death. They contained 20 ossuaries (boxes that held the bones of the dead) with clearly visible names such as Miriam, Sarah and Menelaus (a non-Jewish name adopted by many Jews at that time). Excavating sites is a very costly business, and countless discoveries may remain forever unknown to the general public because there are not enough funds. One such area is not far from these graves, where signs of a synagogue and several mikves were discovered. In the Gemarra, Modi'in is mentioned as being a day's walk from Jerusalem, which means that it was an important station on a pilgrim's route to sacrifice in the Temple. This accounts for the large number of olive presses and the unusually high number of mikves that were discovered. Most private houses probably had their own mikve, in which the priests would purify themselves before preparing olive oil for use in the Temple. Some were probably also used by the pilgrims themselves in preparation for their trip to the Temple. On Tittoria Hill, a very large mikve was unearthed, similar to those found in Jerusalem close to the Temple, with two doors - one for the ritually unclean to enter and another for them to exit in purity, suggesting that far more people used these mikves than could possibly have actually lived there. As modern Modi'in grows by leaps and bounds (an increase of 8,000 residents a year over the past eight years, with prospects of doubling this number in the next few years), almost every excavation for building purposes reveals layers of archeological evidence of the town's past. Sometimes building is halted and the findings delved into, but with the lack of funds for complete excavations and the pressing need for housing for the modern town's population, a lot is swept once again under the foundations, maybe to be discovered by future generations. Deputy Mayor Alex Weinreb, who is responsible for archeological restoration, does all he can to preserve the sites that have been discovered. Eight archeological parks being set up will include much of the finds, including a large town just discovered in the area known as Um El Umdan, off the road between Modi'in and Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway that archologists believe may be the area where the Hasmoneans lived. Not surprisingly, Hanukka is a very special time for this town. The week is an official municipal holiday, and there are torch-lit processions, games, quizzes and seminars to which out-of-towners are welcome (for details, see This is a week when Modi'in revels in its heroic past and looks forward to a bright future.