5 Amazing Hanukkah Artifacts
Touching history in Israel.
In the 2nd Century BCE, a group of Jewish rebels in Judea, led by the Maccabees, rebelled against oppressive Greek kings who banned Jewish rituals and demanded that Jews worship Greek gods. After years of battle, the small Jewish army defeated the stronger Greek forces and recaptured the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, rededicating it in the year 165 BCE. This event is celebrated in the holiday of Hanukkah.
Here are five key Hanukkah artifacts that date from the time of the Maccabees and the Hanukkah story.
Greek citadel in the heart of Jerusalem
Jewish sources describe a citadel called the Acra in the center of Jerusalem that was built by the Greeks and towered over the Jewish Temple. The Jewish author of the first Book of Maccabees, describing the Jewish revolt against Greek rule, says that it was a huge fort in “the city of David with a great and strong wall, and with strong towers”.
The Maccabees tried to take over the Acra but weren’t successful for decades. In about 141 BCE, Simon Maccabee finally captured the fortress and consolidated Jewish rule over all of Jerusalem.
In 2007, Archeologists unearthed the Acra in the Old City of Jerusalem, near the Western Wall. Foundations show a series of angled stones that would have rendered the Acra’s walls extremely strong, and have found a treasure trove of Hanukkah-era objects inside, including coins from the time of Antiochus IV to Antiochus VII. “We also have Greek arrowheads, slingshots, and ballistic stones...and also amphorae (pitchers) of imported wine” explained Doron Ben Ami, the Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeologist who led the dig.
Royal warning not to oppress Jews
The ancient Greek rulers who reigned over Judea used to publicize select official letters and decrees by having them carved into large stone monuments which were displayed in public places. This Hanukkah era stone was discovered in the north of Israel in the 1960s. It dates to the time of King Antiochus III, father of King Antiochus IV whose harsh policies sparked the Jewish revolt.
In contrast to his son, King Antiochus III was more restrained and reasonable with regard to his Jewish subjects. This monument contains the text of five letters, all written in Greek. In one letter, Ptolemy, son of Thraseas, governor and high priest of Syria-Phoinike, asks King Antiochus III to prevent his soldiers from mistreating his subjects by forcibly pressing locals into military service and quartering troops in local homes. In a second letter, King Antiochus III responds, ordering his troops to restrain themselves and promising to punish those who do not.
“This inscription, written in Greek, is actually a copy of the state correspondence between Antiochus III, who was the first ruler of the Seleucid family, and regional Seleucid governor,” explains Dr. Einat Ambar-Armon of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Antiochus III, mentioned in the inscription, tended to be merciful towards the Jews,” she explains, “in contrast to his son Antiochus Epiphanes, also known as ‘Antiochus the Evil’. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, the decrees and persecutions against the Jews were unprecedented, and in the end they led to the Maccabean rebellion against the Greeks in 167 BCE” that is commemorated in the story of Hanukkah.
In 2016, workers in Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum noticed something glinting in an outdoor area – and found a 2,200 year old coin from the time of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the brutal Greek king in the Hanukkah story. It was found near walls that were built during the time of the Maccabees, who led the revolt. In the past, stones from ancient catapults and iron arrowheads have been found in that area.
The ancient coin has a bronze-leaf design and is typical of the type of coin in circulation in Jerusalem at that time. It shows a picture of Antiochus’ portrait on one side and a goddess wrapped in a scarf on the other side. The coin was likely minted in the northern Israeli city of Acre, and has been dated to between 172 and 168 BCE. The Maccabee-led revolt lasted from 167 BCE to 160 BCE.
When Theo and Miriam Siebenberg moved into their house in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1970, they wondered what might be buried in the ground beneath their new home. They applied for permission to dig, and spent the next 18 years unearthing archeological treasures dating back thousands of years to the First Temple period in Jerusalem.
The Siebenbergs found that underneath their house was another house that was once home to the children and grandchildren of the Maccabees. After the liberation of Jerusalem, the family of the Maccabees – named the Hasmoneans – ruled Judea from 142-63 BCE. Some of their royal descendants lived in this house, just a short walk from the holy Temple their ancestors had fought so hard to reclaim.
Ayelet Goldberg-Keidar, a student of archeology at the University of Haifa, never thought she’d stumble across a major archeological find while taking a walk with her daughter. In 2017, Mrs. Goldberg-Keidar and her seven year old daughter Hadas were climbing hills near their home in Israel’s north when Hadas picked up a piece of pottery that was protruding from the ground at the mouth of a cave.
It was a 2,200 year old clay lamp in good condition. Thinking it might have been stolen, Mrs. Goldberg-Keidar quickly contacted the theft prevention unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Instead of being taken by humans, it turns out the lamp was probably buried for thousands of years, then dug up by porcupines: “Innocent porcupines, digging out their den for the winter, are responsible for the excavation of this intact lamp,” explained Nir Distelfeld, of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Porcupines prefer archaeological sites because the earth is less packed due to man’s activities in the past.”
“The lamp is typical of the Hellenistic period, which began in the 2nd century BCE, the historical period that is known to all of us as the Maccabean Wars against the Greeks,” explained lamp expert Dr. Einat Ambar-Armon. During that period, lamps were made using clay molds. The top and bottom pieces were cast separately, then joined in a seam in the middle. This streamlined production and allowed for the first time for the mass production of the oil lamps that residents of Judea used to light their homes.
Next time you’re in Israel plan to visit these and other amazing artifacts in museums there. In the meantime, we can all gain a deeper appreciation for Hanukkah by learning about these artifacts and the people who fashioned and used them 2,200 years ago.