For millennia, a parking lot in a Jerusalem neighborhood hid an enduring archaeological mystery — the fort of Acra, built by a Greek king who has since become the villain of Hanukkah.
The dig site, where remnants of the Acra fort were found, is located in the City of David, south of the Old City and Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s original center, the Times of Israel reported. Archaeologists believe they’ve discovered all that remains of the fort built by Greek Antiochus in 168 B.C. as he tried to squash a priestly rebellion.
Archaeologists have wondered for a century where Acra was located. The fort is mentioned in the Book of Maccabees I and II and by Jewish historian Josephus. But until now, the archaeological record coughed up no further information and the mystery remained unsolved.
But in recent months, 10 years into the dig at this site in Jerusalem — which is now a national park — archaeologists came upon a massive wall and the base of a huge tower measuring 66 feet long and 13 feet wide.
According to United Press International, researchers were able to pinpoint many of Acra’s defenses, including evidence of a sloping wall covered in a layer of dust, stones, and plaster. In other words, someone had tried to make the slope too slippery to surmount.
Acra also revealed some artifacts — ancient armaments, including bronze arrowheads, lead slingshots, and catapult stones shot by a ballista. These stones were imprinted with the image of a pitchfork, which is a symbol of the Greek Antiochus’s reign. Coins found at the Acra fort were dated to his reign as well. A large amount of wine jars, which had been imported to Jerusalem from the Aegean, were also found and “bear witness to the citadel’s age, as well as to the non-Jewish identity of its inhabitants,” researchers revealed.
“New archaeological finds testify to the establishment of a properly fortified stronghold constructed on the high bedrock cliff overlooking the steep slopes of the City of David hill,” said excavation directors Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, Yana Tchekhanovets, and Salome Cohen. “This stronghold controlled all means of approach to the Temple, and cut the Temple off from the southern parts of the city.”
So why exactly was the fort of Acra built by the Greek king, and what happened in Jerusalem at that time?
Back in the second and third centuries, the Greek Seleucids ruled Judea — what the Romans called Israel and Palestine B.C. In the second century, a Greek king named Antiochus Epiphanes, or Antiochus IV, ruled the Seleucid empire.
The fort at Acra was built by Antiochus in 168 B.C. for a very specific purpose. Rebel factions had tried to take over Jerusalem while the Greek king was away fighting in Egypt. To maintain control in Jerusalem and oversee the Temple, he built the fort at Acra, which was manned by the Seleucids and Hellenized Jews. These Jews were engaged in a civil war with their more traditional counterparts, the Maccabees. Antiochus also hired and paid mercenaries to man the Acra fort as well.
This civil war, called the Maccabean revolt and led by the priestly family the Hasmoneans, was the direct result of the Greek king’s siege of Jerusalem, and his decision to ban Jewish religious practices (hence his role as Hanukkah villain).
The Acra fort was all but destroyed in the war that followed but remained a Seleucid stronghold in Jerusalem until finally, in 141 B.C., it was conquered by Simon Maccabeus after a long siege that starved out the Greek force that remained.
[Image via YouTube Screengrab]