Maccabees’ Tombs

September 2nd 2014

More than 2,100 years ago, during the time of the First Holy Temple, a father and his five sons rose up against the ruling Syrian-Greeks who had outlawed the observance of Judaism throughout the Land of Israel. This family, along with the 6,000 followers who participated with them in guerilla warfare against the enemy, took on the name Maccabee. In Greek, Maccabeus means hammer.

The actual location of the Tombs of the Maccabees is contested. The official location is west of Jerusalem in the Ben Shemen Forest off Route 443 near Modi’in. The modern city of Modi’in takes its name from the village where Mattityahu, the father of the Maccabees, began his rebellion against the cruel Greek rulers. At that location, there is a group of tombs cut into the limestone caves, leading archaeologists to believe that the tombs are all part of a family plot. In Arabic, this cluster of tombs is known as “Kurbar al-Yahud” – the graves of the Jews.

Archeologists believe that the graves known as the Tombs of the Maccabees actuallybelong to an ancient monastery and contain Christian and pagan remains.Many, including Zohar Bar’am, the manager of the nearby Hasmonean Village Museum, believe the Maccabees’ true graves lie elsewhere. The Hasmonean Village Museum tells the story of the Hasmonean dynasty, which was founded by the Maccabees. Their lifestyle and culture is presented in activities that are appropriate for both adults and children.

So where are the actual tombs of the Maccabees? One theory is that they are in the nearby Yochanan Hagardi Ruins. Yochanan was one of the five sons of Mattityahu and one of the original Maccabees. The alternate site was partially excavated in the mid-1980s and multiple burial rooms were uncovered. Archeologists familiar with the project think this could ultimately prove to be the Maccabees true burial site, but there is currently a lack of funding to pursue their theory. The Hagardi Ruins are less than a mile from the official Tombs of the Maccabees, up a dirt road.

Each year at Chanukah time, various ceremonies, tours and activities commemorating Chanukah are held at the official Tombs of the Maccabees site.