September 16, 2019

On the trail of the Maccabees

The heroes of Chanukah are no secret. The legendary Judah Maccabee and his warrior brothers defeated the Greek Hellenists in true Israelite fashion. Just as a young David slew Goliath, this tiny family-led army defeated a powerful military force. That much we know. But where in the world do we find a physical trace of these ancient warriors?

The mystery of the elusive trail of the Maccabim, as they are known in Hebrew, begins between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Near the entrance to Modi’in, one of Israel’s fastest-growing cities, elaborate Hasmonean graves are clearly marked with modern signage. Local legend suggests this is indeed the site of the ancient city of Modi’in, Maccabee headquarters during the time the Chanukah story took place. But is this, in fact, where the clan was laid to final rest 22 centuries ago?

Our search begins with the establishment of the modern city of Modi’in, which launched construction only in the 1990s. Next door, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach founded the collective settlement of Moshav Mevo Modi’im with a similar-sounding name more than 35 years ago. Developers unearthed thousands of relics after digging into two Modi’im sites. The first was Titora Hill, where archeologists discovered fascinating signs of ancient habitation, including remains of a large settlement. An elaborate tunnel system dating from the Bar Kokhba period and a crusader fortress also were unearthed. Today, the ruins stand as a green sanctuary in the middle of a burgeoning city.

The second major find came to light on the nearby road running from Modi’in to Latrun (between Shilat Junction and Mevo Modi’im), at the site called Um el-Umdan, Arabic for “mother of pillars.” During the construction of Route 2, excavations unveiled the oldest synagogue in all of Israel, decorated externally with pillars, which led to the locale’s moniker. Inside, archaeologists discovered beautiful frescoes. Other remarkable evidence includes a 25-room villa from the Hasmonean era and a Second Temple-era mikveh. In the second century C.E., following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Romans razed this Jewish village.

The amazing discoveries at these sites derailed construction in the area and proponents proposed both as locations of the ancient village of Modi’in. But across the street from the aforementioned Um el-Umdan is perhaps the most remarkable discovery of all. On Highway 443, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, bilingual Hebrew and English signs point to “Maccabean Graves — Hashmonean Village.” Here, in a story that rings familiar for many sites in Israel, a group of Jewish schoolchildren and their Zionist teacher were seeking a connection with these strong Jewish heroes in 1907. They asked a local Arab shepherd if he knew where the Maccabim were buried. He led them to a site called Kubur al-Yahud, Arabic for “the graves of the Jews.” On Erev Chanukah, they lit the first candle of the holiday and danced at the cluster of monumental graves. This Chanukah tradition continues today. 

Experts doubt this is the authentic site of the Maccabee graves, but popular belief endures. A look at the ancient texts describing the events of Chanukah offers more hints of the real location. As it states in the Book of Maccabees I (13:25-30), Shimon, the sole survivor, buried his family. He also constructed a pyramid-like tombstone on each of the graves for his parents and four brothers as well as his own future final resting place.

“Shimon sent for the bones of his brother, Jonathan, and buried them in Modi’in, city of his forefathers.

“All of Israel eulogized him and mourned for him many days.

“Shimon erected over the tombs of his father and brothers a monument of stones, polished front and back, high enough to be seen from a distance.

“He set up seven pyramids facing one another for his father and his mother and his four brothers.

“For the pyramids he devised a setting of big columns, on which he carved suits of armor as a perpetual memorial, and next to the armor he placed carved ships, which could be seen by all who sailed the sea.

“This tomb which he built at Modi’in is there to the present day.”

It’s impossible to conclude the accuracy of the enduring folk legend around the location of the graves. But excavations dating from the 19th century suggest the traditional site misses the mark and that Midya, a nearby Arab village, more closely fits the ancient description instead. Meanwhile, the experts qualified to actually determine the veracity of the myth are archaeologists, who remain unwilling to excavate the graves due to the sensitivity of the religious community. With the popular fervor for strong Jewish heroes so attached to the current site, the mystery of the Maccabee graves is likely to endure.

For those interested in exploring more of Hasmonean lore, the beautiful botanical garden and biblical nature reserve at Neot Kedumim offer insight into daily Hasmonean life. Activities include crushing olives for oil with a massive stone mill, creating clay lamps, drawing water, milling flour and participating in biblical cooking classes.

Another wonderful excursion through time is available both above and underground at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center, where Maccabee-era houses, ritual baths, and galleries and multimedia presentations buttress the southern entrance to the Old City and Kotel area. Virtual panoramas, time lines and more are found on the park’s Web site.

For more information, visit Neot Kedumim ( and Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center (