In the shadow of Jerusalem’s city walls, archaeologists have found a fortress that spawned a bloody rebellion more than two millennia ago.
Israeli archaeologists have uncovered the remnants of an impressive fort built more than two thousand years ago by Greeks in the center of old Jerusalem. The ruins are the first solid evidence of an era in which Hellenistic culture held sway in this ancient city.
The citadel, until now known only from texts, was at the heart of a bloody rebellion that eventually led to the expulsion of the Greeks, an event still celebrated by Jews at Hanukkah. But the excavation in the shadow of the Temple Mount, called Haram esh-Sharif by Muslims, is stirring controversy in this politically charged land.
“We now have massive evidence that this is part of the fortress called the Acra,” said Doron Ben-Ami, an archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority who is leading the effort.
Situated under what had long been a parking lot between the Temple Mount to the north and the Palestinian village of Silwan to the south, the site is now a huge rectangular hole that plunges more than three stories below the streets. On a recent visit, workers cleared away dirt as Ben-Ami jumped from rock to rock, enthusiastically pointing out newly excavated features.
Alexander the Great conquered Judea in the 4th century B.C., and his successors quarreled over the spoils. Jerusalem, Judea’s capital, sided with Seleucid King Antiochus III to expel an Egyptian garrison, and a grateful Antiochus granted the Jews religious autonomy. For a century and a half, Greek culture and language flourished here. Yet archaeologists have found few artifacts or buildings from this important era that shaped Jewish culture.
Conflicts between traditional Jews and those influenced by Hellenism led to tensions, and Jewish rebels took up arms in 167 B.C. The revolt was put down, and Antiochus IV Epiphanes sacked the city, banned traditional Jewish rites, and set up Greek gods in the temple.
According to the Jewish author of 1 Maccabees, a book written shortly after the revolt, the Seleucids built a massive fort in “the city of David with a great and strong wall, and with strong towers.” Called the Acra—from the Greek for a high, fortified place—it was a thorn in the side of Jews who resented Greek dominance.
In 164 B.C., Jewish rebels led by Judah Maccabee took Jerusalem and liberated the temple, an event commemorated in the festival of Hanukkah. But the rebels failed to conquer the Acra. For more than two decades, the rebels tried in vain to overwhelm the fortress. Finally in 141 B.C., Simon Maccabee captured the stronghold and expelled the remaining Greeks.
Towering Over the Temple?
What happened next has confused and divided scholars for more than a century. According to historian Josephus Flavius, a Jew who served Rome in the first century A.D., Simon Maccabee spent three years tearing down the Acra, ensuring that it no longer towered over the temple.
The temple was located to the north of the City of David, on ground more than a hundred feet above the boundaries of early Jerusalem, so Josephus’s story explained this geographical puzzle. But the author of 1 Maccabees insisted that Simon actually strengthened the fortifications and even made it his residence.
This discrepancy spawned many theories in the past century, but no solid archaeological evidence.
When an Israeli organization named the Ir David Foundation announced plans to build a museum on top of the parking lot, Ben-Ami began a salvage excavation in 2007.
His team dug through successive layers, from an early Islamic market, through a Byzantine orchard and a hoard of 264 coins from the seventh century, under an elaborate Roman villa, and then beyond a first-century place for ritual Jewish bathing. Under buildings that pottery and coins demonstrated to be from the early centuries B.C., the archaeologists found layers of what looked like random rubble.
But the rubble turned out to be carefully placed rocks that formed a glacis, or a defensive slope protruding from a massive wall. “The stones are in layers, at an angle of 15 degrees at the bottom and 30 degrees at the top,” Ben-Ami said, gesturing at color-coded cards pinned into each layer. “This wasn’t a building that collapsed; this was put here on purpose.”
The team also found coins that date from the time of Antiochus IV to the time of Antiochus VII, who was the Seleucid king when the Acra fell. “We also have Greek arrowheads, slingshots, and ballistic stones,” he added. “And also amphorae of imported wine.” Since observant Jews drank only local wine, that suggests the presence of foreigners or those influenced by non-Jewish ways.
Ben-Ami found no sign that the fortress was dismantled abruptly, or that the entire hill was leveled, as Josephus claimed. Instead, the succeeding Jewish kingdom under Hasmonean rule cut into the glacis during construction in later years. Hasmonean and later Roman builders reused the cut stones for other structures, eating away at the Greek citadel.
Still a Site of Conflict
The find lays to rest theories that placed the Acra north of the temple, immediately adjacent to it, or on the high ground to the west that is now covered by the current walled city. No one is more delighted by the discovery than Bezalel Bar-Kochva, an emeritus historian at Tel Aviv University. He wrote a 1980 article suggesting that the fort could be found exactly where Ben-Ami dug—a few hundred meters south of the Temple Mount, in the midst of the old City of David.
“By the time of Josephus,” he said, “Jerusalem had spread to the west and north, and the city of David was a low spot.” Bar-Kochva believes that the author copied a spurious tale by a Greek historian about Simon’s effort to level the Acra in order to account for this.
Oren Tal, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University not associated with the dig, said that Ben-Ami’s discovery is the “best possible candidate” for the Acra. “The find is fascinating,” added Israeli archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi. “This suggests that Jerusalem was for a longer time a Hellenistic city in which foreigners were dominant, and who built more than we thought.”
Mizrachi, who heads a consortium of scholars called Emek Shaveh, opposes the museum development because it will damage the ruins. An Israeli planning board last June ordered the Ir David Foundation to scale back the size of the complex. Mizrachi also complains that local residents, who are mostly Palestinian, have not been consulted or involved in the dig that is, almost literally, on their doorsteps. He noted that Ir David supports Jewish settlement of the occupied territories, including the Silwan neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Palestinians in Silwan said that the work has led to dangerous cracks in walls and foundations of neighboring houses that threaten their safety.
There is a deeper concern among residents that the dig, however illuminating for scholars, is a step toward dismantling their village. “This excavation is not searching for history,” said Jawad Siam, director of the Madaa Community Center based in Silwan. “It’s designed to serve a settlement project.”
Ir David officials did not respond to requests for comment. “When Jerusalem calls, you never say no,” said Ben-Ami. “My expertise is in archaeology, not politics.”