Remains of 2000-Year-Old Jewish Town Found Under Arab Neighborhood

Thursday, March 28, 2019 |  David Lazarus

Impressive remains of a large Jewish village from the Hasmonean period have been discovered during an excavation conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Sharafat neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The excavation reveals a town from between 40 and 116 BCE, the period in which the famous "Maccabee" family defeated the Greek conquerors and reestablished Jewish rule over the Land. The Hasmonaean/Maccabee dynasty eventually expanded into the regions of Samaria and the Galilee, reaching as far north as Lebanon and Syria, and south covering the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea and Idumea (Moab) in southern Jordan. Modern scholars refer to this period as an independent kingdom of Israel. The Hasmonean dynasty survived for 103 years before yielding to the half-Jewish Herod the Great (an Idumean) as king in 37 BCE. Herod made Judea a Roman client state and ordered the killing of all male Jewish infants when he heard that “the King of Jews was born in Bethlehem.”

The Maccabee town on the east side of Jerusalem and not far from Bethlehem has so far yielded remains of a large wine press containing fragments of many storage jars and one of the largest miqvehs, or ritual baths, ever found in Israel. Early Jewish followers of Jesus were known to use these miqvehs for ritual baptisms. An impressive olive press, a water cistern, rock quarries and other constructions revealing a large, industrious Maccabean village have also been found.

A significant find in the town is the unusual and extravagant burial site which includes an entrance hallway leading into a large courtyard carved into the bedrock. The courtyard includes a stone bench along the entire circumference and a cave with numerous chambers chiseled into the walls that served as tombs. The burial cave was sealed in accordance with the orthodox restrictions against disturbing the dead.

Ya'akov Billig, director of the excavations on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, stated: “It seems that this burial estate served a wealthy or prominent family during the Hasmonean period. The estate was in use for a few generations as was common in that era.”

Large elaborate building stones common during the Second Temple period were also found at the burial estate, including a Doric heart-shaped pillar capital. This as well as few cornice fragments found were used at the time as decorative stone and marble work on important buildings. Such quality craftsmanship of architectural elements is very rare. These types of ornamental burial sites have been uncovered in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley, where a priestly family called Benei Hazir are buried, as well as at several tombs in Jerusalem’s Sanhedriah neighborhood where members of the ancient Sanhedrim were interred.

A large columbarium cave, a rock-cut dovecote or structure to house pigeons or doves, was also discovered at the site. Doves were an important commodity during biblical times providing for the prescribed sacrificial offerings at the temple. They were also bred for their meat and eggs. Columbarium caves designed for breeding the doves are a known feature in the Jerusalem area.

Only a small section of the Hasmonaean village has so far been excavated. Even these limited finds indicate an important agricultural town during the days leading up to the coming of Jesus the Messiah that produced wine and olive oil, as well breeding doves for priests and local residents to bring up to the Temple for sacrifice.

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