Has the Tomb of the Maccabees been found?

Robin Ngo • 09/25/2015

An impressive stone structure with a burial chamber offers tantalizing clues to the location of the Tomb of the Maccabees, heroes of Hanukkah’s Maccabean revolt. Photo: Griffin Aerial Imaging, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Have archaeologists located the elusive Tomb of the Maccabees, described in ancient sources as a towering stone monument with pyramids? According to an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) press release, archaeologists excavating near the modern Israeli city of Modi’in think there’s a possibility the famous tomb—or at the least the site venerated in the Byzantine period—has been found.

The Maccabees—Mattathias and his five sons—are famous for having led a successful rebellion in the 160s B.C.E. against King Antiochus IV Epiphanes after the Seleucid ruler desecrated the Temple and forbade circumcision and Sabbath observance. The Maccabean revolt, as it’s come to be known, is celebrated in the festival of Hanukkah.

Investigations at the site of Horbat Ha-Gardi, less than 2 miles northwest of modern Modi’in, began in the 19th century. (There are several candidates for the precise location of ancient Modi’in, the Jewish village that the Maccabees called home.) When French explorer Victor Guérin excavated Horbat Ha-Gardi in 1870, he found a large ashlar structure (21 x 82 ft) and a burial chamber, all covered with what he believed was a pyramid-like construction such as that described in the Book of Maccabees. He contended that he identified seven tombs, one for each member of the Maccabee family.

“The ruins of the tomb correspond perfectly to the Tomb of the Maccabees as described in the historical sources,” Guérin wrote.

French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau, however, conducted his own excavation of the structure described by Guérin in 1871. Clermont-Ganneau discovered in the burial chamber a colorful mosaic floor dating no earlier than the fifth century C.E. and bearing a cross.

“It is possible that this structure was built by the Christians so as to commemorate the burial place of the Holy Maccabees, since they were exalted saints in the eyes of Christianity,” Clermont-Ganneau wrote. “It is quite possible that in the future, unequivocal evidence will be found indicating the site is the place where the Maccabees were buried.”