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A Tomb Lost to Time

Libi Astaire

The burial chamber of the Maccabees, the heroes of the Chanukah story, included seven pyramids and grand columns, an edifice that was to be seen “by all who sail the sea.” But the sands of time covered the tombs and obscured their location. Will a determined sleuth bring us closer to the real site — maybe in time for next Chanukah?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Archeologists have been searching for the graves of Mattisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadol, the Chashmonai, and his sons since the mid-1800s. Chazal make no mention of the Maccabees’ burial place, but their tomb is mentioned in Sefer Chashmonaim I (13:27–30):

“And Shimon built a monument over the top of his father and his brothers; he made it high that it might be seen.... He also erected seven pyramids, opposite one another, for his father and mother and four brothers ... erecting about them great columns, and upon the columns he put suits of armor for a permanent memorial, and beside the suits of armor carved ships, so that they could be seen by all who sail the sea. This is the tomb which he built in Modiin; it remains to this day.”

Finding the burial site sounds simple enough, except for two things: The monument, with its seven pyramids sitting on top, has been lost to time. And the ancient city ofModiinno longer exists.

The first step for those early explorers was, therefore, to find the Maccabees’ hometown. They had two ancient sources to guide them: the writings of a Roman historian named Eusebius and the sixth-century Madaba Map. Eusebius, who was born in Caesareaaround the year 260, penned a book called Onomasticon, in which he catalogued all the sites listed in Tanach. He included both the scriptural reference and — most importantly for later pilgrims and archeologists — the “modern” name of the city or town located near the biblical place. Thus, for Modiin, he wrote that it was located “east of Lyddia,” which we know as present-day Lod. What’s more, he mentions that one could still visit the tombs of the Maccabees.

The Madaba Map, which is actually a floor mosaic located in a church in Jordan, may have been used by pilgrims about to make a trip to Eretz Yisrael as a sort of roadmap, since the map features towns located along the main roads and trade routes. Modiin, which still existed when the map was made, lies on an ancient route called Maale Beit Horon, a road that connectedJerusalemto the Via Maris (or Way of the Sea). The town is featured prominently on the Madaba Map, where it is depicted east of Lod. Thus, Eusebius and the Madaba Map agree on this one point — so far so good.


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