December 2, 2004
How the Maccabees Reshaped Jerusalem
The Maccabees are celebrated throughout the Jewish world for recapturing Jerusalem for the Jews, rededicating the Temple and lighting lamps with a day's supply of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days.
Less well-known, according to a leading Israeli archaeologist, is that the Maccabees also were major builders who transformed the face of Jerusalem and restored the centrality of the Temple in Jewish life.
"The problem is that Herod the Great built so thoroughly that many remains of the Maccabeans have almost disappeared," said Dan Bahat, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University who is spending the academic year lecturing at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto.
The Maccabeans, who founded the Hasmonean dynasty, likely inspired King Herod's vision of the Temple, said Bahat, whose specialty is Jerusalem of the Second Temple period.
In recent years, the former chief archaeologist of Jerusalem has supervised the excavations of the Western Wall tunnel, the ancient subterranean passage that extends along the western perimeter of the Temple Mount.
A large water channel that was discovered in the tunnel has been accepted by many archaeologists as a Maccabean-built aqueduct and, according to Bahat, almost certainly is the most visible Maccabean relic in the Old City.
"This is the most important remain of Hasmonean Jerusalem today," he said. "It's an enormous ditch that was excavated from the surface in order to supply water to the fortress named Baris, which was the seat of the Maccabean family before they moved to a place in the area of today's Jewish Quarter."
The apocryphal Book of the Maccabees offers ample evidence that the legendary leaders of the Jewish revolt against the Greeks were great builders. As further evidence, Bahat cites the fine mosaics and frescoes excavated in various Maccabean palaces in Jericho.
But the Maccabees' architectural footprint was almost fully erased in Jerusalem, especially on the Temple Mount, by King Herod's massive construction projects.
Although the Book of the Maccabees relates that its heroes undertook projects to heighten the Temple Mount walls and remove a hill as a protective measure against the Greeks, there's little chance of discovering even the slightest physical trace of these efforts, according to Bahat.
Without archaeological evidence, "it's very difficult for us to decipher what exactly they have done," he said. "But there's no doubt the Maccabees greatly contributed" to the national "consciousness of the importance of the Temple. After the Maccabean period, there's no question that the Temple was the center of Jewish life in all respects."
He added, "The Maccabees made the Temple the most important thing in Jerusalem."
In rebuilding the Temple, King Herod was guided by the measurements listed in the Book of Kings, but went beyond any scriptural references when it came to the Temple's beautification.
"My question is, when he did all these works, where did he learn it from? What did he take it from? It must have been from the Maccabees," Bahat said.
Born in 1938, Bahat grew up in the pre-state Yishuv at a time when Jewish access to the Old City of Jerusalem seemed a far-away dream. It was Professor Michael Ave-Yonah's famous model of ancient Jerusalem in the Holy Land Hotel that first inspired him to study all available scriptures and texts about the Old City.
"I thought, 'If he can do it, so can I,' " Bahat recalled. "I never imagined that I would ever really be in the Old City of Jerusalem, so I thought that at least theoretically, I could get to know it very well."
He chose to specialize in the Second Temple period because the era marked "the apex of Jerusalem as a Jewish city," he said. "Remember the saying, 'The one who hasn't seen Jerusalem hasn't seen a beautiful city in his life.' Or the other saying, 'Of the 10 parts of beauty in the world, Jerusalem took nine.'"
When Bahat attained his bachelor's degree from Hebrew University in 1964, Jerusalem still was divided and there was a paucity of literature in Hebrew about the Old City.
"Most of the study of Jerusalem was done by non-Jews, mainly by Christians interested in the city where Jesus walked," he recalled.
The restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the Old City in 1967 prompted an unprecedented boom of Jewish-led archaeological investigations.
"The result of that is that today our knowledge of Jerusalem has increased immensely," Bahat said. "We can't compare our knowledge of Jerusalem in 1967 to what we know today."
Possibly the only authority anywhere on the topography of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, Bahat is a fervent nationalist and lover of history who knows many passages of scripture by heart but says he is not religiously observant.
Bahat has lectured to Christian groups around the world on Jerusalem in the time of Jesus and once was invited by Pope John Paul II to do so at the Vatican. He seems equally versed on Jerusalem in the eyes of Islam, and did his doctoral thesis on Jerusalem in the Crusader period.
During his 40 years as an archaeologist, Bahat has produced dozens of books and papers, including the well-known "Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem" and a popular illustrated volume two years ago on the Western Wall tunnel.
Although his specialty is Jerusalem, Bahat also has worked on many major archaeological digs in Israel, including the ancient synagogue in Beit Shean and the mountaintop fortress at Masada. It was at Masada that he made one of his most remarkable finds: a group of shards with Hebrew names on them, dating from the moment of the dramatic fall of the Jewish stronghold to the Romans in 73 C.E.
But Bahat continues to focus most of his scholarly attention on the city to which he has devoted much of his career.
"All my life is based on studying Jerusalem," he said. "It's a lifetime job, it's not a simple thing. It's a multifaceted city. The field is so complex and so complicated, but so interesting. So I'm kind of addicted to Jerusalem."