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In Search of the Greek Acra: The Military Fortress of the Hanukkah Story Antagonists

Updated: Apr 23, 2022

Did this dig beneath a parking lot uncover foundations of the 2nd-century BCE Greek Acra?

Hanukkah is the story of the miracle of a holy Temple lamp staying lit for eight days after Simon Maccabee drove the Greek oppressors out of the Jewish Temple in the 2nd century BCE. But few people know that those same Greek invaders stayed around for another twenty years harassing the Jews in Jerusalem. They could do this mainly because of their impenetrable fortress called the “Acra”, which in Greek means Citadel. The site of this Acra has been debated by historians and searched for by archaeologists for the last 150+ years, with numerous different sites across the city being suggested. The recent media favorite of these is now in a parking-lot dig (see above) just south of the Temple Mount. Evidence for this most recent site’s claim to being the Acra lies in the coins and arrowheads dating to that time found in a thick-walled room, and in the location fitting one interpretation of Josephus’ writings. A number of passages in both Josephus and First Maccabees describe the Acra; the problem is—they did not draw us a map. They also used place names like “Lower City”, and “City of David”, which have evolved to mean different things over the centuries. Further complicating the interpretation is that an entire suburb had become known as the citadel, or acra, by 70 CE, two hundred years after the Greek Fortress Acra was destroyed. But rather than add my own speculations to where the Acra fortress was, I will turn to our Josephus scholar, Thomas Lewin, who carefully examined Josephus’ words until he could “pit them against the topography until the two were made to agree”. His conclusions are quite convincing and gives us the site of the Acra hiding in surprisingly plain view. You can read his full article on our website.

Let’s look at what the ancient writers said about the Greek Acra. First, we must get our bearings with Josephus by reading his topographical description of Jerusalem. With Lewin’s help we can decipher Josephus’ description of its four hills in the War of the Jews. The first two hills were called that of the Upper and Lower Cities, separated by the Tyropoeon Valley (see map below), and the third and fourth were lying to the north of the first two, respectively. A very important fact is that for Josephus the second hill, or the Lower City, was the continuous, “crescent-moon-shaped” hill that included both the Temple Mount and today’s City of David south of it. In contrast today the “Lower City” is thought of that section south of the Temple Mount, but topographically it is actually a continuation of, and not separate from, the hill of the Temple Mount. I got a good feel for this “Upper” versus “Lower” hill elevation difference last year in my visit to Jerusalem. Nearly every day I hiked from my hotel (across from the Jaffa Gate) downhill to the Temple Mount area and then had to slog west back up hill at the end of the day to the Upper City.

The parking lot site is argued to contain the Acra by referring to Josephus' saying the Acra in 70 CE was located near the highest point of the Lower City; but this argument neglects that Josephus includes the Temple Mount area as part of the “Lower City”. These same Josephus passages indicate the Greek Acra overlooked the Temple, where the Greeks sallied out for raids. The first book of Maccabees also says the Temple, the Acra, and the future site of the Fortress Antonia were all right next to each other. I have included the full passages below. Josephus further states that after the Greeks were expelled the Acra was not only destroyed, but the very hill upon which it sat was cut down so it would cease to be higher than the Temple. This suggests the fortress no longer exists today and will never be found.

Based on these descriptions Thomas Lewin reached his conclusion that the Acra site can only be at today’s raised half-acre platform on the Temple Mount that surrounds the Golden Dome of the Rock (see my earlier blog map on the paradox). The subsurface bedrock there is indeed a flat-topped hill that suggests its crest may have been cut down, and the surface of the Rock has clearly been cut or quarried. Also, the Well of Souls and underlying “Gates of Hell” chambers would have made perfect siege storehouses for food and water for the Greek Acra garrison, which must have numbered a few hundred men. The lower chamber likely held water and is reported to have a tunnel that reaches the Gihon Spring. A vertical shaft still exists through the Sakhra giving access to the cistern. A few hundred men could never have lived in a small space the size of the rooms dug up in the parking lot, but would have had ample room in a several-acre fortress just north of the Temple. The Sakhra Rock likely exists in its raised form today because when Simon Maccabee cut down the Acra’s hill he spared that section to preserve a roof on the underlying chambers that had potential future use. In fact, the later Hasmonean King Alexander likely readopted its original use as a royal tomb (see previous blog).

Read for yourselves here the passages from First Maccabees and Josephus concerning the Acra:

I Maccabees 14:36 In his [Simon Macabbee’s] days things prospered so that the Gentiles were put out of the country, as were also those that were in Jerusalem in the City of David, where they had built themselves a citadel [acra] from which they had sallied forth and defiled the environs of the sanctuary, doing great damage to its purity.

{This demonstrates the Acra being somewhere near to the Temple).

I Maccabees 13:52 [Simon] decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing. He strengthened the fortifications of the temple hill alongside the citadel, and he and his men lived there.

{Notice the fortifications that Simon and his men lived in were alongside the citadel, not in it. This elevated fortified site was elsewhere called the Baris, which later Josephus said was rebuilt by Herod into Fortress Antonia. So the Temple, Acra site, and Fortress Antonia were all close to each other.]

Josephus’ Antiquities xii, 5:252 [Antiochus IV Epiphanes] burnt down the finest building; and when he had overthrown the city walls, he built a citadel in the lower part of the city, for the place was high and overlooked the temple, on which account he fortified it with high walls and towers and put into it a garrison of Macedonians (Greeks).

{Note the citadel was higher than the Temple, so by placing it in “lower part of the city” Josephus could only be referring to the single elongated lower second hill that included the Temple Mount.}

Josephus’ Antiquities xiii 6:215,217 And when [Simon] had done this, he thought it their best way, and most for the advantage, to level the very mountain itself upon which the citadel happened to stand, that so the temple might be higher than it. So they all set themselves to level the mountain, and in that work and spent both day and night without intermission , which cost them three whole years before it was removed, and brought to an entire level with the plain of the rest of the city. After which the Temple was the highest of the buildings; now the citadel, and the mountain on which it stood, were demolished.

{Archeologists who have talked up the parking lot site to the press have dismissed this passage as a myth passed on by Josephus, because if the hill beneath the Acra was removed then the building itself cannot be today discovered in a dig. Renowned Jerusalem archaeologist Leen Ritmeyer however holds to the accuracy of this Josephus passage, and so dismisses the parking lot site being that of the Greek Acra.}

Josephus' War of the Jews v, 4:136-137. The city of Jerusalem was fortified with three walls, on such parts as were not encompassed with unpassable valleys. For in such places it had but one wall. The city was built upon two hills, which are opposite to one another, and have a valley to divide them asunder. At which valley the corresponding rows of houses on both hills end. Of these hills that which contains the upper city is much higher, and in length more direct. Accordingly it was called the citadel, by King David. He was the father of that Solomon who built this temple at the first. But ’tis by us called the upper market place. But the other hill, which was called Acra, and sustains the lower city, is of the shape of a moon, when she is horned. Over against this there was a third hill; but naturally lower than Acra; and parted formerly from the other by a broad valley.

{Here the entire crescent-moon-shaped second hill is called "Acra" at the time of 70 CE when this narrative took place. The eastern section of the Third Hill inside the City walls was lower than the vantage points on the western ramparts of the Temple and Fortress Antonia.}

Topography of Jerusalem with the Valleys and Four Hills as described by Josephus. Contour numbers are meters above sea level.

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