Was One of Jerusalem’s Greatest Archaeological Mysteries solved?

Today the Israel Antiquities Authority announced:

A fascinating discovery recently uncovered in archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting in the Givati parking lot at the City of David, in the Jerusalem Walls National Park, has apparently led to solving one of Jerusalem’s greatest archaeological mysteries: the question of the location of the Greek (Seleucid) Acra–the famous stronghold built by Antiochus IV in order to control Jerusalem and monitor activity in the Temple which was eventually liberated by the Hasmoneans from Greek rule.

Hellenistic walls found in the Givati excavations. Photo: Assaf Peretz, courtesy IAA

It is true that the location of the Seleucid Akra has baffled archaeologists for a long time. In 2006 I wrote:

Among scholars, there is less disagreement about the historical interpretation of the Books of Maccabees and Josephus than about the topographical problems connected with the location of the Seleucid Akra, which are styled the “most debated,” “most enigmatic and “thorniest” by Simons, Avigad and Wightman, respectively.

But could the Akra have been located so far away from the Temple Mount? Both the Book of Maccabees, as well as the historian Josephus Flavius, locate the Acra in the lower city of Jerusalem:

“And they built the city of David with a great and strong wall, and with strong towers, and made it a fortress [Greek: Acra] for them: And they placed there a sinful nation, wicked men, and they fortified themselves therein” — 1 Maccabees 1:35–38

“…and when he had overthrown the city walls, he built a citadel [Greek: Acra] 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.” — Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12:252–253

The  quote from 1 Maccabees tells us that the whole of the City of David was fortified with a wall. The Hellenistic walls found here may indeed be part of these fortifications. Josephus, however, is speaking of a separate citadel – the Seleucid Akra. This fortress we are told “overlooked the temple”. In order for the Givati remains to belong to this citadel and also overlook the Temple, it must have been over 400 feet high at least.

Once the Akra was destroyed by the Maccabees, the whole area was leveled and added to the Temple Mount. Following that, 1 Maccabees 13.52 and 14.37 tell us that,

“He strengthened the fortifications of the Temple Mount by the side of the Akra, and took up residence there with his men.… He settled Jewish soldiers in it and fortified it as a protection for the country and city, and heightened the walls of Jerusalem.”

This appears to indicate that a large area, previously occupied by the Akra, was built adjacent to  the Temple Mount. This extension can still be seen at the “seam” in the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount.

The seam in the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount is located 106 feet orn 32 m north of the southeast corner. It shows Herodian masonry to its left (south) and Hasmonean to its right (north). Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

The fact that the Akra previously overlooked the Temple Mount means that the Temple Mount could be overlooked by someone standing on the highest parts of this fortress. The fact that the southeast hill slopes away rapidly in all directions to the south of the square Temple Mount excludes all but the highest rock levels near the southern wall of the square Temple Mount as the only possible location for the Akra.

Schematic drawing of the square Temple Mount, which dates to the First Temple period, and the location of the Seleucid Akra. Drawing © Leen Ritmeyer

One of the cisterns in the southern part of the Temple Mount – Cistern 11 – was known as the Cistern of the Akra (Mishnah Erubin 10.14). Josephus also writes that after Simon the Maccabee had razed the Akra, “thought it would be an excellent thing and to his advantage to level also the hill on which the Akra stood, in order that the Temple might be higher than this” (Ant. 13.215).

Plan of the Cisterns of the temple Mount, indicating the location of the Cistern of the Akra. Plan: Leen Ritmeyer

The Seleucid Akra therefore stood on a hill very close to the Temple Mount. What hill is there to be seen in the Givati parking lot? It appears therefore that the Israel Antiquities Authority once again tries to make sensational headlines with an unworkable theory in order to get some publicity.

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15 Responses to Was One of Jerusalem’s Greatest Archaeological Mysteries solved?

  1. Pingback: Was One of Jerusalem’s Greatest Archaeological Mysteries Solved? | Fr Stephen Smuts

  2. eli says:

    thought the same. great work!

  3. Michael Edgecombe says:

    Hi Leen, thanks for your comments, which make a strong case for the traditional location. Assuming the article itself is accurate (and ignoring for a moment the IAA’s interpretation), there appears to be evidence of fortifications and weaponry. From your knowledge of the history of the area, do you have an alternative theory about the identity of this site? Or is it too early to offer anything definite?

  4. John Williams says:

    I am not familiar with the layout of the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem.

    My question, “What is the distance between the Givati parking lot and the Temple Mount?

    A map would be nice.

    Thank you

  5. John, This dig is about 120 m south of the Temple Mount

  6. Hi Michael,
    As I wrote in my latest post: The quote from 1 Maccabees (35-38) tells us that the whole of the City of David was fortified with a wall. The Hellenistic walls found here may indeed be part of these fortifications.

  7. After reading your blog of July 11, 2011, I posted a comment; parts of which I would like to share again with you and your blog readers: “While I agree that the proposal that ancient Jerusalem was centered on the Temple Mount is implausible, I believe that your placement of the Akra in the area between the Square Temple Mount and the Herodian Southern Wall should be reconsidered.” I quoted the Septuagint where it refers to the citadel (Gk. akpau – Akra) in the city of David. I mentioned that, “a multitude of coins and stamped Rhodian handles of the Hellenistic period found in Shilo’s Areas D – G, testify to the presence of the Seleucids in the City of David.” I quoted Maccabees 1:33 where it says that the city of David was made a stronghold (Gk. akpau – Akra). Once again I pointed out that the tower (Gk. akpau – Akra) was mentioned as being in the city of David in I Maccabees XIV. 36,37, where they “polluted all about the sanctuary, and did much hurt the holy place.”
    I was surprised at your reply: “As it was possible to go down from the Akra to the Temple Mount (Ant. 12.406), the Akra must have been located near the Southern Wall of the square Temple Mount.” I am even more surprised at your current take on the most recent archaeological information which so beautifully parallels the written record.

  8. Arthur,
    Why are you surprised at quoting Josephus 12.406 which clearly states that “Nicanot was COMING DOWN from the Akra to the Temple”? This reference, together with Ant. 12.252 “THe Akra was high enough to overlook the Temple”, clearly shows that the Akra must have been built close to the Temple Mount. It also says in 1 Macc. 12.36 that Jonathan “decided … to erect a barrier (wall) BETWEEN the Akra and th city, to separate it from the city and isolate it.” These references make it abundantly clear that the Akra was a separate fortress and not part of the City of David.

  9. Arthur Chrysler says:

    Quote from Qedem 19: “During the course of Stratum 7… the urban center shifted to the Western Hill – the “Upper City”. The hill of the City of David was now the main part of the “Lower City” of Jerusalem. More than 350 handles of Hellenistic amphorae, bearing Rhodian seal impressions, were found in our excavations… Such a large quantity is especially outstanding in the light of the sparsity of such finds in the widespread excavations adjacent to the Temple Mount and in the “Upper City.” This statistical datum provides further evidence for the main concentration of the Hellenistic settlement in Jerusalem in the region of the City of David, at least up to the outbreak of the Hasmonean Revolt.” (1984, Yigal Shiloh, Qedem 19, Excavations at the City of David, pp. 29-30).

  10. Robert L. Tucker says:

    Kudos to Mr. and Mrs. Ritmeyer for providing the definitive proof of the location of the Temple and the Holy of Holies, and for making the same accessible and understandable to the layman. Continued disagreement on this subject is foolishness and immaturity.

  11. Robert Kerson says:

    Dr, Ritmeyer;
    The “E” shaped cistern and stairs (N0. 5{w11})is described as being oriented parallel to the western and southern ( both Herodian) Haram walls, and also is drawn in all diagrams as being so oriented. Your 500 Cubit square just to the north of this cistern, is oriented parallel to the eastern and northern Haram walls. Furthermore, the southern extension, the length of this cistern forms a rectangle bent at a slightly different angle from the eastern wall, but still not parallel to the western and southern outer walls. What are your thoughts on this? Also, since this underground cistern was never expected to be seen, why would a cistern be dug with the added difficulty of alignments?

  12. Robert,

    Give or take one or two degrees, Cistern 11 was built at right angles to the southern wall of the square Temple Mount. When this cistern was cut, the Herodian Temple Mount walls did not yet exist. So, the only orientation of the cistern could have been aligned with was the southern wall of the square Temple Mount. The cistern may not have been seen above ground, but the E-shape indicates that the bedrock piers that were left standing supported the walls of the Akra Fortress above. On the west side, a wall has been built into the cistern, again to support a wall above.
    The southern continuation of the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount was not built in a straight line. It changes direction slightly at the “bend”. The reason for this was probably due to the steep bedrock slopes going down to the Kedron valley. Hence the slight wedge shape of the Hasmonean extension.

  13. Mike Schlicher says:

    Dr. Ritmeyer,
    Your work is amazing and speaks for itself.

    Perhaps there is an alternative here. I suggest everyone read the third chapter of Nehemiah which describes the wall around the entire city of Jerusalem in 445BC (including the Temple).

    Is it possible that what has been found here in the Givati parking lot is the Tower of Hananel, or the Tower of 100, or the Broad wall or even the Tower of Ovens?

    According to Josephus, after vanquishing the Greeks from the Citadel, also known as the Acra, Simon decided that the only way to safe guard the Temple from foreign desecration again, was to destroy the Citadel, and level Mt. Zion. The high priest spent three long years working day and night to level Mt. Zion down to the bedrock, and filled up the surrounding valleys with fill from the mountain.

    If you read Nehemiah 3, you will find the Citadel was south of the Water Gate. Also, 2 Chronicles 2;30 identifies Hezekiah’s tunnel location as going from the Gihon Spring around the WEST Side of the City of David (Citadel) to the Pool of Siloam. City of David (Citadel) was the high ground before Simon leveled it.

    It seems to me that Greek Acra or Citadel was the same stronghold on high ground that the Hasmoneans and Greeks are described in 1 Maccabees, rebuilding and reinforcing.

    Another interesting clue comes from Josephus’ writings in the War of the Jews, Book Six, Chapter Seven. Hidden in the story of Masada is the record of the final speech of the leader of the Sicarii, Eleazar Ben Yair. His impassioned speech convinced almost 1,000 Jews that there was nothing left to live for because the of the destruction of their holy city. One of the Jewish survivors of the siege told the Romans, what Ben Yair had said to convince 960 Jews to kill themselves.

    “And where is now that great city, the metropolis of the Jewish nation, which was fortified by so many walls round about, which had so many fortresses and large towers to defend it, which could hardly contain the instruments prepared for the war, and which had so many ten thousands of men to fight for it? Where is this city that was believed to have God himself inhabiting therein? It is now demolished to the very foundations, and hath nothing but that monument of it preserved, I mean the camp of those that hath destroyed it, which still dwells upon its ruins; some unfortunate old men also lie upon the ashes of the temple, and a few women are there preserved alive by the enemy, for our bitter shame and reproach. Now who is there that revolves these things in his mind, and yet is able to bear the sight of the sun, though he might live out of danger? Who is there so much his country’s enemy, or so unmanly, and so desirous of living, as not to repent that he is still alive? And I cannot but wish that we had all died before we had seen that holy city demolished by the hands of our enemies, or the foundations of our holy temple dug up after so profane a manner. But since we had a generous hope that deluded us, as if we might perhaps have been able to avenge ourselves on our enemies on that account, though it be now become vanity, and hath left us alone in this distress, let us make haste to die bravely”.

    Here we are very plainly told the only thing left standing in Jerusalem in 74 AD was the camp of those that destroyed the city. Not the wall that protected the sacred Temple complex of the conquered Jews. The camp of those who destroyed the city. That camp was the Roman fortress Antonia, built by Herod the great and named in honor of Herod’s Roman friend Mark Anthony.

    Does it makes no sense to believe the Romans would have destroyed everything in the city, including their own camp, but leave the walls protecting the most meaningful building of the Jews standing?

    Thanks for letting me ramble on. I believe there more interesting possibilities to what is being unearthed in the Givati parking lot.

    Mike Schlicher

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