The Search for the Maccabean Graves

By Ami Farkas

A 150-year search for the famed Maccabean graves might be coming to an end as archaeologists are confident they have located the correct burial site of the Maccabees . In the second century, Yehuda (son of the High Priest Mattathias), along with his four brothers, led a revolt against the occupying Greek power that sought to eradicate the Jewish people’s faith and religious practices. Some believe the name Maccabee, which Yehuda chose for his small army, is an acronym for the Torah verse “Mi Chamocha Ba’elim Hashem” – there is none like You amongst the forces, oh God.

The search for the famed Maccabean graves commenced in Israel in 1866, as biblical archaeology gained prominence among European archaeologists and historians. In 1869, with the aide of local Arab villagers, European explorers announced they had found the location of the gravesite. The sign “Maccabean Graves” can be seen near that site along the 443 Highway, which runs through the modern city of Modi’in and connects Jerusalem with Tel-Aviv.

The Maccabees, as depicted by the Polish artist Wojciech Stattler (1800–1875) (photo credit: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons) 

As it turns out, the “Maccabean Graves” site bares no connection to the Maccabees – it’s the location of pagan graves. However, utilizing a laser to peer through the mosaic floor of an ancient church, archaeologists recently identified massive walls and subterranean chambers of considerable size. They suspect these could be the remnants of the massive monument which Shimon, the brother of Yehuda, erected on top of his family’s graves. The monument was one of the largest, and presumably the tallest, structures of that time. If archeologists can identify the monument, then the mystery as to the location of the Maccabean graves may come to a conclusion.

The gravesite of the Maccabees would attract many visitors, especially during Hanukkah, when the Jewish people celebrate the Maccabees’ miraculous victory over the Greeks. Archaeologists have not yet confirmed that they have indeed found the Maccabean graves, but the discovery of what might be the remnants of Shimon’s monument to his family is stirring much excitement here in Israel.


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