Solved: One of Yerushalayim’s Greatest Mysteries

(Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.)

Decades after the miraculous victory of the Chashmona’im, Jews could not come to the Beis Hamikdash because of the Chakra — a towering fortress used by the Greeks to terrorize the holy city. After 2,200 years of searching, the remains of the Chakra have finally been found.

Remains of the citadel and tower. (Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.)

We don’t know exactly what Yehudah HaMaccabi told his “general staff” after they prevailed in the war against the Greeks, but it was

likely something to the effect of: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Every Jewish child can tell you why we celebrate Chanukah this week: the Chashmona’im defeated the evil Greeks in the war of the few against the many. They purified the Beis Hamikdash, found the jug of pure oil and went on to live happily ever after.

But the reality was actually very different.

In the same year that the Maccabi uprising erupted, 3591, Antiochus Epiphanes built the Chakra fortress that towered over Har Habayis in Yerushalayim. It could very well be that the construction of this terror base was the spark that ignited the rebellion, after all the difficult decrees that had been imposed on the Jews.

The Chakra was inhabited by Greek soldiers belonging to elite units, as well as a significant number of Misyavnim — Hellenists — Jewish collaborators from the “left wing” of that time. Together, they embittered the lives of Yerushalayim’s residents — looting homes, stealing whatever food they could find and murdering indiscriminately. Jews who walked past the Chakra were subjected to a hail of stones and bottles from the top of the fortress.

The news that Yerushalayim had been liberated and the Beis Hamikdash purified spread throughout the Jewish world, and tens of thousands flocked to the city to be oleh regel and visit the Beis Hamikdash. But the path to Har Habayis passed by this fortress, putting Jews in jeopardy. Many were wounded, some were killed.

Yehudah HaMaccabi instructed the olei regel to wait until nightfall to visit the holy site, but the Greeks lit fires and placed burning torches on the outer rooftops of the Chakra, illuminating the paths.

Lead sling stones and bronze arrowheads stamped with the symbol of the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, evidence of the attempts to conquer the citadel. (Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.)

The book 1 Maccabees describes the Chakra fort and its impact on the residents of Yerushalayim. “And they built the city of David with a great and strong wall, and with strong towers, and made it a fortress for them: And they placed there a sinful nation, wicked men, and they fortified themselves therein, and amassed food and weapons, and all the loot of Yerushalayim was transferred there. They would lie in ambush above the Beis Hamikdash and they spilled innocent blood all around it and desecrated it and it was a Satan and stumbling block for Am Yisrael for many days.”

The Greeks had been dealt a serious blow in the war against the Chashmona’im but refused to concede this fortress in the heart of Yerushalayim. The battles around the Chakra lasted another 23 years, until the year 3619, when Shimon the Chashmona’i liberated the fortress and finished the job his brother Yehudah had begun.

It is no wonder that Shimon declared the day of the liberation of the fortress as a festival for generations. That is the day that the Chashmona’i war actually ended. As described in 1 Maccabees: “And they banished them from the fortress, and they cleansed it and removed all abomination from it. And it was in the year 171, on the 23rd day of the second month, and they came to the fortress with singing and with palm fronds, with fiddles and organs and lyres, and they praised Hashem, Who had redeemed them from the evil ones. And Shimon commanded that this day be celebrated each year.”

Following the celebrations, Shimon instructed thousands of people to come to Yerushalayim to raze the fortress to the ground — and for good reason. Within a short time after the Jews took control of the fortress, they received messages from the Greeks that the action was a violation of international law. Shimon Chashmona’i’s recruits didn’t have much time to bring down this massive, well-built structure; it took them nearly three years of working day and night to completely destroy it. And that is why archaeologists through the generations had such a hard time finding it.

In Search of Chakra

One hundred and fifty years ago, after 2,000 years during which Yerushalayim was not excavated, archaeologists began to return. Finding the Chakra was their top priority. They more or less knew the location of Har Habayis. They also knew where the City of David was. The puzzle of ancient Yerushalayim was slowly being completed, over time, and only one place had not been found.

Just recently, archaeologists discovered what they are pretty sure is the Chakra. Excavations are still in progress, but it is possible to visit the site and see exactly where it was located.

Aramaic speakers and writers often used the term Chakra, which has roots in ancient Greek, and means a fortress or high citadel that controls all that is around it. The Gemara in Maseches Erchin refers to the cities “surrounded by a wall from the days of Yehoshua Bin Nun, such as Ketzarah Hayeshanah Shel Tzipori(m) and the Chakra of Gush Chalav.”

The passuk in Sefer Bamidbar says “Im bamivtzarim” and Targum Yonasan says “in bechakrin.” The passuk in Shmuel II says “And Dovid dwelled in Matzadah and he called it Ir Dovid,” which is explained in Targum as “Vayasiv Dovid bechakra vekara la Ir Dovid.”

When the Greeks captured an important place, they would destroy the houses but leave the highest point and build a fortress, which they called an “Chakra.” They would leave soldiers to look out over the city and prevent the return of those who had been defeated in battle. That is also where the term “Acropolis” comes from — the Chakra (fortress) of the polis (city).

That is what Antiochus Epiphanes did in Yerushalayim. Right after he captured the city in 3591, he razed the homes, exiled the residents and immediately began building the fortress that controlled the whole area, as described in 1 Maccabees: “And he fell on the city suddenly and beat it extensively and many in Am Yisrael were lost. He took the spoils of the city and burned it in fire and destroyed its homes and walls. … And they built the City of David with a great and strong wall, and with strong towers, and made it a fortress.”

Yoseph Ben Mattisyuahu (Josephus Flavious) and early Jewish texts are an important source that describe what happened in Yerushalayim of that time. He writes: “And Antiochus burned the nicer parts of the city, and after he burned the walls, he built the Chakra in the lower city.” In the Maccabees books, emphasis was placed on the presence of converted Hellenistic Jews in the fortress alongside the mercenary fighters that the Greeks installed there. And it is these Hellenists, or Misyavnim, who were part of the brutal harassment of the Jews of Yerushalayim. As Yosef ben Mattisyahu describes them: “They were sinful and evil people, and it was they who caused the citizens to suffer terrible and dreadful things.”

From the descriptions of those difficult years we know that there was despair and surrender. Almost all the residents of Yerushalayim abandoned it and moved elsewhere. Olei regel stopped coming. Here and there, Jews came from Alexandria and Kiriniki, Bavel and other places, as they weren’t aware of the situation. They spent weeks and months traveling, only to find the city empty and abandoned.

The Real Miracle

If there was one thing that galvanized the family of Mattisyahu Kohen Gadol to rebel it was the situation in Yerushalayim, where a single terror base changed the whole picture.

1 Maccabees describes the situation as follows: “And Yerushalayim remained desolate like a desert; no one came and went from its buildings. The Mikdash was a place to be trampled by strangers and foreigners in the fortress that housed the gentiles. And the joy [ended] for Yaakov [Bnei Yisrael] and the fiddles and flutes were laid down.”

In the year 3596, the Chashmona’im organized to liberate Yerushalayim and, most importantly, to purify the Beis Hamikdash. Bechasdei Shamayim, they took over the entire city, and found the jug of oil that restored the avodah in the Beis Hamikdash. But even at the end of that battle, the Chakra remained intact, with all its Greeks and Hellenists.

All the Jewish forces that had been released from the battles all over Eretz Yisrael converged on Yerushalayim with one goal: conquering the Chakra, which the Misyavnim had built to be taller than the Beis Hamikdash. As Yosef Ben Mattisyahu wrote, the Chakra “towered over the Beis Hamikdash.”

Yehudah HaMaccabi and his people tried to breach it from every possible direction, but failed. Meanwhile, the Greeks continued to pour burning oil and fire arrows and stones at the Jewish residents of the city.

Years passed. The Chashmona’im returned to build Yerushalayim, bringing back many who had abandoned the city. Others also came to be close to the Beis Hamikdash, which had become active again. But throughout this period, the Chakra was like a bone in the throat of the city.

It was decided to lay siege on the Chakra, in an attempt to starve the people inside and force their surrender. Indeed, for a fleeting time it appeared that this would work. The Misyavnim who were caught trying to flee the fortress reported that those inside were, indeed, starving. Water was also running low. Some of the defectors managed to bypass the besiegers and reach Antioch to ask for help.

Antiochus V, whose seat was in Antioch, heeded the pleas of the refugees and sent a huge army of fighters to Yerushalayim. A difficult battle ensued at the entrance to the city, where many Jews lost their lives. The Greeks, who also sustained heavy losses, took control of the city and the Beis Hamikdash.

Yehudah HaMaccabi’s forces retreated to Har Zion, nearby, where they barricaded themselves.

Meanwhile, the Greek forces learned that a coup was being planned in Antioch, so they returned to the main headquarters immediately. It was a truly miraculous turn of events. Yehudah HaMaccabi was surprised one morning when messengers arrived from the Greek army commanders to Har Zion asking to speak to him and to negotiate a deal.

“We’ll leave with all our forces on condition that you back down on your siege of the Chakra,” they said. Yehudah HaMaccabi accepted the offer.

Later, the great Greek general Nikanor arrived in Yerushalayim, where he was welcomed with great pomp and ceremony and appointed commander of the Chakra. Each day of his stay in Yerushalayim, Nikanor ascended to the top of the fortress and threatened the Jews that he would be back soon to capture Har Habayis and return all the idols that had been removed from there.

Nikanor built a fighting force and set out to battle the Chashmona’i forces in the new city (today’s Givat Zev). The battle was difficult and the Maccabi’im won a great victory. Nikanor was killed and Yehudah HaMaccabi severed and brought his head and one of his hands to Yerushalayim. He stood across from the Chakra and called for all those inside to come and see what he had brought from the battlefront. Yehudah hoped this would sow fear in the hearts of those left in the fortress.

The Greeks and Misyavnim came out onto the rooftops and stood in the windows, and were surprised to see Yehudah HaMaccabi putting the head of their commander and his hand on the walls of the structure. As described in 2 Maccabees: “And when he arrived there, and gathered his brethren … and he sent to call the people in the fortress and showed them the head of the evil Nikanor, and the hand that had intentionally reached out to defile the Beis Hamidkash … and he instructed that Nikanor’s head be hung on the fortress so that everyone would see the yeshuah of Hashem.”

Yehudah wanted very much to liberate the Chakra, but was denied the opportunity, having fallen in 3600 against the forces of the Greek general Bacchides. He was succeeded by his younger brother Yonasan, who was known as the most talented of Mattisyahu’s sons, possessed of diplomatic as well as military skills. He also made the liberation of the Chakra his top priority.

Bacchides, realizing that the decisive battle would be at the gates of the Chakra, significantly reinforced the fortress, adding a few more layers of defense and stocking it with grain, food and water. When Bacchides saw that Yonasan was gathering forces around the fortress, he began to worry that the Jews were planning an invasion and sent his fighters to the homes of the Jewish leaders. He took their children as prisoners and incarcerated them in the Chakra to use as hostages, to prevent the capture of the site.

Meanwhile, Yonasan closely followed the situation in the Greek royal household. He knew that Antiochus was old and ailing, and he figured that Demetrius would be the one to succeed him. He began a dialogue with Demetrius two and a half years before the regime change.

When Demetrius I was installed, Yonasan opened direct talks with him, raising the issue of the Chakra. During their summit, which took place in the city of Acco (Acre), Demetrius suggested that Yonasan be appointed Kohen Gadol with full Greek permission. At the same time he asked for Yonasan’s military units to join him in his battles against Tryphon who sought to topple Demetrius. But Yonasan stood his ground and demanded the clearing of the Chakra before anything else.

Demetrius acceded to the request, and as a first step agreed to release the Jewish captives being held at the site. But he failed to honor his pledge to leave the Chakra, later announcing that he had faced too much internal opposition to the move. Yonasan understood that his diplomatic efforts to get the Greeks to abandon the Chakra had failed, and reverted to military tactics.

In 3607, he laid siege to the Chakra. Demetrius summoned Yonasan to him and repeated his promise to clear out the Chakra, but in the meantime asked Yonasan to allow food to be brought to the Greeks inside. Yonasan acceded and gave Demetrius another year and a half to keep his promise.

When nothing happened, Yonasan came up with a creative solution. He built a wall between the homes of Yerushalayim and Har Habayis and the fortress, and closed it in on all sides so that those in the Chakra could not harm the Jews, get food or escape.

But the 10 years of Yonasan’s reign did not eliminate the threat of the Chakra. Meanwhile, another coup took place in Greece, and a conniving Greek officer, a man named Diodotus Tryphon, became the emperor, in no small measure because of his opposition to transferring the Chakra to the Jews.

He decided to go to Yerushalayim. Taking with him large forces, he began battling the Jews in the year 3617. In one clash, Tryphon’s men captured Yonasan himself, taking him to a Greek prison in the northern part of the country.

Tryphon reached Yerushalayim but was unable to get to the Chakra to help his men there. The Greeks and Hellenists inside sent messengers to Tryphon via the desert, but their efforts were miraculously thwarted. Tryphon was in the Gilad region, and when he woke up in the morning to set out he discovered that heavy snow had fallen overnight and blocked every road. Furious, he decided to execute Yonasan, convinced that this would break the Jewish fighting spirit. But the opposite happened.

The murder of Yonasan, a beloved leader, saw a surge in enlistment to the military units. Shimon, Yonasan’s older brother, who had previously refused to accept the leadership position, acceded to the pleas of the nation and became their leader. He quickly organized fighters for the battle against Tryphon’s units, and at the same time, tightened the siege on the Chakra. Those inside were left without food and began to die. Tryphon tried twice more to get to those in inside but failed.

On 23 Iyar 3619, the news that the Greeks and Misyavnim had surrendered spread rapidly and people streamed to Yerushalayim to be there during the miracle of the fall of the Chakra.

Indeed, the hunger caused by the heavy siege had had the desired effect and those inside surrendered unconditionally. Shimon led his soldiers into the Chakra, and the first thing he did was shatter the idols and icons that were all over.

“And he purified the Chakra from the defilements,” as the Maccabees writes. “And he came to it on the 23rd day of the second month … with praise and with palm fronds and fiddles and drums and harps and songs and praises, because a great enemy of Yisrael had been destroyed. Each year, that day was one of great joy.”

The fall of the Chakra symbolized the end of the Seleucid rule in Eretz Yisrael and the end of the Misyavnim. The date 23 Iyar was declared a holiday. The expulsion of the people from the Chakra is mentioned in Megillas Taanis:

“On the 23rd of Iyar, the people of the Chakra left Yerushalayim.” The commentary of the Megillah writes: “They would cause trouble for the people of Yerushalayim, and Am Yisrael could not come and go before them during the day, only at night, and when the House of Chashmona’i rose, they exiled them from there. And that day that they expelled them became a Yom Tov.”

But Shimon also knew that the tremendous joy would not last long and that the Greeks would reorganize and try to return to the site. That is why he instructed that the Chakra be completely razed to the ground.

As Maccabees describes: “And they all lent a hand and dismantled the mountain and did not desist from their work day or night for three years and they razed it to the ground and left it a flat plain. From that time on, the Beis Hamikdash towered above everything, after the Chakra and the mountain upon which it stood were destroyed.”

The Chakra disappeared without a trace. Since then, 2,200 years have passed. Throughout the generations, many searched for its location. In the initial years, they still remembered exactly where it had stood. But with time, and with the abandonment of the city, the information was lost.

In books that were published in recent generations, 25 different archeologists presented theories regarding nine different locations in the city they believed could be the Chakra. Some had it in the Jewish Quarter of today. Others went further out and said it was north of the current wall of Yerushalayim. Some said it was in the confines of what today is Har Habayis. Har Habayis during the times of the Chashmona’im was much smaller than it is today and based on this theory, the Chakra was more or less in the location of today’s Al Aksa mosque.

Then came the new excavations at a site known as the Givati parking lot that surprised everyone. Some 164 feet from the Dung Gate, near the Kosel, this location is just opposite the main entrance to Ir Dovid.

The excavators found a section of a massive wall, a base of a tower of impressive dimensions (width c. four feet, length c. 66 feet) and a glacis. The glacis, which was built next to the wall, is a defensive sloping embankment composed of layers of soil, stone and plaster, designed to keep attackers away from the base of the wall.

The dating of the fortress to the Chashmona’i era is based on dozens of Greek coins with names of kings from the days of Antiochus IV until Antiochus VII, which is exactly the time when the Chakra stood. Some 200 handles of wine jugs, with seals from the island of Rhodes, indicate clearly the massive non-Jewish presence inside the fort. In addition, they discovered bronze arrowheads and ballista stones made of lead, all findings typical of the Greek army.

As usual, the elation over the recent discovery of the Chakra is being marred by archaeologists, who need to differ with their colleagues and raise all kinds of claims that this is not the site. But all the findings indicate that it is the Chakra that the Jewish nation has been searching for all these years. This is where the miracle happened.

The Givati parking lot excavations in the City of David National Park where the Chakra was discovered have been underway for a decade. The Elad Foundation, which operates the national park, is funding the extensive excavations. The Givati excavation continues to uncover artifacts from more than 10 different ancient cultures from Yerushalayim’s history and is open daily to the general public

According to archaeologists Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, Yana Tchekhanovets and Salome Cohen, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Chakra is “a sensational discovery that allows us for the first time to reconstruct the layout of the settlement in the city, on the eve of the Maccabean uprising in 167 BCE [3593]. The new archaeological finds indicate the establishment of a well-fortified stronghold that was constructed on the high bedrock cliff overlooking the steep slopes of the City of David hill. This stronghold controlled all means of approach to the Bet Hamikdash atop Har Habayit, and cut the Bet Hamikdash off from the southern parts of the city.”

One of Yerushalayim’s greatest mysteries has been solved.

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Today’s Hellenists Remain in the Chakra

For more than 50 years, Israeli archaeologists have worked to find the site of the Chakra and other Jewish sites in Yerushalayim. Palestinians, collaborating with the Israeli Left, have done everything to thwart these efforts, including filing endless lawsuits against the excavations in the City of David.

When the excavations began in Ir David, most of the excavators were Arab residents of the Silwan neighborhood nearby. They earned a good living with jobs close to home. Until their confrontational Palestinian friends assailed them, along with Jews who opposed the digs, and scared them away from their jobs.

The Elad organization and the Antiquities Authority replaced them with Jewish workers.

This is a good place to mention the following: In the year 3626, Antiochus VII sent a message to Shimon demanding that he leave the Chakra: “You are controlling Jaffa and Gezer and the Chakra in Yerushalayim, the cities of my kingdom… Now give back the cities that you have taken… and if not, we will come and fight you.”

Shimon replied with words that continue to resonate to this day and should be aired publicly: “We did not take a foreign land, and we did not take rule over foreigners, but rather the land of our fathers which was captured by our enemies without justice.”