Urban Planning, Hasmonean-Style
In the early 1990s, construction began on Modi'in, Israel's new "City of the Future." Designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie and located mid-way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Modi'in is in many ways typical of modern planned communities. It has attracted a young, well-educated, upwardly-mobile, family-oriented population. It consistently scores at or near the top of Israeli indexes of municipal beauty, quality of education, and rate of IDF enlistment.
As is also typical of planned communities (and virtually every other social engineering experiment), Modi'in has not turned out quite as planned. Designed and built as a "secular city," it has had to retrofit its public institutions to meet the needs of the 20 to 25 percent of the present population that identifies as religious. Envisioned as a city with a commercial and industrial hub, it now has a reputation as a commuters' bedroom community, a ghost town from nine to five.
But Modi'in is not simply Israel's version of Columbia, Maryland. What sets it apart lies not within the city but around and under it: extensive ruins from every historical era of the past 2,200 years, including sites that form the heartland of the Hanukkah story.
The First Book of the Maccabees describes the start of the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Greek empire. Emperor Antiochus had instituted decrees forbidding the practice of the Jewish religion and sent officials to enforce the edicts in the Judean countryside. It was in one rural settlement that the revolution began: "In those days arose Mattathias the son of John, the son of Simeon, a priest of the sons of Joarib, from Jerusalem, and he abode in the mountain of Modi'in" (I Macc. 2:1).
It is in Modi'in that elderly Mattathias slays a Jew who volunteered to offer a public sacrifice to a pagan deity. It is there that he cries out, "Everyone that has zeal for the Torah and maintains the testament, let him follow me." After Mattathias dies in the early stages of the revolt, he is buried in his family's sepulcher in Modi'in. His sons, the Hasmoneans, including Judah Maccabee, are later interred there as well. In addition to the First Book of the Maccabees (13:27–30), these tombs are described by Josephus (Antiquities XIII:211–213) as being large pyramid structures visible from as far as the Mediterranean Sea.
Ancient Modi'in was inhabited through the Byzantine Era. On the 6th-century Madaba Map it appears just east of Lod. Crusader chroniclers reported seeing the Maccabean graves as late as the 13th century. After that, however, the precise location of ancient Modi'in was forgotten. It has not been firmly re-established even today.
The 19th century brought renewed interest in exploring the Holy Land. In 1866 Emmanuel Forner, a Franciscan monk, identified ancient Modi'in with the Arab village of El-Midya (3 km northwest of modern Modi'in), sparking a flurry of archaeological activity along a ruin-filled ridge near the village. One such ruin was known in Arabic as Kabur al-Yahud, Graves of the Jews. On that basis it entered Zionist consciousness as the site of the Maccabean graves—and remains so, even though the graves were long ago proven to date from several hundred years after the Hasmonean era.
Another El-Midya ruin, Sitt Gharbawi, was identified with the Maccabean graves in 1870. In 1871 this identification was discredited on the basis of dating by French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau, but Clermont-Ganneau acknowledged that the Christian structures at the site were probably built to commemorate the Maccabees and that a fuller excavation might yield evidence of earlier strata. After more than a century of neglect, the site was re-surveyed in 2006. The results of this recent dig echo Clermont-Ganneau's conclusions.
During the 1990s salvage digs conducted for the construction of the new Modi'in, two new candidates for the site of ancient Modi'in emerged, both within the municipal boundaries of the new city. Dr. Shimon Gibson's survey of El Burj/ Titura Hill—the site of an Arab village until 1948, one of the area's highest and most strategic points, and the location of battles during WWI and Israel's War of Independence—uncovered extensive ruins from numerous eras. He identified the site as ancient Modi'in primarily because of the vast extent of its ruins. A third candidate site is Umm el-Umdan, southwest of the new city, where recent excavation revealed an ancient rural village with a mikveh (ritual bath) and synagogue. The discovery of a Second Temple-era synagogue, one of only seven ever found, is rare enough; but this one was built over an even earlier, Hasmonean-era public building assumed to have served the same or a similar function. If this assumption is correct, Umm el-Umdan may be the oldest synagogue ever discovered.
As modern Modi'in grows, the municipal government clearly sees these sites as nuisances, impediments to development. It has invested nothing in their preservation or further excavation. Though Umm el-Umdan is a "National Heritage Site," this fact is not even indicated with a sign.
But people are starting to notice Modi'in. The region has become the center of an emerging local tourism that seeks to "walk in the footsteps of the Maccabees," especially around Hanukkah time. In addition to the various possible sites of ancient Modi'in, the area includes Beit Horon and Emmaus, the sites of battles in which the Maccabees prevented Seleucid reinforcements from reaching their beleaguered comrades in Jerusalem. Several area parks have attempted to replicate life in a Hasmonean village.
This Hanukkah, as for the past six years, several hundred modern Modi'inites made their way to the site of the Hasmonean synagogue at Umm el-Umdan on Friday night to welcome Shabbat with song and prayer. It is tantalizing to think that Mattathias prayed—or slaughtered an idolatrous brother—here. (Or maybe there were two synagogues in town, and this was the one Mattathias wouldn't set foot in.) Politicians may not be willing to invest in this national treasure, but growing numbers of citizens have become interested in understanding just how different from Columbia, Maryland their town really is.
Elli Fischer is a writer and translator and blogs at adderabbi.blogspot.com. He lives a five-minute walk from Umm el-Umdan.