After a century of searching, archaeologists say they have found the remnants of an ancient Greek fortress once a centre of power in Jerusalem and a stronghold used to fight a rebellion celebrated in the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.
Researchers have long debated over the location of the Acra, built more than 2,000 years ago by Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. Many claimed it stood in what is now the walled Old City, at spots like Christianity's Church of the Holy Sepulchre or by the hilltop where two Jewish temples once towered. But the remains unearthed by Israel's Antiquity Authority and made public on Tuesday (3 November) are outside the walls, overlooking the valley to the south around an area known as the City of David, which was built by the biblical king David.
The Greek king Antiochus, who lived from 215-164 BC, later chose that spot for the Acra to control Jerusalem and monitor activity in the Jewish temple, said Doron Ben-Ami, who led the recent excavation. With an estimated length of up to 250m and 60m wide, it would have dominated the countryside. Beneath what a decade ago was a paved car park, Ben-Ami's team sifted through an artificial hill made of layers of earth left behind by successive cultures.
In one area they uncovered stones from a section of a massive wall, the base of a tower and a sloping defensive embankment that nearby artefacts like coins and wine jug handles suggest date to the period of Antiochus. Lead sling stones and bronze arrowheads from the period were also found, perhaps leftover from battles between pro-Greek forces and Jewish rebels trying to take over the fortress.
The Acra's location was referred to vaguely in at least two ancient texts: the Book of Maccabees, which tells of the rebellion and a written record by historian Josephus Flavius. The reason it took so long to find the Acra is because so little evidence from Greek-ruled Jerusalem is left, Ben-Ami said.
"It's been more than six months since we uncovered these remains. It took us quite a long time to bring all the specialists here, all the archaeologists and historians working in this field. We consulted with them, we asked their opinion, begging them to tell us why we are wrong, no why we are right", said Ben- Ami.
Historians tell how the rebels, led by Judas Maccabeus, took back Jerusalem from the Greeks, a victory marked in the holiday Hanukkah. But the Acra still did not fall, until Judas' brother Simon later lay siege and forced its surrender.