Hyrcania (Horkanya) Fortress


Above us are the ruins of the Hyrcanian (Horkanya) Fortress, which is about 200 meters above the Hyrcanian Valley. The fortress was built either by Alexander Yanai of the Hasmonean (Hashmonaim) dynasty who lived between (76-127 BCE) or by his father John Hyrcanus in Hebrew pronounced Yochanan Horkenus. John Hyrcanus the first, whom the fortress is named after, lived during 104-164 BCE.

John Hyrcanus was the son of Simon Thassi, in Hebrew pronounced Shimon Hatarsi and the grandson of Mattathias in Hebrew pronounced Matityahu who founded the Hasmonean dynasty.

You look at the fortress in such a location and one of the questions that comes to my mind is what was the main purpose of building a fortress in this location? – on the face of it the desert forts seemed to be perceived by many as a place of refuge for the ruler, but when examining the essence of the forts throughout the Persian Empire for example, one can see the hierarchy of forts, and the most important where actually used to store treasury including documents related to the King’s land administration such as the leasing of the lands and their registration, records of tax collection and so on.

The fortresses of the Judean Desert from the Second Temple period played a similar role. These fortresses were not built like the other fortresses of the Hasmoneans as part of their defense system, but they served primarily as treasuries and administrative centers. Yosef ben-Matityahu known by his Roman name Josephus Flavius, describes some events that confirm that the desert forts were used as treasuries. He says, for example, that in two fortresses, Hyrcanian and Alexandrion also known by the name Sartaba, the queen Salome Alexandra also known as Alexandra of Jerusalem and in Hebrew known as Shlomzion of the Hasmonean dynasty, holds her most valuable assets there. The great splendor that characterized the Judean Desert forts indicates that they were not intended to be used as soldiers’ quarters.

The location of a fortress in the Judean Desert, close to the kingdom capital – Jerusalem, ensured the ruler that the treasures of the kingdom would be protected and available when needed. Since the treasures were distributed throughout several fortresses, it resolved the concern that the kingdom precious assets would all fall into enemy hands if such a single fortress was captured.

How and where water is stored here, in the desert? Most of the desert area is covered with soft chalk rocks, which are relatively impermeable to seepage and therefore contribute to the aridity of the area. The rock opacity causes the rainwater that cannot seep-in, to be collected in the channels and sometimes causes flooding when it heavily rains on the mountains. The locals took advantage of this phenomenon in ancient times and diverted the flood waters to cisterns. Now, the chalk is crisp, white, and porous rock. It is a rock that resembles limestone and is composed of the mineral calcite which is one of the most common minerals on earth. In fact, 4% of the earth’s mass is the mineral calcite, but unlike limestone, chalk has no crystalline structure. The result is that the chalk is brittle compared to the limestone, and remains soft so that cisterns can be dug relatively easily. Although the chalk is porous it does not transmit water well, as its pores are very small and therefore it is a sealed rock.

As with all desert fortresses, there was an impressive water system that led floodwaters from nearby streams onto the water canal and into large cisterns. There are two large pools west and adjacent to the fortress, and in addition, there is a system of large cisterns inside the fort and a series of cisterns on its southern side.

The water reached the fortress of Hyrcania in two aqueducts, one collected floodwater that flowed in the Kidron Valley and reached the fortress from the south, and the other collected them from the eastern slopes of Mount Montar and reached the fortress from the west.

The two aqueducts fed 21 cisterns and pools with a total capacity of 20,000 cubic meters.

The Hasmoneans – Simon Thassi was the second son of Mattathias the priest, and the brother of Juda Maccabee. He was the last son of Mattathias to survive. According to the book of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, the People’s Assembly appointed Simon as the high priest and president, and determined that this position would be inherited.

Simon and his brothers did much to establish the independent Jewish state, while fighting the Seleucid kingdom and the non-Jewish inhabitants of Judea. The years between 167 BCE, the year of the outbreak of the Hasmonean Revolt, and John Hyrcanus inheritance of his father’s throne in 134 BCE were years of constant military struggle.

During the period his father ruled, John Hyrcanus was sent with his brother Judas Aristobulus to fight the army of the Seleucid kingdom sent to conquer the Land of Judah.

After a series of victories for both of them over the Seleucid army, Antiochus Sidetes, is Antiochus VII, managed to seduce Simon and his two sons to come to a feast in Jericho, and there he murdered them, and this occurred in 134 BCE.

After Simon’s death, John Hyrcanus was proclaimed president in place of his father. Shortly afterwards, Antiochus Sidetes sent his army to Judea, with the aim of conquering it. In view of his superior power, John fortified himself in Jerusalem. Antiochus besieged the city for two years (132-134 BCE), and the siege ended when John offered to reach a settlement. Antiochus left the city and agreed to give the status of a ruler vassal to John.

This status of a ruler Vassalmeans that John can rule as long as he meets the requirements of the entity that sponsors him, in this case it is the Seleucid kingdom. The requirements will usually include, paying taxes and participating in wars and more.

Antiochus was killed 3 years later in 129 BCE. His successors no longer had the strength to go to war of conquest against Judah, and then John Hyrcanus took the opportunity and minted in 127 BCE, the first coins ever for an independent Jewish state. A historic moment, for centuries the Jewish people were not independent, and John Hyrcanus achieves this historic achievement.

John Hyrcanus set out for his conquests to expand the borders of the country probably only in 112BCE, he began the conquest of Edom, mainly their two central cities – Maresha and Adora are mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Chronicles. John Hyrcanus converts the Edomites, that is, he converts the conquered peoples, as opposed to their expulsion (as his father Simon did to the inhabitants of Jaffa and Gezer). John did that in order to add power to the Hasmonean kingdom. Later, a man of Edom descent, Herod the great, sat on the throne of the kingdom of Judah.

In 107 BCE, John Hyrcanus conquered and destroyed the city of Samaria, took over the land of the Samaritans, and destroyed the temple on Mount Gerizim to strengthen the centrality of the Temple in Jerusalem. He also conquered the city of Madaba across the Jordan river. Madaba is mentioned in the book of Numbers, chapter 21 when it was conquered by the Israelites when Sihon the Amorite king refused to let the Israelites pass through his country in the time of Moses. It was then in the possession of the tribe of Reuben and probably remained under his control until after the division of the kingdom.

We are in the northern part of the Judean Desert. The Hyrcania Valley is Infront of us. This is a narrow valley that is about 12 km long and has a maximum width of about 3 km, and we are currently on its southwest side. The Dead Sea is on the east side approx. 6km in light of sight and Jerusalem is approx. 12km away on the west.

In the Byzantine period, a monastery was established on the remains of the fortress by the monk Sabas in 492.

This monastery named Castellion has not been able to survive unlike the desert monasteries that are active to this day in the Kidron valley and in the Prat valley. The monks seem to have lived here continuously until the 14th century. After that, Hyrcania was abandoned and what is left to see are remains of mosaic and some underground structures.

John Hyrcanus died in 104 BCE after thirty-one years in power, and at the age of 60. He had five sons – Judas Aristobulus I, Antigonus I, Alexander Yanai, Avshalom, and another son whose name is unknown. He was the first ruler from the Hasmonean dynasty to die a natural death.

The first mention of the Hyrcania fortress is at the end of queen Salome Alexandra reign period, and she ruled between (76-67 BCE). Salome Alexandra, in Hebrew named Shlomzion, was the wife of Alexander Yanai, who is the son of John Hyrcanus.

Josephus Flavius wrote that Hyrcania fortress along with the Fortress of Machaerus, located in the Kingdom of Jordan approx. 25 km east and slightly south of us, and the Sartaba fortress located about 40 km north of here near Highway 90 – The three forts the Queen did not give up when she handed over the other forts to the Pharisees, because according to Josephus Flavius quote – “There she kept the treasures of its virtue”, and this well corresponds to what we discussed about the role of the desert forts in the Hasmonean period. As always, I will end with a question – the Hasmonean kingdom aspired to organize a counter-force against the Seleucid kingdom, which was its main enemy, and one of John Hyrcanus’ moves was to unite under him whether in alliance or military conquest neighboring nations like the Edomites, Nabataeans and Itureans. The question is – What was the main commercial activity of the Nabataeans – the answer will appear at the end of the video.

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Information Sources

  1. Article: The main purpose of the desert forts, Author: Ofra Gori - Rimon
  2. Book: The Jewish War, Author: Josephus Flavius
  3. Book of Maccabees (Hasmoneans)

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