The Tomb of Hyrcanus II? A Journey of Discovery & Disclosure
Our hearts were pounding as we slipped over the side of a shallow grotto at the edge of the Abraham's House complex. Having finished leading our 2019 B.A.S.E. Tour of Israel, Bob Cornuke wanted me to see a previously undocumented tomb in the upper Silwan area of the Mount of Olives. His investigation began in 2015 and he had often spoken of it during the intervening years. Now the time had arrived, at last, for us to examine his finding together. As we crawled through the tiny opening, we found what might be a key to unlocking a pivotal period in Jewish history.
A map of Second Temple Jerusalem and the location of various tombs. The inscription was found in the tomb highlighted by a black circle (drawn by Omri Abadi).
The Mount of Olives is the necropolis of Jerusalem. It is the oldest active cemetery in the world, to be used continuously from the Bronze Age down to the present.1 It houses many thousands of graves, including burial caves from the Second Temple period. One of them, which has not yet been scientifically excavated, is located on the grounds of “Abraham's House” (a French Catholic pilgrim’s hostel) on the southwest slope of the mountain overlooking the City of David.
Bob’s colorful recounting gives us the background story.
I was doing some research on the first century tombs around the Kidron Valley for a book I was writing. It was April 15th, 2015, when I first came across this undocumented tomb on the grounds of Abraham’s House. That afternoon I heard about a tomb up in the Silwan area across from the City of David. It turned out to be a Byzantine era tomb which was nothing of importance for my research, but while I was there a man, perhaps a groundskeeper, from the site told me that there was a place where they temporarily buried Jordanian soldiers during the Six-Day War in 1967. It was a “little sort of grotto” on the western boundary of the property. I asked the groundskeeper if he knew of any tombs in that location. He told me, “No, it is a natural cavern.”
After he left us, I climbed down into the “grotto” and discovered a small hole in the side of the wall. It was apparent that the recent and massive amount of rainwater had caused an opening into something behind the solid rock wall. After widening the opening, we could see that there was a large cave. We entered the cave to find four side chambers. I quickly took some pictures on my phone to document the moment. Later, when I told a friend who had worked with the IAA2 about my discovery, I was told that I was mistaken and to his knowledge there were no first-century tombs in the area of the lower Mount of Olives.
On 21 May 2019, we made the arrangements for a visit to the site with a K-House film crew to properly document the finding. We were met by one of the workers at Abraham’s House who ushered us to the site and wished us well as we descended into the grotto. We experienced a surreal sensation as our eyes adjusted to the darkness. The yellow patina of the Jerusalem sandstone gave us a sense of the cave's age. After switching on the portable lights to allow filming, we could clearly see that the tomb had two levels with four burial chambers (kokh3) located on the upper level and one chamber accessible through a vertical shaft.
As we were carefully filming and photographing the cave, we suddenly discovered writing above one of the chambers. “It looks like Hebrew,” I shouted. Immediately all attention focused on this thrilling discovery. Our film crew rushed over with their lights and cameras knowing that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
We captured the highest quality images we could, given the conditions in the cave. As our minds were pausing to take it all in, we all strongly suspected we had discovered something that very well might be significant. Time flew by as we continued our investigation. What hands left their handiwork? What tears had been shed next to these burial chambers? What events had this small cave seen throughout its lifetime? What stories would be revealed if we were able to study this little time capsule?
That evening we collected and catalogued our images and began to contact the people we knew within the Israel Antiquity Authorities (IAA). Bob contacted his friend Eli Shukron and I reached out to Dr. Susan Hazan of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. We were all franticly seeking a way to carry out further investigation “by the book.” Dr. Hazan passed me over to Christopher Rollston.4 Professor Rollston informed me that we should get the IAA directly involved before proceeding. In his 6 June 2019 email to me, he stated, “It's wise of you to pursue things with the IAA and to get all the paperwork in order. That makes everything nice and neat and clean, and serves everyone well. Yes, please keep me posted. If you get the paperwork in order, I would be happy to publish this with you.” Professor Rollston subsequently examined the picture of the inscription and considered it both ancient and important.
By 4 June 2019 I received my first reply from the IAA.
My name is Eran Arie and I'm the curator of Iron Age and Persian Period Archaeology in the Israel Museum. This seems an amazing find! You should be in touch with an epigraphist soon. I recommend these two epigraphists: Chris Rollston from George Washington University at Washington DC or Haggai Misgav from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
With the help of Ido Garfinkel, I was able to secure the services of Haggai Misgav.
Since he has not seen the inscription itself, but only its documentation as picture and video, every conclusion in his paper is limited. The inscription message is unclear, yet the letters are, according to Misgav, consistent with Second Temple Jewish script. Its installment within a typical late Second Temple burial cave, written above one of the burial niches, strengthens this assumption.
The tentative reading is as follows:
בל(?) לתמוז שנת
תשעין ותשע להורקנוס
In the following lines we present a paleographic and philological analysis of the Hebrew script, followed by the proposed translation.
Line 1: The second letter after the ב in not clear – it looks like the upper part of ק but it is doubtful whether the traces of a line to its left is still part of the letter. Alternatively, the letter could be a ל, although its upper left line is perhaps too short. Whatever that letter is, context suggests that it could well represent a number, because the next word is Tamuz (תמוז) which is a name of a month in the Hebrew lunar calendar, implying that it refers to a date. ל represents the number 30, and the 30th of the month of Tamuz is a real date.5
Line 2. This line reads “ninety-nine” and with the last word of the previous line we end with “the ninety ninth year of Hyrcanus” (שנת תשעים ותשע להורקנוס).
Line 3. The next line is particularly hard to understand, raising more questions than solutions. It records the letter s התשצאככא. which should probably be divided into two words: התשצא ככא. He offered two possible readings of this line.
The root ש.צ.א. in Aramaic means “to end” or “to finish.” Rashi translates the words of Gen 43:2 כאשר כלו (“when they had finished [eating]”) as כד שציאו. The combination of letters ככא could mean “so/thus”in Hebrew. The vowel a at the end is represented by א rather then ה (perhaps influenced by Aramaic). A full translation of the line could thus be “will it end thus?” We will have more to say on this below.
Line 4. The last line only records one word: לשמעון meaning: “for Simon.” Simon was the most common male Jewish name in the Second Temple period, particularly in the Hasmonaean times.6
- Line 1: On the ל (30th) of Tammuz, year
- Line 2: ninety and nine of Hyrcanus
- Line 3: Will it end thus
- Line 4: for Simon?
As soon as we had the first rough translation, our “investigator engines” kicked into overdrive. We quickly put together a video and began to spread it around to anyone we thought could help us gain approved access to explore more deeply. After a few email exchanges with the IAA we set a date of 18 July 2019 to meet up and officially go to the site. During our flight back to Israel, I was assuring myself that “all the boxes had been ticked,” so we should be well on our way to an amazing experience!
The day following our arrival we decided to travel to Abraham’s House to scout around the entire compound. We introduced ourselves at the main desk and asked for a tour of their facilities. After an hour or so of walking round we decided to stay and have lunch in the restaurant. Everyone was courteous and friendly. We then had a preparatory meeting at our rented accommodations with officials of the IAA on 16 July to show them more of the film footage we had captured from inside of the tomb on 21 May 2019. There was the sense of electricity filling the room as we discussed the possible outcome of an investigation of this site. All was now set to go.
The morning drive around the Old City of Jerusalem then up the slope of the Mount of Olives was filled with the unusual sound of firecrackers going off all around the Kidron Valley. “Sounds like a war going on,” Bob said. We would later find out that it was some type of Palestinian protest in the local neighborhood. The gates of Abraham’s House swung open as we drove through the large rock-walled entrance which welcomed us onto this beautiful pilgrim’s sanctuary. We met up with our Hebrew guide Ido Garfinkel and Epigraphist Haggai Misgav.
Shortly after our arrival the representatives of the IAA drove into the compound in their official vehicles. I was introduced to the Chief Archeologist of Jerusalem as we walked into the lobby. “Hi, we are here to view a tomb as a possible site of interest,” I said. Immediately a dark figure stepped out from behind the door and replied, “You are not going anywhere. Get out of here.” Shocked, I quickly deferred to the IAA officials and took a step back as a heated conversation in Arabic ensued.
Bob, Ido, Haggi, Ben (our videographer) and I moved to the outside patio and watched the drama unfold in front of us. After more than 30 minutes of conversations oscillating in intensity, the IAA officials announced that they were waiting for the police to arrive. As we moved in the direction of our parked cars, two cars sped into the compound carrying more than a dozen local Palestinian men who quickly formed a line and began violently forcing us back down the narrow-walled entrance that had welcomed us before. The Police eventually arrived, more shouting continued, and nothing was accomplished in our favor. Finally, the IAA official came over to me and said, “Sorry, but this site is now closed forever.”
Eventually, the Abraham’s House guards allowed us to retrieve our cars, and we drove away dejected and pondering our next steps. Did we almost create an international incident? Could we have sparked a wider rebellion? For a paralyzing few moments I think we understood what it means to live in place where violent escalation is only one wrong decision away. In the face of defeat, we retreated to our accommodations.
As we flew home to an uncertain future for this project, we all knew that it could not just end here so abruptly. After weeks of reflection, I decided to write to the École Biblique et Archéologique FranÇaise in Jerusalem (a French Roman Catholic Archaeological Society). As Abraham’s House was connected with the French Roman Catholic Church, I thought maybe archeologists within this society would understand and ultimately assist us in gaining access to the tomb. Surely the photographs would be a tempting morsal for an inquisitive explorer.
The response we received from this world-renowned society shocked me. “Upon viewing the photographs, we have determined that the inscription was a modern forgery and then also that it had subsequently been defaced.” My blood ran cold as I considered the implication of this dreadful news. Did we cause a two-thousand-year-old inscription to be wiped out by an angry hammer? Did our clumsy handling of this priceless find cause it to be lost forever? The weight of these horrible thoughts overwhelmed me with regret. At this point I felt the rise of a strange intestinal resolve to “never do this again.”
“Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat” is a quote often used to describe an event when the underdog triumphs against all odds. As the next few months passed, I had time to take stock of what we had and what might be done with it. To casually post it on Facebook or make a short YouTube video didn’t seem to hit the target as far as I was concerned. Our list of options began to grow as did our renewed excitement that this discovery could still make an impact. We had collected:
- Many high-quality photographs and videos of the tomb.
- An ancient inscription that has been reliably translated.
- An inscription that mentions the names of two leaders during the Hasmonean period.
- A historical narrative that could fill some gaps in the Second Temple Period history of Israel.
- Some high-level experts within the archaeological community that have expressed interest in helping us get this discovery out to the world.
With these tools in our toolbox, we decided to press ahead and produce a document that would be worth publishing to the world of archaeological experts.
First and foremost, it should be emphasized that both Misgav and Rollston consider this inscription to be ancient, the (casual) comment of some at the Êcole Biblique notwithstanding. Christopher Rollston noted that some genuine ancient inscriptions can and do surface on the antiquities market. That is, not everything on the antiquities market is a modern forgery, but it is common for modern epigraphic7 forgeries to ‘surface’ on the antiquities market, after an important epigraphic discovery (of an actual ancient inscription).8 However, our inscription did not appear in the antiquities market, and its content is not reminiscent of some recent epigraphic discovery at an excavation. Furthermore, and of particular importance, there are no paleographic or orthographic anomalies9 in this inscription. And the inscription remains (at least at the time of our photographs) in situ, or in place. In sum, current evidence supports the conclusion this is an authentic ancient inscription.
Does the inscription refer to Hyrcanus II? The name Hyrcanus was not especially popular in the Second Temple period, and appears on record some eleven times, most of them Hasmonean or their dependents.10 Ilan identified it as a Persian name, based on the region “Hyrcania” in central Asia. Note that Machiela has contended that the name was originally Egyptian.11 The first Hyrcanus on record is the son of Joseph, son of Tobias who was active in Ptolemaic Egypt in the second century BC.
The most famous contenders to the name are the two Hasmonean rulers: John Hyrcanus I, and Hyrcanus II. It would seem reasonable to infer that the inscription refers to one of these Hasmonean rulers, based on the numeric reference in the inscription to a year of “Hyrcanus,” which would be most consistent with that used for a “ruler” (priestly or political). The first Hyrcanus was known by his Hebrew name John (יוחנן) and is usually referenced in this way, with his title “high priest” (כהן גדול, in the Hebrew sources, such as his coins12 (יוחנן כהן גדול) and rabbinic literature (“יוחנן כהן גדול”e.g., M. Ma‘as. Š. 5:15; T. Sota 13:5). Hyrcanus II is referred to only as Hyrcanus, both in Greek by Josephus13 and in Hebrew within rabbinic literature (“הורקנוס”-B. Sota 49b; B. B. Qam. 82b; B. Menah. 64b). For this reason alone, we conclude it is more likely the inscription refers to Hyrcanus II, and not his grandfather who was better known as “John Hyrcanus” or simply “John the high priest.”14
Hyrcanus II was born in 110 BC, the firstborn son of King Alexander Jannaeus (ינאי) and Queen Alexandra Shelamzion (שלומציון). During his mother’s reign, Hyrcanus officiated as high priest (Josephus B.J. 1.109; A.J. 13.408). Upon her death in 67 BC, the queen intended that Hyrcanus should succeed her as monarch and continue to hold the office of high priest that he had occupied since his mother became queen (Josephus B.J. 1.120). That, however, was not to be, for his younger brother Aristobulus II, who was in command of the army, believed he should be the next king of Judea (Josephus B.J. 1.121–122).15 The endless strife between the brothers led to civil war, and they both applied for help from the Roman general Pompey the Great, who arrived at this time in the eastern Mediterranean.16
Pompey conquered Jerusalem, deposed Aristobulus II, and appointed Hyrcanus II as a puppet ethnarch (not king) of Judea, also restoring him to the position of high priest in the Temple (Josephus B.J. 1.128–153). This was the beginning of Roman rule over the land, which ended with the Islamic conquest some seven hundred years later.
The real power behind the throne was in the hands of Hyrcanus’ advisor Antipater, son of one of the Idumeans who were forcefully converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus I (Josephus A.J. 13.257–258). Antipater was the father of Herod, who was destined to become a great king himself. In 40 BC, war broke out with the Parthians (Persians), who temporarily appointed Antigonus II Mattathias, the younger son of Aristobulus II, as king. Hyrcanus II was taken prisoner, his ears and nose were cut off, ensuring that he could no longer serve as high priest, and he was carried off into exile in Babylonia (similarly to the Biblical King Zedekiah in 2 Kings 25:7). Herod escaped with his life and returned with a Roman army to reclaim the throne in 37 BC. A year later he requested that Hyrcanus II travel back to Jerusalem from Babylonia, only to accuse him of treason and ingloriously execute him in 30 BC, at the age of 80 (Josephus B.J. I.433; A.J. 15.165–173).17
The type of burial cave fits the Herodian period, the time in which Hyrcanus II was put to death.18 It is also not surprising that Hyrcanus was not buried in a royal tomb, for he was at this point a persona non grata in the eyes of Herod the Great. Nevertheless, a burial of some sort was called for. Therefore, a rock-hewn cave in the Jerusalem necropolis on the Mount of Olives would seem a reasonable place for him to be buried. It seems that the aged Hyrcanus still had some supporters who longed for a Hasmonean revival. The provision of a decent burial for one of the last Hasmoneans should come as no surprise.
The second line of the inscription mentions the year “ninety and nine of Hyrcanus.” What happened ninety-nine years after some event associated with this person? Hyrcanus II was crowned in 67 BC, and ninety-nine years later would be the year AD 32, to which we see no significance. However, when counting ninety-nine years from Hyrcanus’ death in 30 BC, this would be year AD 69, exactly one year before the destruction of the Temple by Titus in AD 70. In this last year of the Second Temple era the war between the Jews and the Romans had raged for three years. Jerusalem was in the grip of zealots of all stripes, with Simon bar Giora’s faction perhaps the most dominant among them. (Josephus B.J. 7.262-273, on Simon Bar Giora specifically see 265-266). Moreover, it was the Year of the Four Emperors, which rocked the Roman Empire and was destined to end with Vespasian gaining the throne.19 His coronation marked the “final judgment” on the Jewish rebellion—suppressing it had been his main goal for the last two years and, now that he was in power, he intended to bring it to a close. His son, Titus, would accomplish this mission. Perhaps, shortly before the siege began, certain Jews came to this cave, perhaps the tomb of Hyrcanus II, and inscribed on its wall a message that was significant to them. This would be in keeping with some of the content of some ancient Jewish burial graffiti, as discussed by Karen Stern.20
The Final Reference
Who is Simon? The second person mentioned in Line 4 is Simon. He is associated with the words התשצא ככא לשמעון, that is, “will it [also] end so for Simon?” In the year AD 69, Simon bar Giora was the leader of the largest faction in Jerusalem fighting against Rome and was identified by the Romans themselves as the ringleader of the revolt. Could this inscription be a graffito, cursing Simon bar Giora, and wishing him a similar fate to that suffered by Hyrcanus II ninety-nine years earlier? It is of some interest that in AD 71 Simon bar Giora was indeed brought to Rome and publicly executed in Titus’ triumph (Josephus B.J. 7.153–154), fulfilling the expectation voiced in our inscription.
It is worth noting that another graffito recording a curse was found at Gezer and dated to the second half of the second century BC, after Gezer’s conquest by the Hasmoneans (142 BC). This is a short graffito bearing the words: “[Says] Pampras; May fire devour Simon’s palace.”21 This Simon, incidentally, was the great grandfather of Hyrcanus II.
This new Second Temple inscription from Jerusalem mentions two persons: Hyrcanus and Simon. The readings and translation of this inscription are fairly straightforward, but the precise interpretation of the content is difficult. We cautiously suggest a possible understanding of this inscription; it is a curse mentioning two historical figures, articulating the wish that the fate of Simon (bar Giora) be the same as that of Hyrcanus II (i.e., execution for treason).
The core of this article was prepared for formal publishing with MAARAV - A Journal for the Study of the Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures.22 Our thanks go to Ido Garfinkel23 for his in-depth research and core document composition. Thanks to Mr. Haggai Misgav of the Institute of Archeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Thanks to Yosef Garfinkel, the Yigael Yadin Chair in Archaeology of Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem24 for his guidance and editorial input. Thanks to Professor Christopher Rollston, Professor of
Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures, and Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University25 for being willing to publish our finding.
After more than three years of waiting, MAARAV published our article in their January 2023 edition. Praise the LORD!