The fortress of Acra had a significant scope of mystery attached to it – mainly because historians have not been able to actually identify the exact location of this apparently massive architectural feat. That is up till now. A group of archaeologists (including experts from Israel Antiquities Authority) might have just solved one of Jerusalem’s hidden glory, by successfully excavating what seems to be the ruins of the Acra. In historical terms, the grand fortress was originally constructed more than 2,100 years ago, by the Seleucid Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (who reigned from 215 BC – 164 BC). And now, the researchers have at least (probably) unearthed it from a parking lot, after ten years of hard work and precision.
Now, according to noted 1st-century historian Flavius Josephus (whose writings also include references to Jesus) –
…and when he [Antiochus] had overthrown the city walls, he built a citadel [Greek: Acra] in the lower part of the city, for the place was high and overlooked the temple, on which account he fortified it with high walls and towers, and put into it a garrison of Macedonians.
Suffice it to say, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was not a big fan of traditional Jewish rites and customs. In fact, once when a usurper high priest named Jason made a surprise attack on the holy city of Jerusalem, the Seleucid emperor responded by (according to Book of Maccabees) –
When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.
To that end, the very fortress of Acra was built to be used as a strategic stronghold that housed Hellenized Jews (whom the king favored) and assorted mercenary soldiers. This combined yet well-equipped force kept its iron-grip on the proximate citizens and possibly fermenting revolts that occasionally gripped Jerusalem. Now harking back to Josephus’ description of the stronghold, some experts hypothesized that the historian might have alluded to the old City of David – which corresponds to Jerusalem’s larger Western hill. But after a string of painstaking recent efforts, the archaeologists have been able to unearth a massive section of wall, along with an imposing a 65 ft (20 m) tall, 13 ft-wide tower – all along the City of David archaeological site in Jerusalem Walls National Park.
Given Acra’s description as being the ‘thorn in the flesh’ of the city (as described by Hasmoneans), evidences of bad blood between the stronghold guards and the citizens of Jerusalem have actually been found in the vicinity of the fortress. For example, the researchers did unearth various weapon components, like lead slingshots, bronze arrowheads and even ballista stones – with most being marked by the trident symbol of Antiochus Epiphanes. The discovery of coins inside the perimeters of the fortress also allude to the fact that the complex was additionally inhabited by merchants who seemingly set up their exorbitant business practices that conflicted with the economic conditions of the common city dwellers. In any case, one couldn’t overlook the strategic advantage of this defensive building, given its prime location that provided control of the crucial access points to the Jewish holy site of the Temple Mount.
Unsurprisingly, the localized conflicts with the commoners reached their climax when Acra was besieged and conquered by the Hasmonean king Simon Maccabeus in 141 BC, after many of the Greek defenders were starved. And as for the momentous discovery in question here, the archaeologists made it clear –
This sensational discovery 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 BC.