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The Hellenistic Period

Alexander the Great
After the conquest of the Near East by Alexander the Great (333 BCE) the region enters a new era, dictating its development for the next centuries. One of the main trends characterizing this period is the encounter between different civilizations, including the Jewish and Greek cultures. The history of Yavneh-Yam is directly linked with this development. As a result of intensive urbanization, introduction of Greek cults, Greek language and Greek habits, Greek culture rapidly succeeded in imposing itself over the greater part of the peoples of the Near East. This Hellenization of society reached its peak during the 2nd century BCE when the Land of Israel came under the control of the Syrian Seleucid dynasty. Judaism was split into two parties: a radical anti-Greek one, and a Pro-Hellenic party, called by the sources the "Mityavnim" ("the Hellenized"), mostly under the leadership of the High Priest Jason (174-171 BCE). The Book of Maccabees II says about the latter that 'he put down the institutions that were according to the law, and brought up new customs against the law'. Even a gymnaseion was erected at Jerusalem and priests liked to go there! Some of them even went so far that ‘they sought artificially to remove the traces of their circumcision...’

The Maccabean revolt and its consequences

Time became ripe for an open and violent conflict between the Jews and the Greeks. The major crisis came under the period of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE). The king occupied and destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem, killing the men, selling the women and children into slavery, forbidding the observance of Jewish laws, such as Sabbath and circumcision, and settling in the area of the Temple Mount a community of loyal population including Jews. For their safety a fortress was built over the Temple Mount, called the Akra. In December 168 BCE a sacrifice to the Olympian Zeus has been given at the Temple of Jerusalem! The year 166 BCE was crucial: at Modiin, in the Judean Hills, Mattathias and his 5 sons, John, Simeon, Judas, Eleazar and Jonathan called the "Maccabees" or the "Hasmoneans", refused to obey the King’s officer sent to Modiin in order to insist upon the presentation of the sacrifice. The events developing from now on belonging to the Hasmonean period are widely described by sources of that period and afterwards, such as the Books of Maccabeees and the writings of Josephus Flavius. According to them Mattathias said: "Through all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away from the religion of their fathers, I and my sons will walk in the covenant of our fathers'. One of the notable stages in the struggle that began now was the Purification of the Temple at Jerusalem, the "Chanukah" of it, on the 25th of Kislev 165 BCE, a holiday which is celebrated by the Jewish people until today.

The Hellenization of the Middle East, the Land of Israel included, and the strong Jewish opposition to this process are clearly reflected in archaeological remains. Since Greek cities became targets of the bitter Maccabean fight, Hasmonean destruction layers both in Western and Eastern Palestine become crucial to understanding archaeological sites of that period.

We can reconstruct the history of Yavneh-Yam against the background of the events described above. It seems that Yavneh-Yam played an important role in the consolidation of the Greek rule in the country and became during the 2nd century BCE a stronghold of Hellenized Phoenicians. A fragmentary Greek inscription found at Click for translationYavneh-Yam reveals some very interesting aspects of the cooperation of the city with the Seleucid authority on the eve of the Maccabean war. The inscription represents a copy of letters exchanged between the Seleucid king Antiochus V Eupator (164-162) and the Sidonian community of Yavneh-Yam. It may be concluded from the inscription that the Sidonians rendered services to the grandfather of Eupator, Antiochus III, and the text may imply that they did the same for Antiochus IV Epiphanes during his invasion of Egypt, and were to do so again for Eupator in 163 BCE. During the war Yavneh-Yam was actively used as a stronghold against the Maccabeans, as revealed by written sources. It does not surprise that from the very beginning of the hostilities, Yavneh-Yam was one of the early goals in the attempts of Judas Maccabaeus to conquer the Mediterranean coast.

Book of Maccabees II 12, 9 relates that: 'Judas Maccabaeus fell upon the Jamnites, too, by night and set fire to the fort and the ships, so that the glare of the flames was visible as far as Jerusalem, two hundred forty stadia away'.  We also learn from the sources that the Hasmoneans 'removed every pollution purifying the houses in which idols stood' (Book of Maccabees I 13, 47). It seems that some of the Jewish soldiers took part in the looting of religious objects from Iamneia, as related by The Books of Maccabees II, 40. Here we are told that returning to the battlefield in order to bury the bodies of the Jewish fallen, Judas’ soldiers 'found under the tunic, amulets sacred to the idols of Iamneia, objects, which the law forbids to Jews. It was evident to all that here was the reason why these men had fallen'. In spite of this, Judas prayed for the dead and asked God to forgive them. Gathering the objects, he 'sent 12,000 Drachmas to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering...' (II Maccabees 12, 39-46).

Peter-Paul Rubens: Judas Maccabaeus praying for the Dead

Peter-Paul Rubens painted this scene in 1635-36 for an altar, commissioned by Maximilien Vilain le Grand, Bishop of Tournai. Today the picture is displayed in the Museum of Nantes - Musee de Beaux-Arts, inv. no. 429. The photo presented here was taken by P. Jean. By courtesy of the Museum of Nantes.

It seems, however, that Yavneh-Yam resisted these attacks and remained a free Greek city until its destruction by John Hyrcanus or Alexander Jannaeus at the end of the 2nd century BCE as evident also from the relations of people from the city with the great Hellenic sanctuary of the Cycladic island Delos. Here, French archaeologists have revealed three shrines at the northern slopes of the Holy Mountain Cynthia, with two inscribed altars that have been erected by 'citizens of Iamneia'. The shrines were dedicated to the 'Gods of Iamneia', to Heracles and Horon reflecting the Greco-Oriental syncretism.Archaeological excavations carried out at Yavneh-Yam have revealed the remains of an intensively Hellenized society. Also against this background it does not surprise that the conquest of the Mediterranean coast was one of the main targets of the Hasmoneans, Yavneh-Yam included. After first attempts of Judas Maccabaeus, the city of Yavneh-Yam was finally destroyed by the Hasmonean kings John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE) and Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE). 

Delos. Mount Cynthia
and the shrines of the people of Iamneia