The first historical mention of Emmaus is connected to the Jewish revolt against the hellenization of the region, imposed on Judea by the Syrian king Antiochus IV. The uprising, which began in 167 BC, was led by Mattathias son of Hasmoneus, who came from the village of Modiin, 10 kilometres north of Emmaus.
Upon Mathathias’s death, command passed to his sons Simon and Judas the Maccabee. In 165 BC Judas the Maccabee won a major victory over the Greco-Syrian army at Emmaus, opening the way to Jerusalem for the Jews and facilitating the purification of the Temple, the memory of which is celebrated at the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. These events are described in the 1st Book of Maccabees, dating from the beginning of the 1st century BC:
“Then Lysias chose Ptolemy the son of Dorymenes, Nicanor, and Gorgias, mighty men of the king’s friends, and with them he sent forty thousand footmen and seven thousand horsemen to go into the land of Judah and to destroy it, as the king commanded. So they went forth with all their power, and came and pitched camp by Emmaus (depending upon the manuscripts: Aμμούν, Αμμαου, Αμμαυ) in the plain country. And the merchants of the country, hearing the fame of them, took very much silver and gold, with servants, and came into the camp to buy the children of Israel for slaves. A power also of Syria and of the land of the Philistines joined themselves unto them. Now when Judas and his brethren saw that miseries were multiplied, and that the forces were encamped in their borders (for they knew how the king had given commandment to destroy the people and utterly abolish them), they said one to another, ‘Let us restore the decayed estate of our people, and let us fight for our people and the sanctuary.’ Then was the congregation gathered together, that they might be ready for battle and that they might pray and ask mercy and compassion. Now Jerusalem lay void as a wilderness, there was none of her children that went in or out. The sanctuary also was trodden down, and aliens kept the stronghold. The heathen had their habitation inthat place; and joy was taken from Jacob, and the pipe with the harp ceased. Therefore the Israelites assembled themselves together and came to Mizpah, opposite Jerusalem; for in Mizpah was the place where they prayed in former time in Israel ... So the camp removed, and pitched upon the south side of Emmaus (Αμμαούμ, Αμμαους, Εμμαους). And Judas said, ‘arm yourselves, and be valiant men, and see that ye be in readiness against the morning, that ye may fight with these nations, that are assembled together against us to destroy us and our sanctuary: For it is better for us to die in battle, than to behold the calamities of our people and our sanctuary. Nevertheless, as the will of God is in heaven, so let him do.’
Maccabees' battle against Greeks. Engraving by Gustave Doré
Then Gorgias took five thousand footmen and a thousand of the best horsemen, and removed out of the camp by night, to the end that he might rush in upon the camp of the Jews and smite them suddenly. And the men of the fortress were his guides. Now when Judas heard thereof, he himself removed, and the valiant men with him, that he might smite the king’s army which was at Emmaus (Έμμαούμ, Ναμμαουμ, Αμμαουμ), while as yet the forces were dispersed from the camp. In the meantime came Gorgias by night into the camp of Judas, and when he found no man there, he sought them in the mountains, for he said, ‘These fellows flee from us.’ But as soon as it was day, Judas showed himself in the plain with three thousand men, who nevertheless had neither armour nor swords to their liking. And they saw the camp of the heathen, that it was strong and well fortified and compassed round about with horsemen, and these were expert in war. Then said Judas to the men who were with him, ‘Fear ye not their multitude, neither be ye afraid of their assault. Remember how our fathers were delivered at the Red Sea when Pharaoh pursued them with an army. Now therefore let us cry unto heaven, if perhaps the Lord will have mercy upon us and remember the covenant of our fathers and destroy this host before our face this day, so that all the heathen may know that there is One who delivereth and saveth Israel.’ Then the strangers lifted up their eyes and saw them coming over against them. Therefore they went out of the camp to battle, but those who were with Judas sounded their trumpets. So they joined in battle, and the heathen, being discomfited, fled into the plain. However all the hindmost of them were slain with the sword, for they pursued them unto Gazara, and unto the plains of Idumea, and Azotus, and Jamnia, so that there were slain of them some three thousand men. This done, Judas returned again with his host from pursuing them and said to the people, ‘Be not greedy for the spoils, inasmuch as there is a battle before us, and Gorgias and his host are here by us in the mountain. But stand ye now against your enemies and overcome them, and after this ye may boldly take the spoils.’ As Judas was yet speaking these words, there appeared a part of them looking out from the mountain, who, when they perceived that the Jews had put their host to flight and were burning the tents, for the smoke that was seen declared what was done when therefore they perceived these things, they were sore afraid and, seeing also the host of Judas in the plain ready to fight, they fled every one into the land of strangers.” (1st Book of Maccabees 3, 38-4, 25)
Nowadays, nobody doubts that these events happened at Emmaus (the future Nicopolis), situated by the valley of Ayalon. One can note that the expression used in the Book of Maccabees: “in the plain country” (“εν τη γη πεδινη”) serves in the Greek Bible, the Septuagint, to render the Hebrew word “Shephela”, denoting the plain between the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains of Judea. The first place encountered by the enemies of Jews, fleeing the battlefield, is Gazara (Gezer). All this corresponds to the geographical position of Emmaus (Nicopolis).
As a result of Judas’ victories, the king Antiochus allowed the Jews to live according to their religious laws. However, Judas did not abandon the armed struggle against the Greeks and their supporters inJudea and neighbouring areas. In 160 BC the Syrian military commander Bacchides managed to defeat the rebels, and Judas the Maccabee fell in battle. Emmaus was among the places, occupied and fortified by Bacchides. Some parts of Bacchides’ fortifications survive today on the hill of Al-Aqed, in the national “Canada” park, in the Emmaus area.
The brother of Judas, Jonathan, led the continuing revolt, and gradually took control over the whole of Judea. Using the rivalry between the pretenders to the Syrian throne, he received the titles of High Priest and the Ruler of Judea. Judea became independent in May of 142 BC under the rule of Hasmonaic dynasty.
Under the Hasmoneans, Emmaus grew and gradually became the dominant settlement in the valley of Ayalon. It replaced Gezer (Gazara) as the administrative centre of the region (see below).
“And they (who played the flute before the altar) were the priests’ slaves. So R. Meir. R. Yose says, ‘They were from the Bet Hapegarim and Bet Tziporyah families and from Emmaus (depending upon manuscripts: עימאוס, עמאוס, אמאוס); they married priests (i.e. their daughters were accepted as wives by the priests)’. R. Hanina ben Antignos says, ‘They were Levites’.” (“The Mishnah”, R. Fisch, trans., Jerusalem, 1995, tractate Arakhin, ch. 2, Mishnah 4, p.19)
“(Judea) was parted into eleven portions, of which the royal city Jerusalem was the supreme, and presided over all the neighbouring country, as the head does over the body. As to the other cities that were inferior to it, they presided over their several toparchies; Gophna was the second of those cities, and next to that Acrabatta, after them Thamna, and Lydda, and Emmaus, and Pella, and Idumea, and Engaddi , and Herodium, and Jericho, and after them came Jamnia and Joppa, as presiding over the neighbouring people, and besides these there was the region of Gamala, and Gaulonitis, and Batanea, and Trachonitis, which are also parts of the kingdom of Agrippa …” (Flavius Josephus, “Jewish war” 3,3,5. Similar information can be found in the “Natural History” by Pliny the Younger, Book 5, ch. 15)
In 44-43 BC Judea underwent a civil war, which started on the territory of the Roman Empire after the assassination of Julius Caesar. When Gaius Cassius Longius, one of Ceasar’s assassins, became the new ruler of Syria, he demanded that Jewish cities pay monetary tribute to the Romans, in order to fund his military expeditions. Cassius had the support of Antipater, the chief minister of Judea in exacting these taxes from the Jews. In 43 BC the residents of Emmaus, along with other Jews, were sold into slavery for failing to pay the necessary tribute.
“As the war that arose upon the death of Caesar was now begun, and the principal men were all gone, some one way, and some another, to raise armies, Cassius came from Rome into Syria, in order to receive the [army that lay in the] camp at Apamia; and having raised the siege, he brought over both Bassus and Marcus to his party. He then went over the cities, and got together weapons and soldiers, and laid great taxes upon those cities, and he chiefly oppressed Judea, and exacted of it seven hundred talents: but Antipater, when he saw the state to be in so great consternation and disorder, he divided the collection of that sum, and appointed his two sons to gather it, and so that part of it was to be exacted by Malichus, who was ill-disposed to him, and part by others. And because Herod did exact what is required of him from Galilee before others, he was in the greatest favour with Cassius, for he thought it a part of prudence to cultivate a friendship with the Romans, and to gain their goodwill at the expense of others ; whereas the curators of the other cities, with their citizens, were sold for slaves, and Cassius reduced four cities into a state of slavery, the two most potent of which were Gophna and Emmaus (Aμμαους), and, besides these, Lydia and Thamna…” (Flavius Josephus, “The Antiquities of the Jews” 14, 11, 2).
In the same year (42 BC), Mark Antony appointed Herod, the son of Antipater, to be the administrator of Judea. The invasion of Parthian king Pacorus to Syria in 41 BC brought the disorder also to Judea. Relying upon the help of Parthians, Antigonus the Hasmonean tried to take power into his hands. The Romans assisted Herod in his war with Parthians and Antigonus. During these times of unrest, the Jewish population of the Emmaus district suffered the violence of the Roman military commander Macheras.
The ruins of Bacchides’ fortifications and the coins of Alexander Jannaeus and Antiochus VIII Grypus, found in the vicinity of the Byzantine church in Emmaus, represent the archeological legacy of the Hasmonean period of the place.