Set on a cliff in the heart of the Judean Desert, about 10 miles east of Jerusalem, Hyrcania was once a magnificent fortified desert palace. It was first built by the Hasmoneans and was later used by King Herod. Centuries later it became a Christian monastery before its final abandonment. Today, within an Israeli military zone, the site is hard to reach, but is definitely worth the effort!
History and Archaeology of Hyrcania
Hyrcania is probably the first fortified desert palace built by the Hasmonean Kings. Its name implies that it was built by John Hyrcanus, the first Hasmonean king to reign for a long time (30 years), and also the first of the Hasmonean kings to mint coins, a clear symbol of sovereignty and political independence.
Unlike Herodium or Masada, the first century Historian Josephus does not describe Hyrcania in detail, but he does mentions it being used by several Hasmonean kings and used as one of their treasuries (along with Alexandrion and Machaerus).
When Judea became under Roman control, these Hasmonean fortified desert fortresses were demolished by the Romans, but apparently their destruction was far from complete. When Herod was appointed by the Romans to rule Judea, he had to lay siege, for several years, on Hyrcania, as it was held by a Hasmonean princess named Alexandra. Later, Herod himself developed Hyrcania to impress Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ lieutenant, who was hosted also in Hyrcania when visiting Judea in 15 BCE. Hyrcania in those days was probably an eye-popping splendor, similar to Masada and Herodium, where lavishly decorated Herodian palaces were uncovered. But Herod didn’t just use Hyrcania for royal entertainment. We know that Hyrcania was also used to imprison Herod’s political opponents. He also ordered the burial of his eldest son, Antipater, after he executed him in a fit of rage, while he was on his deathbed in Jericho.
Hyrcania Becomes a Monastery
We have no information as to whether Hyrcania was used by the Jews during their revolts against Rome, but centuries later Byzantine monks settled on the site and its surroundings. On Hyrcania’s summit they stablished a monastery and called it “Castellion”. It is not clear how long the monastery existed, but in the Middle Ages it was abandoned. In 1923 monks from the neighboring Mar Saba Monastery tried to resettle the site, but in 1939 they abandoned it.
Archaeology of Hyrcania
Hyrcania was identified as early as 1880, but to this day it has not been excavated, which is a pity. It ruins probably bear remains of magnificent palaces from Roman times. In the 1950s, Bedouins found in Hyrcania papyri from the Byzantine period at the site, and to this day the remains of the Byzantine-era monastery are quite visible.
The site can only be reached by an off-rad vehicle, and still requires a 500 m hike to reach its top. Aside the remains of it Roman and Byzantine period ruins, the site provides some breathtaking views of Hyrcania valley and the Judean Desert.
At the northern foot of Hyrcania are two mysterious tunnels. Assumed to be related to the treasures mentioned in the Copper Scroll, they were finally excavated in 2007, but were found empty.