An enigmatic and little-known pyramid southwest of Jerusalem will be excavated for the first time this summer in an effort to determine who built it and when.
Hebrew University archaeologists will start digging at the pyramid at Khirbet Midras, in the Judean Hills south of Beit Shemesh, for the first time in July. This summer’s dig is the second season of excavations at Khirbet Midras, but the first in which scientists attempt to find out more about the massive structure.
The Khirbet Midras pyramid is believed to be the largest and best preserved of a handful of pyramid-topped mortuary complexes in Israel dating back to the Second Temple and Roman eras. The structure was first documented by former Israel Antiquities Authority director Levi Yitzhak Rahmani during a survey of the site in the 1950s.
Khirbet Midras is one of several antiquities sites located inside the Adullam Grove National Park, and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority will provide assistance with the excavation.
While their great Egyptian counterparts are larger and better known, Judeans apparently began building pyramid-topped tombs during the end of the First Temple periods and through the Second Temple period. The book of 1 Maccabees describes how Simon Maccabee erected a monument near Modiin with “seven pyramids facing one another for his father and his mother and his four brothers” slain in the uprising against the Seleucid Greeks.
Orit Peleg-Barkat, an archaeology professor at Hebrew University, said she believed one of the tombs carved into the limestone hillside below the pyramid may have been associated with the monument.
“Most probably these were Jewish burials,” she said in a phone interview, but the dating of the pyramid would help determine that with greater certainty.
This year she and her team of archaeologists and volunteers will excavate around the base of the pyramid in the hope of finding remains that will help date the monument, and barring that, they’ll try lifting some of the stones to probe around inside for clues.
Building a monument — known in Hebrew as a nefesh — to accompany the burial cave was “a way for Jews to commemorate their dead” during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Similar monuments dating to this period can be found in the hill country surrounding Khirbet Midras, as well as in Jerusalem.
But don’t expect something that looks like Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza, dig director Peleg-Barkat said. “It’s a different kind of pyramid,” a stepped, more rugged and significantly smaller, for starters.
The pyramid’s original height is uncertain, but the base is around 10 meters (33 feet) square, and runs five tiers of crudely cut limestone blocks high. The pyramidical structure stands about 3.5 meters (12 feet) tall today, and archaeologist Boaz Zissu of Bar Ilan University, who has written about the site, postulated that the monument may have stood 4.8 meters (16 feet) high when it was complete.
In July’s excavation, Peleg-Barkat and her team will study several areas of the site, including the pyramid, in an effort to determine who resettled the site after the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 CE, and when the structure was built. The Hebrew University team will also excavate a large ashlar structure that may be the remnants of a Roman temple, and other earlier remains at the site.
A section of the Khirbet Midras was excavated by the IAA between 2010 and 2011 after illegal digging was found at the site. Archaeologists determined that the town was inhabited from the Late Persian or Hellenistic period (fourth century BCE) until its zenith in the Roman period, in the lead up to the Bar Kochba revolt. The site was partly destroyed and abandoned during the second major uprising against the Romans, and later reinhabited.
The IAA’s excavations at Khirbet Midras turned up a large and elaborate mosaic belonging to a church built during the Byzantine period and underground hiding complexes dating to the period of unrest between the Great Revolt of 66-70 CE and the Bar Kochba revolt six decades afterwards.
When the town was repopulated, and by whom, remains a crucial question. During last year’s excavation, Peleg-Barkat and her team started unearthing a large limestone building that previous researchers believed was a synagogue. “Decorated architectural elements that we discovered in the building and its environs match the Roman tradition typical to our region in the second and third centuries CE,” she wrote in a preliminary brief about the dig.
Peleg-Barkat speculates that the architecture “characterizes pagan temples during the Roman period,” but notes that the structure’s identity isn’t absolutely clear.