Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Chappy Channukka!

Today is the sixth day of Hanukkah (or Chanukah), the Jewish festival of lights, The term is Hebrew for “rededication” and refers to the cleansing of the second Jewish temple by the Hasmoneans in 165 BCE. Since the 25th Day of the month of Kislev in the Jewish lunar calendar varies on the secular one anywhere between mid November and late December (I distinctly remember it being in January one year, but I could be wrong), it is frequently considered a cheap imitation of Christmas, but it isn’t.

To find the true meaning of the holiday, we have to go back to 336 BCE, when Alexander III of Macedon, also known as Alexander the Great, took power after the assassination of his father Phillip II. Now the Macedonians were Albanians with Greece envy, and before his death, Phillip had conquered Greece, and Alexander, who had been taught by, among others, the famous Aristotle, was pure Hellenic in attitude, and very much wanted to get revenge on the Persians for the invasion of a century and a quarter before [an interesting side note, Macedonia was a Persian ally during the Persian wars].

So in 334, he decided to conquer Persia, defeating Darius III at Battle of Issus the next year. He turned south and east, passing through Judea on the way to Egypt. Thus the autonomous province came under Greek rule.

Alexander passed through Judea again on his way though Babylonia (Iraq) to what is now Iran, and he basically let the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes. So things remained as Alexander got all the way to India, died [he was poisoned], and his top generals went to war with each other to inherit the empire.

Between 323 and 300, the Jews sat on the sidelines as the Macedonians duked it out with each other, and a quasi-stable situation developed. The Antigonids, had Europe, the Selucids had most of Asia, and the Ptolomies had Egypt, Cyprus, Judea and Syria.

For the Jews, this was fine. The first three Ptolomies were rather good for everyone involved. The fourth wasn’t so hot. He was a corrupt, inbred moron who the Selucids thought was ripe for the picking. It wasn’t so easy, but they finally managed to wrest Judea from the Ptolomies at the Battle of Panium (198 BC). The king at the time, Antiochus III, died in 187 and was succeeded by his son Selucius IV, who lost a war with Rome, and was soon overthrown by his unstable brother, Antiochus IV Epheminies, which roughly means “ the nutjob”, in 175.

Antiochus started out his reign by invading Egypt, and to the surprise of everyone, he actually managed to conquer the country. For a while, he let a couple of young Ptolomies by kings-in-name, but they revolted when Antiochus went back to Syria, so he came back in 171 and had himself crowned Pharaoh. Meanwhile, the Ptolomy brothers asked Rome for help, and the republic sent an army led by General Gaius Popillius Laenas, who told him that he must immediately withdraw from Egypt and Cyprus. Antiochus said he would discuss it with his council, whereupon the envoy drew a line round him in the sand, and said, "Think about it here." The implication was that, were he to step out of the circle without having first undertaken to withdraw, he would be at war with Rome. Antiochus agreed to withdraw.

Our villain was in an understandably fowl mood, and there was trouble with the Jews. He had forced out the high Cohen a couple of years before, and replaced him with an apostate named Jason. Jason was actually somewhat popular, as Greek culture was actually cooler than Jewish. The more anti-Hellenistic faction argued, and in the name of cultural unity, Antiochus decided to ban Judaism and have a uniformly Hellenistic kingdom. Jason was kicked out, by the antihellinists, Antiochus appointed a new high Cohen and then ordered a statue of Zeus put up in the Holy of holies.

The religious party, led by Mattathias the Hasmonean, started a full scale revolt, which under his son Judah the Maccabee (Aramaic for Hammer), drove the Greeks out of Jeruselem in 165 and later all of Judea, It was a great victory and Jewish independence was assured for at least a century.

In other words, Chanukah is a Jewish "Fourth of July" and a most Zionist holiday. The lights come from a legend which was first mentioned in the Talmud. With the fall of the Hasmoneans and the failure of the revolts against the Romans, the so-called miracle was emphisised and the military victory downplayed, especially since the Hasmonean dynasty wasn't all that great, especially in it's later days.

1 comment:

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