Alexander Yannai is one of the best known of the Hasmonean kings; perhaps this is because of his conquests, many buildings (some of which remain until today), and the family and national intrigue surrounding him. He also ruled for a long time, from 103-76, long enough to make an impact on the national, international and religious scene.
Like his father, John Hyrcanus, and his grandfather, Simon Thassi, Alexander Yannai expanded the territory of the Jewish state. Not since the time of the great King Solomon had the Jewish state controlled as much territory as it did during the reign of Yannai. He conquered most of the coastal plain becoming the first Jewish leader to control the important ports of Jaffa, Dor, and Gaza. Coinage minted during his realm featured an anchor, showing the importance of sea travel and trade. Another trade route overland to Damascus was strengthened by his taking control of today’s Golan Heights. The icing on the cake in the area of economic development was control of all the territory around the Dead Sea, and the important spice and asphalt trade that passed through there.
In order to increase trade, defend Judea’s borders, and develop the country, Alexander Yannai built desert fortresses, lighthouses and infrastructure. A line of desert fortresses, including Sartaba, Machaerus, and Masada, joined Hyrcania, which was built by his father John Hyrcanus. These protected the country from their enemies, the Parthians, to the East.
A lighthouse was built on the Mediterranean coast, Straton’s Tower, which would later form the basis of Herod the Great’s port of Caesarea. Another lighthouse and palace was placed in the middle of the Dead Sea to control shipping there, and serve as a symbol of the ability of the king to do whatever he desired. These building projects were possible because of the introduction of Greek engineering and science. The same principles allowed the Hasmoneans to construct aqueducts to bring water to Jerusalem, and caused the city to assume a central role and attracted more people to the holy city during the holidays.
But this was also a time of division within the Judeans. Alexander Yannai ascended to the throne upon the death of his 2 older brothers. He subsequently married Salome, his oldest brother’s widow. (More on her tomorrow.) Alexander Yannai’s siding with the Sadducees against the Pharisees caused deep division within the Jewish population. One Sukkot holiday, when masses were gathered at the Temple, a disagreement broke out between Yannai and the Pharisees, resulting in 6,000 dead Pharisees, all killed by order of the king. Recently, a horde of skulls was found in a Jerusalem excavation – possibly a testament to this act.
Alexander Yannai’s economic development was not without corruption and there was conflict of interest stemming from the King holding both secular and religious power. Many scholars today identify the “Wicked Priest” from the Dead Sea Scrolls as Alexander Yannai – a testament to this divisive character. The Scrolls did not mention him by name, maybe due to fear of Yannai’s reputation to deal severely with those who opposed him. The Dead Sea Scroll, Pesher Habakkuk, describes the Wicked Priest:
“[The Wicked Priest] was called by the true name at the beginning of his standing, but when he ruled in Israel, his heart became large, and he abandoned God, and betrayed the laws for the sake of wealth. And he stole and amassed the wealth of the men of violence who had rebelled against God, and he took the wealth of peoples to add to himself guilty iniquity. And the abominable ways he pursued with every sort of unclean impurity…”
We’re left with a complex image of a king who accomplished much, but also watered the seeds of division. Some repairs to the situation, and important developments for the future of Judaism will come with Alexander Yannai’s successor. Alexander died of illness contracted during a military campaign to capture territories in today’s Jordan. He reigned for 27 years and died at the age of only 49.
Most of Alexander Yannai’s buildings were renovated by King Herod (often beyond recognition). To see a good example of Yannai’s building, hike up to Sartaba overlooking the Jordan Valley – it was a favorite fortress of his family and especially dear to his wife, Salome, who we will meet tomorrow.