Experts have identified the deceased woman as a “hetaira,” a term used to describe high-class escorts from ancient Greece who provided elite clients not only with physical intimacy but also intellectual stimulation and companionship. It is speculated that she may have plied her trade accompanying the armies of Alexander the Great or those who waged war for his expansive empire after his death.
This groundbreaking discovery is believed to be the first-ever tomb associated with a hetaira found to date. Co-author of the study, Guy Stiebel, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, noted that this find also provides the earliest evidence of cremation during the Hellenistic period in Israel.
The study suggests, “It is most likely that this is the tomb of a woman of Greek origin who accompanied a senior member of the Hellenistic army or government during Alexander the Great’s campaigns or, more likely, during The Wars of the Diadochi (successors).”
The enigmatic nature of the tomb’s location initially posed questions for researchers. Stiebel explained, “The most stimulating one was: what is the tomb of a Greek woman doing on the highway leading to Jerusalem, far from any site or settlement of the period? The tomb particularly intrigued us, also in light of the fact that the archaeological information regarding Jerusalem and its surroundings in the early Hellenistic period is very scarce.”
What proved instrumental in unraveling the mystery was the discovery of the rare box mirror. Liat Oz, who directed the excavation for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and co-authored the study, highlighted the exclusivity of this artifact. She stated, “This is only the second mirror of this type that has been discovered to date in Israel. And in total, only 63 mirrors of this type are known around the Hellenistic world. The quality of the mirror is so high that it was preserved in excellent condition, and it looked as if it was made yesterday.”
These mirrors were typically associated with Greek women and often featured depictions of idealized females or goddesses like Aphrodite, the goddess of love. They were usually received as gifts, either as part of a dowry before marriage or, in the case of hetairai, as tokens from clients.
The tomb’s location alongside a highway and its distance from any settlement strongly suggests that the deceased woman was accompanying a moving army—a role rarely fulfilled by Greek wives. Consequently, researchers concluded that the tomb belonged to a hetaira.
However, hetairai were not limited to providing sexual services; some formed common-law marriages with their clients and inspired famous works of art that were displayed in temples.
The remains are believed to date back to the late 4th or early 3rd century BC, a time when the site was removed from any settlements, though it is now situated not far from the Ramat Rachel kibbutz. Further tests are expected to reveal more about the identity of the woman and the army she may have been accompanying.
Eli Escusido, director of the IAA, commented on the significance of the discovery, saying, “This is an example of the combination of archaeology and research at its best. The study of a seemingly simple object lead us to a new understanding and a narrative that opens a window for us to a forgotten and vanished ancient world. These days, researchers are using more technologies to extract more information, and maybe we will be able to get to know that lady and her culture better.”
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