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What’s Special About Golan Heights? These 5 Fabulous Recent Archaeological Discoveries For a Start!

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The Golan Heights has been making headlines for the political impact of certain international relations choices. It has raised all sorts of questions and debate on sovereignty, international law, diplomacy, and foreign policy. Although the reach of the story has expanded, it is not the first time the fertile plateau located by the Sea of Galilee has been of social significance. In fact, our prehistoric ancestors have seen the value of the location ever since the Upper Paleolithic period .

This prolonged period of inhabitation of the Golan Heights means it has significant archaeological value. Discoveries in the region range from the Biblical to enigmatic. Here are five of the most interesting recent discoveries in the region.

Ancient City of Bethsaida - Supposed Home of Jesus and the Apostles

Sea of Galilee and southern Golan Heights, from Umm Qais, Jordan. (Daniel Case/CC BY SA 3.0)

Sea of Galilee and southern Golan Heights, from Umm Qais, Jordan. (Daniel Case/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Bethsaida is frequently mentioned in the Bible’s New Testament and is famously the city from where Jesus’ apostles Philip, Andrew, and Peter came.  It was also here Jesus is said to have performed some of his famous miracles, such as restoring sight to a blind man (Mark 8:22-25). As such a significant location for Christians, many biblical archaeologists and scholars have pondered over where Bethsaida may have been located.

And in 2016, archaeologist Dr. Rami Arav from University of Nebraska, Omaha announced that Bethsaida should be identified with Et-tell, a site which he has been investigating for some 30 years which sits on an outcrop that descends from the Golan Heights. Excavations have produced fishing rods, lead weights for fishing nets, various household items, silver and bronze coins, and jewelry that all fits well in with the biblical description of a fishing village, despite the location now being further from the Sea of Galilee than it was thousands of years ago.

Biblical scene of a fishing village. (Public Domain )

Biblical scene of a fishing village. ( Public Domain )

A 4000-Year-Old Mysterious Megalithic Tomb

Aerial photograph of the 4,000-year-old megalithic tomb. (Credit: Shmuel Magal, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Aerial photograph of the 4,000-year-old megalithic tomb. (Credit: Shmuel Magal, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

In 2017, a 4000-year-old megalithic tomb with unique rock carvings in its ceiling was identified in the Golan. It is one of the 5,600 dolmens which have been documented in the region to date. The multichambered tomb has 15 engravings depicting a straight line going to the center of an arc, designs which the archaeologists have not been able to decipher.

The Bronze Age tomb is one of the largest discovered in the Middle East so far and the basalt capstone covering it, which has rock art engraved on it, weighs about 50 tons. The existence of the dolmen and others like without the presence of other buildings from the same time period suggest to archaeologists that people living in the Golan at the time were organized and possibly nomadic. They were probably drawn to the Glan Heights due to its fertile and volcanic soil - a very attractive farming environment and location for grazing cattle.

The engravings that were exposed on the inside of the built chamber. (Credit: Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College)

The engravings that were exposed on the inside of the built chamber. (Credit: Gonen Sharon, Tel Hai College)

Wheel of Giants: Mysterious Prehistoric Rujm el-Hiri

The prehistoric megalith Rujm el-Hiri.  (Flickr/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Sitting in plain sight near the Sea of Galilee but unnoticed for centuries, an unusual megalith comprised of enormous stone circles dating to the Early Bronze Age remains a mystery to this day. The wheel-like design of enormous piled rocks—an estimated 40,000 tons of black basalt—are stacked into at least five concentric rings, with a central burial cairn at its center, and no one can say for certain who made the design or why. Referred to as “ Stonehenge of the Levant”, it is estimated to be approximately 5,000 years old.

In Arabic it is called Rujm el-Hiri, meaning the "stone heap of the wild cat”. In Hebrew it is named Gilgal Refaim, or the “wheel of giants”. The reference to a race of giants in the Bible, the Rephaites, alludes to only one of the many theories as to who built the complex monument, or the purposes behind it. No radiocarbon dating timelines could be established as no prehistoric organic material was ever recovered from the site, so theories and speculations abound based on just bits of information.

Livestock grazing nearby reveals scale of enormous stone rings on the plains of the Golan Heights. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Livestock grazing nearby reveals scale of enormous stone rings on the plains of the Golan Heights. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Gate of an Important First Temple Period Site

Ruins of fishing village Bethsaida mentioned in New Testament of Bible, north of Sea of Galilee, Israel. ( CC BY 3.0 )

During scheduled digs in 2018 a group of experts found the remains of a brick gate that was once part of the Biblical city of Zer, later known as Bethsaida in the New Testament and Gospels . Zer was a significant urban center that was located near the Sea of Galilee and it was, by tradition, found by one of the twelve tribes of Israel .

The gate find was an important one as there are so few city-gates from the Biblical period . It has been provisionally dated to the period from 1000 to 550 BC. The most important aspect of the discovery was that the gate is of a considerable size, indicating that it was part of extensive fortifications. This suggests that Zer was a major city during the First Temple period .

More Enormous and Enigmatic Structures

This circular structure was first detected in a sonar survey of part of the sea in the summer of 2003. (Credit: Shmuel Marco)

This circular structure was first detected in a sonar survey of part of the sea in the summer of 2003. (Credit: Shmuel Marco)

A gigantic monument at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee, as well as several mysterious structures, including a gigantic stone wheel and a moon-shaped monument, were found in and near the Golan Heights. The prehistoric stone monuments of Gilgal Refaim, Jethro Cairn, and the circular structure found in the Sea of the Galilee went unnoticed for centuries in the disputed regions of the Golan and archaeologists don't know who built them, or why.

Theories have gone wild and include ancient calendars, ceremonial structures, or 'sky burial' sites in which dead bodies were placed on top of stone mounds to be picked apart by vultures. Even more eluding is that that are no archeological evidence of a city near them, and some have therefore posited that the structures is in fact a huge monument carrying symbolic significance. The possible age of the structures ranges anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000 years old. The only thing we can say with certainty is that they are there and they are huge.

Top image: Nimrod Castle, Golan Heights              Source: Alexey Stiop / Adobe Stock

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