Name of Israeli Army Base Goes Back 1,700 Years

Boundary stone in Greek naming the village of Nafah was found pursuant to infrastructure works, in this case laying a pipeline to the army base in the Golan Heights

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The boundary stone naming Nafah in Greek
The boundary stone naming Nafah in Greek (center): Look carefully and you will see weathered letteringCredit: Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the Golan Heights is an Israeli army base named Nafah. It was built on a former Syrian town named Nafah. It turns out the name goes back at least 1,700 years and possibly longer, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Tuesday, following the recent discovery of a Roman-era boundary stone naming a village at the site – Nafah.

Israel and the Levant are littered with ruined settlements and cities from the dim reaches of history, and we usually have no clue what they were called in antiquity. Unfortunately, the ancients didn’t customarily put up signs saying “Welcome to Bethel.” We know the ancient names of Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva and Jericho because they remained continuously settled, and their names didn’t change. And there are a host of places we can’t find, like Sodom and Gomorrah:  nobody knows where they might have been, if they even existed beyond biblical allegory.

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So the postulated identity of any given mysterious site is largely based on archaeological interpretation. The real location of the biblical town of Bethsaida comes to mind – there are three contenders for the crown.

But occasionally Fortuna smiles upon the archaeological set, aided by an emperor’s pedantry and lust for taxes. On Tuesday, the Israel Antiquities Authority reported the September discovery of a boundary stone inscribed in Greek from 1,700 years ago, later repurposed as a tomb marker. The stone bore the name “Nafah Village,” say its decipherers, Danny Syon of the IAA and Prof. Chaim Ben David of the Kinneret Academic College.

Aerial view of ancient Nafah
Aerial view of ancient NafahCredit: Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority

To be clear, Nafah was not settled continuously from its establishment, says the IAA’s Yardenna Alexandre, co-director of the excavation together with Dina Avshalom-Gorni. The village had been abandoned about 1,500 years ago for roughly eight centuries, and arose anew in the Mamluk period, from the 13th to 15th centuries. Then it was abandoned again, insofar as we know, until the modern Syrian village arose.

Stones and taxes

Why did this newly unearthed identity marker even exist? Boundary stones marking villages had been installed during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruled from 284 to 305. He had that done for the purpose of collecting taxes.

“The boundary stones were part of an economic reform Diocletian carried out at the end of the third century,” Alexandre tells Haaretz. “As part of this reform, he set up boundary stones between the lands of different villages, so it would be established which village has to pay taxes on these agriculture lands.”

Most boundary stones found in the Golan bear names of villages that have long since disappeared. We don’t know where they were, just that they were in the area. In contrast to the burgeoning Galilee, the Golan Heights was not characterized by persisting settlement, Alexandre explains.

“Take a place in the Galilee, like Nazareth or Kafr Kana [Cana]: everybody knows where it is. It had been a Roman village, and settlement continued,” Alexandre explains. “But in the Golan, there was a big break in settlement between the Byzantine and Mamluk periods, so village names from the Roman period were not preserved. Now we know Nafah or Kfar Nafah was the name of the Roman village at that spot.”

To be accurate, she qualifies that they found remains of the Roman and Byzantine village at the spot and can say based with very high certainty, based on Diocletian’s boundary stone, that its name was Nafah – the same as the Syrian village and Israeli base.

The boundary stone naming Nafah in Greek
The boundary stone naming Nafah in GreekCredit: Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Why was settlement in the Golan Heights discontinuous? “Because it was a backwater,” Alexandre answers. Rather like the Negev Desert, though blessed by much more rain, the Golan was inconvenient to occupy: the heights are difficult to settle and it was, in the terms of the time, in the middle of nowhere. Only at times of intense settlement during the Roman and Byzantine periods did the Golan Heights become heavily peopled – the same can be said of the Negev. But in the early Islamic period, the settlements disappeared and so, largely, did their names.

It’s true that during the brief Mamluk period, the Golan Heights had something of a revival. The Mamluk capital was Safed and the main road between that hilltop city and Damascus ran through the Golan, smack next to Nafah. So settlements did arise there again, but they were small and short-lived, she says – but maybe Nafah’s strategic position on that ancient highway wound up preserving the name.

We note that another place identified thanks to an ancient ruler’s pedantry was the biblical city of Elusa in the Negev, which is now located in an Israeli army firing zone. That inscription was also in Greek and it also seems to date to Diocletian’s reign. The man had a mania for order, it seems.

Also, local tradition regarding names has drawbacks – one being that it’s completely unreliable. For instance, there’s a theory that Mount Sinai, yes that one, is in Saudi Arabia mainly because locals say so. It isn’t.

Back to the Golan, where yet again the latest discovery was made pursuant to infrastructure works, in this case the national water company Mekorot installing new water pipelines to the Nafah army base and other sites in Israel’s north.

Absent settlement continuity over the centuries, it’s rather a mystery how the name was preserved, the archaeologists observe.

The salvage dig also found a building from the Mamluk period that the archaeologists believe was a road station, very much like we have on highways today, sans the gas station but with amenities for travelers and their horses. This one was on the main road connecting the Galilee to Damascus, they explain. The services included not only bedding and food but possibly also reshoeing said steeds, based on the discovery of a furnace and iron slag. It indicates an ironsmith worked there and what he would be doing on the main drag to Damascus was, plausibly, replacing horseshoes.

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