Older Than the Pyramids and as Mysterious as Stonehenge: The Unexplained Stone Circle in Israel's Golan Heights

The stone circle at Rujm el-Hiri remains one of the most neglected archaeological finds in Israel. Experts are calling for it to be turned into a national park – even though it isn’t connected to the area’s Jewish past

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Rujm el-Hiri
Rujm el-Hiri in the Golan Heights. Israeli archaeologists called it the Wheel of Giants when they discovered it in 1968.Credit: Yuval G
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Rujm el-Hiri in the heart of the Golan Heights deserves a place of honor on the list of most forgotten archaeological sites in Israel.

It may even deserve to stand on the podium’s peak. Few tourists have visited the ancient site and even those who come find to difficult to absorb its marvelous qualities, since from ground level all you see is piles of stones.

But in order to truly understand its value and beauty, four visitors crowded around a computer screen this week, watching footage from the drone that flew overhead and filmed the site.

The moment the drone reached a height of 20 meters (65 feet), we groaned with pleasure. The pile of gray basalt stones suddenly looked like a perfect circle. A maze of ruins with an unclear shape turned into a wondrous site (and sight), on a par with the most exciting places on the planet.

Comparisons with Stonehenge in England, the pyramids in Egypt, the Nazca Lines in Peru and even the huge statues on Easter Island are not unfair.

The question that keeps cropping up on every visit to Rujm el-Hiri is a simple one: how is it possible that such a fascinating site exists in Israel yet remains neglected, distant, inaccessible and almost unknown to Israeli hikers and foreign tourists?

Very little has changed there and in the surrounding area in the past 50 years. A great deal is about to change in the near future, though, and the big question is whether one of the most interesting places in Israel will survive.

Rujm el-Hiri was discovered in 1968. A survey mission headed by Shmarya Gutman was surveying the Golan and marking sites of interests. Last week, Itzhaki Gal, who participated in that original survey, recalled the excitement he felt when he realized, with the help of an aerial photograph, what lay in the heart of the Golan Heights. Several days later, he plucked up the courage and told Gutman about it. Gutman wanted to travel in the middle of the night to see this circle of stones.

The Israelis called the place Gilgal Refaim (Wheel of Giants), connecting the site to Og, king of Bashan and the legendary kingdom of giants (“Refaim”). The relevant quotation is in Deuteronomy 3:13: “And the rest of Gilead, and all Bashan, the kingdom of Og ... is called the land of Rephaim [sic].”

The Arabic name Rujm el-Hiri apparently refers to “the stone heap of the wildcats” – a phrase that, like other things at the site, arouses endless debate.

An empty site

Significant archaeological excavations were conducted at the site in the late 1980s and early ’90s, as part of the archaeological dig headed by Prof. Moshe Kochavi in the biblical Land of Geshur Regional Project (covering the area of the southern Golan, the east coast of Lake Kinneret and the northern bank of the Yarmouk River). Five central sites from the Bronze Age and Iron Age were investigated: the Levia compound, Rujm el-Hiri, Tel Hadar, Tel Ein Gev and Tel Soreg.

Prof. Yonathan Mizrachi, who wrote his Harvard doctorate about Rujm, discovered a burial compound containing several pieces of gold jewelry in the central structure. But the mystery of the stones was not solved: the findings were dated to the Bronze Age (in other words, about 3,500 years ago) – about 1,000 years or more after the construction of the original site.

There was another study at the site later in the ’90s by the Israel Antiquities Authority, headed by Prof. Moshe Hartal. Dr. Michael Freikman of the Hebrew University recently completed his doctorate on study of the site. Speaking to Haaretz last week, he explained that the most unique fact about Rujm el-Hiri is that it’s an “empty” site. There are almost no findings of dated material – potsherds, coins, etc, – that could indicate the period when it was cultivated.

In order to overcome this obstacle, Freikman decided to analyze the landscape. He believes the site is an impressive monument that was constructed in order to be seen.

He estimates that there are some 50,000 tons of basalt stones at the site. Its construction required hundreds of thousands of workdays – maybe even a million, he says. According to his calculation, if 100 laborers worked at the site, construction would have taken about 25 years. A tremendous and terribly expensive effort.

The data for Rujm el-Hiri are incredible: Five circles of basalt stones, built to a height of about 3 meters, which surround a central structure about 5 meters in height. The diameter of the outer circle is 150 meters, and its shape is perfect. The interior circles are 80 and 110 meters in diameter. The circles of stones are connected to additional walls. Between them are traces of flooring. There are two openings in the outer circle – one facing northeast, the other southeast.

If you stand in the center of the site at sunrise on the longest day of the year (June 21), you see the sun rising in the center of the northeastern opening. I have tried it several times to test its validity. It is true, but the opening is very wide so there’s a sense of frustration: The sun also rises there on the previous day and the following days as well.

We must also note that there is no similar phenomenon at the southeastern opening on the shortest day of the year, December 21. The sun won’t rise in the center of this gate, but next to it. This disappoints those who believe the site is a ritual star observatory, or an agricultural calendar shrine. None of this has prevented many from claiming that the site – like many other stone circles worldwide – has “unique energies.”

I can’t confirm that because I don’t understand anything about unique energies, but every time I’ve been there I’ve felt happy.

We can discount the occasionally cited view that the place was built by aliens, who arrived from the far end of the galaxy and landed among the cow droppings of the Golan – although the cows probably believe that version. Last week, too, many of them gazed optimistically upward and then continued to graze in the pasture.

The tempting comparison to Stonehenge in Wiltshire, southern England, relies on the planning and astronomical circular structure of the site, as well as its estimated age. Scholars’ estimates for the site cover a large time span – from 4,000 years (about the age of the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge) to 6,000 years ago. Views on what the site was built for are also split, though scholars agree that at some point in the past it served as a ritual site for some form of tribal or social gatherings.

The giants return?

I was accompanied on my visit to Rujm el-Hiri by Sharon Levy, whose remit at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority covers the Golan Heights. He believes the place should be declared a national park.

Levy says the preservation of this large open space in the heart of the Golan is of huge importance, because the pressures on the environment are multiplying and intensifying.

The most urgent problem, he says, is the plan to build a wind farm at Tel Fares, some 5 kilometers to the northeast. The present plan includes the construction of 42 giant wind turbines, each 150 meters high. Such a farm would totally change the open space surrounding Rujm.

But Levy is even more disturbed by another problem the turbines will cause: endangering the lives of the few vultures that remain in the Golan, and at the nearby Gamla site in particular. He quotes studies pointing to certain death for at least five vultures a year if the turbines are installed, threatening the near-extinction of the species in the region. Another environmental problem is the preparation of 3,500 dunams (865 acres) near Rujm for agricultural use. “Where will the irrigation water for these areas come from?” he asks in concern.

The national park Levy wants to introduce would cover a large area of some 5,000 dunams. The development he proposes is minimal: simply preparing a paved road to the site, which would make it accessible without special vehicles. In addition, he recognizes the need for a high observation point that will enable visitors to enjoy an aerial view of the site.

Two options have been floated as a possible solution: one proposes operating a hot-air balloon tied with a cable, which would enable visitors to observe the site from a height of several dozen meters; the second, more modest one, is building a 20-meter-high observation tower at the edge of the outer circle.

Dr. Noam Lidar, the INPA’s chief ecologist, is a self-confessed “strange places freak,” and is therefore smitten with Rujm el-Hiri. The uniqueness of the place, he explains, lies less in its scientific aspect and more in the “story,” meaning it has tremendous potential.

He says the story is historical and astronomical, but also broader – and deals with the open spaces in the Golan, which are under threat due to agricultural development and the wind turbines. He believes that preserving these spaces is a vital task for Israel’s environmentalists.

Lidar says another key problem is preserving the darkness at nighttime. Israel has very few places left where you can see starlight and truly study the stars. The Golan Heights, he explains, is one of the last refugees of darkness remaining to us outside of the Likud Party (OK, he didn’t say that last bit). Despite his pensive tone, he conjures up a beautiful sentiment: “It’s important to leave in this place a naive taste of remoteness and of adventure stories that have disappeared. We lack such positive stimuli, and we have no mystery.”

Itzhaki Gal doesn’t like the word “mystery” that is often attached to Rujm el-Hiri. “It’s an important site on a global scale,” he says enthusiastically, “but when you say ‘mystery’ you are undervaluing it. You have to think about it scientifically. The mystery is nonsense that causes us to deviate from the subject, and because of that almost nothing happened here.

“All over the Golan,” he continues, “they’ve invested tens of millions in developing sites – especially ancient synagogues – but they aren’t investing a shekel in the Canaanite period. There aren’t even normal roads leading to those sites. What’s the problem? You aren’t sure the land is ours? We can invest in the Canaanite period without undermining patriotism.”

When asked what he would like to see happen at the site, Gal replies with typical brio: “We have to excavate in a few more places, carry out restoration and preservation, pick up stones from the collapsed rocks so the walls will occupy a position similar to their previous one. We have to restore the walls to a height of about 4 meters, so the visitors will see a wall and not fallen rocks. If they invest in excavating in the area of the gates, it will be possible to prove the astronomical issue. And of course, we have to allow visitors to see the site from above. A tower is a good option.”

Dr. Noam Lidar.Credit: Moti Milrod

Mizrachi, head of the sociology and anthropology department at Jezreel Valley Academic College, excavated at Rujm for several years. At present, together with Gal, he is writing a book based on his studies at the site. Mizrachi says the most obvious reason for the fact the site has not benefited from broad recognition and development in the 50 years since its discovery is that it isn’t connected to the Golan’s Jewish past. Synagogues in the Golan – like the one at Umm el-Kanatir – are undergoing massive development, but other sites don’t receive similar budgets.

Another point he raises is that, in the past, many people assumed that the Golan Heights would eventually be returned to Syria as part of a diplomatic agreement, and therefore they didn’t invest in developing its tourism sites. Today, the situation has changed. Nobody believes the Golan will be returned to Syrian hands in the near future.

“It’s very important to preserve the wild and remote beauty of the place,” explains Mizrachi. “We shouldn’t do any restoration or rebuild the walls. That’s part of the beauty of this place. We have quite good scientific answers to most of the questions the site presents. Whenever we deal with the past, we build a certain puzzle of knowledge and remain with mysterious components. The mystery is part of the charm here. It may be worthwhile to build a small visitors center in Rujm, which will demonstrate the process of deciphering the mystery.

“The beauty of the site lies in its interdisciplinary nature,” he adds. “It presents us with questions in astronomy, archaeology, the history of the region’s climate and the methods of irrigation used by ancient settlers. All these create a wonderful mystery. It’s important to enable many people to enjoy it.”

The light fades early at this time of year and several large flocks of starling hover above Rujm. They look like a black cloud that approaches and moves away in a coordinated movement: Alfred Hitchcock and Indiana Jones meet near Ramat Magshimim. When I attempt to film them, says they are disappearing. There used to be 2 million starlings in Israel, but fewer than 200,000 are left today. The numbers are depressing. It’s preferable to think about aliens with aching backs, arranging thousands of basalt stones in perfect circles.

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