Israeli archaeologists digging in the Golan Heights have found the remains of a massive 3,000-year-old stronghold they believe belonged to the kingdom of Geshur, an ancient city-state in the northern Levant which the Bible describes as an ally of King David.
Little is known from outside the Bible about this kingdom: it appears that its inhabitants worshipped a horned moon-god and archaeologists have yet to find any hard evidence of a link to the ancient Israelites or the much-debated united monarchy of David and Solomon.
The freshly-discovered fortified complex was unearthed during a month-long dig ahead of construction of a new neighborhood for the village of Hispin, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday. The stronghold, roughly 1 acre in area, was built using massive basalt boulders and protected by 1.5-meter-thick walls, the IAA said in a statement. It was located on a hill overlooking a ford of the El Al stream, and was likely placed at this strategic location to control the water and the crossing of the river, say Barak Tzin and Enno Bron, the archaeologists who headed the dig.
Archaeologists aided by dozens of local volunteers from Hispin uncovered a number of artifacts at the site, including two rings and a figurine of a woman playing a drum, Tzin tells Haaretz. But the most spectacular discovery was an engraving on a large basalt stone depicting two horned figures with outspread arms. This find is what leads the archaeologists to connect the fort to the biblical kingdom of Geshur.
Excavations at nearby e-Tell, a large Iron Age site on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee, have uncovered a similar depiction on a cultic stele of this figure, identified as a moon deity worshipped by the local inhabitants and around the region. E-Tell is believed by some scholars, led by Prof. Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska in Omaha, to have been Geshur’s capital and is also thought to have been, centuries later, the village of Bethsaida, which features prominently in the New Testament.
The similarity between the iconography at e-Tell and the newly-found remains at Hispin (separated by just over 15 kilometers) suggests a connection between the two, Tzin says.
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“The figures at Hispin are less elaborate, but it’s clearly the same god,” he concludes. “It is possible that a person who saw the impressive Bethsaida stele, decided to create a local copy of the royal stele.”
Israelites or Arameans?
The preliminary analysis of the pottery dates the fort to the early Iron Age, specifically the 11th or 10th century B.C.E., Tzin says. This, according to the biblical chronology, would have been the time of the great united Israelite monarchy of David and Solomon, and Geshur is mentioned several times in the holy text in connection to this kingdom. For example, King David is said to have married Maakah, the daughter of the king of Geshur (2 Samuel 3:3) and it was to there that their son Absalom was exiled after killing his brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13:23-39).
However, most scholars agree that the Bible was first put in writing, at the earliest, in the late 7th century B.C.E., at the end of the First Temple period, centuries after the purported time of King David. So, there is much debate on the historicity of the biblical account of those distant days. While David is mentioned in at least one extra-biblical inscription, and is therefore considered a historical figure, there is little evidence that he and his son Solomon really created a vast empire, and it seems more likely they ruled over a small territory comprising Jerusalem and the surrounding region of Judah.
As for Geshur, there is no archaeological evidence that it was somehow linked to Judah in the 11th-10th centuries B.C.E. and scholars are still debating whether the Geshurites were indeed Israelites or were in fact part of the Aramean culture, centered on the nearby kingdom of Damascus, as indicated by their assiduous worship of the moon-god.
It is more likely that the biblical mentions of a connection between Geshur and the Israelites refer to a later period, the ninth century B.C.E., suggests Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Israel Finkelstein, one of the country’s leading biblical archaeologists. This was well after the end of the purported united monarchy and the time when the Omride dynasty ruled over the northern Kingdom of Israel, (as opposed to the southern Kingdom of Judah) and is indeed believed to have expanded its influence over these territories.
“I can’t see a historical scenario according to which an Israelite monarch is active in this area before the Omride dynasty in the Northern Kingdom, in the first half of the ninth century B.C.E.” Finkelstein tells Haaretz. “As far as I can judge, the biblical references to the connection with this kingdom portray memories of realities of the ninth century (and specifically of the Northern Kingdom), retrojected by the later biblical author to the time of King David.”
Whatever Geshur’s real position in the geopolitics of the ancient Levant, the discovery of the fortified complex at Hispin does add to our knowledge of settlement in the Golan during the Iron Age, given that very few sites from this period have been uncovered in the region, Tzin notes. And the IAA, for its part, promises that the development plans for Hispin’s new neighborhood will be changed in order to preserve the site and make it accessible to the public.