Tourist Tip: The Tel Dan Arch

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The Canaanite gate at Tel Dan.Credit: Haim Taragan

“Who invented the arch?” people are sometimes asked. “The Romans, of course,” is the usual reply. “Everybody knows that!”

Think again. The Romans may have perfected and popularized it, but at Tel Dan, the great biblical dig-site in the shadow of Mount Hermon, on the biggest source of the Jordan River, you can find a clay-brick arched gate dating back to the 18th century BCE – at least 1,500 years before the Romans.

The arch was no mean innovation. It’s a powerful architectural device capable of supporting the weight of walls and other massive structures. The stress of the superstructure is distributed down the ‘arms’ of the arch, unlike a cross-piece over a doorway, for example, which has to bear the burden alone.

The arched gate at Tel Dan, attributed to the Canaanites, feels like a prototype. It lacked the strength and stability of later stone arches, in which the tapered keystone at the apex jams into the construction and holds everything in place. The still-visible mud-bricks began disintegrating within a quarter-century, apparently. To prevent collapse, the locals blocked the gate with the gritty dark earth you see today. The new gate they built somewhere else in the city has not been found.

For over three decades, the archaeological excavations at Tel Dan were the “baby” of Dr. Avraham Biran of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He once mused aloud that a different “Avraham,” the biblical patriarch, may have entered Dan through this very gate. Abram’s nephew Lot had been abducted by marauders (Genesis 14); and when Abram heard of it, “he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” We have no corroborating evidence of Abram/Abraham from any non-biblical source, but cultural clues have often led scholars to place him in the 18th century BCE – the time of the Canaanite gate. The suggestion is at best tentative – Biran was speaking off the record – but intriguing nevertheless.

Here’s a modern midrash, a rabbinic homily, on the subject:

The precise number of Abram’s men (318) is interesting. Why not a round number, as is common in descriptions of armed forces elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible? The homily employs the somewhat mystical Jewish technique of ‘gematria’ or numerology. Each of the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet is assigned a numerical value, from 1 to 10, then 20 to 90, and finally 100, 200, 300 and 400. The figure “318” happens to be the exact value of the Hebrew name “Eliezer,” Abram’s trusty servant. So (says the midrash) perhaps we can reread the verse as follows: Abram pursued Lot’s kidnappers, not with “318” men, but with “Eliezer” his servant. The two of them alone? Absurd, surely. But the midrash concludes by looking at the meaning of Eliezer’s name, “my God is [my] help,” and proposing one final layer of meaning: Abram, “with God’s help,” pursued Lot’s abductors.    

Most visitors to Tel Dan come for the exquisite nature reserve, with its rushing stream and tranquil glades. To view the Canaanite gate from within the park, follow the map on the brochure that comes with your entrance ticket.

But you can also see it from the outside. Turn off Route 99 to Tel Dan. Several hundred meters in, where the road turns sharply to the left, take a cautious turn to the right (there are a couple of shallow potholes), onto a paved side road. A short way on, you can pull over to the left for a good view through the fence. The permanent roof over the site is your landmark.

Note the ancient stone street that approaches the gate. The clay-brick arch that formed the original entrance is clearly visible. The small modern opening, constructed with wooden beams, was made by the archaeologists to explore the inner structure. They discovered three mud-brick arches in sequence, which together formed the full city gate. Part of the mud-brick wall to the right of the opening has recently been restored, as an illustration of the city’s very ancient past.

Postscript. “Dan” is actually an anachronism. Centuries after Abraham, the small tribe of Dan trekked up to the far north in search of more spacious territory. Joshua 19: “…the Danites went up and fought against Leshem [“Laish” in the book of Judges], and… took possession of it and settled in it, calling Leshem, Dan, after their ancestor Dan.”

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