Rujm el-Hiri, the “stone heap of the wildcat” is one of the largest and oldest stone ruins in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. It is also one of the most mysterious, and strange.
Located about 16 kilometers (10 miles) east of the Sea of Galilee, this massive structure arranged in a circular formation went unnoticed for centuries, before being formally discovered in 1967. Sitting in the highlands at about 515 meters above sea level, it is clearly a site of some importance.
But honestly most theories about the purpose of the site are simply guesswork. Is it Neolithic, or early Bronze Age? What practical use did this vast and remote palace of stone have to the ancients?
Hidden in Plain View
One of the reasons the site was overlooked for so long was that it is almost invisible at ground level. In order to get a complete layout of the site and determine its actual size, an aerial view is necessary.
The site, once catalogued, has attracted a number of excavations. The structure is believed to have been built of basalt rocks, a common source of building material in the region of Golan Heights given its volcanic history.
But the scale of the structure shows its importance to the people who built it. Between 37,500-40,000 tons (34 – 36 million kg) of partially worked stones were used in the construction of Rujm el-Hiri, stacked up to a height of 2 meters (6.6 feet).
Experts estimate that it would have taken over 25,000 man days in order to construct the massive monument. This suggests sophistication and organization in the construction, and has earned the site the nickname “Stonehenge of the Levant.”
The Rings of Rujm el-Hiri
The site consists of a central cairn encircled by a number of concentric rings. The largest, outermost ring measures nearly 145 meters (476 feet) east-west and 155 meters (509 feet) north-south.
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This outermost wall is about 3.2 to 3.3 meters (10 – 11 feet) thick and has a height of 2 meters (6.6 feet). There are two openings in the ring, both of which have been blocked with fallen boulders.
All the internal rings are incomplete, but it appears that some of them are more oval in comparison to the outermost ring. Wall 3, for instance, has a clear bulge towards the south, for unknown reasons. Some rings are connected by 36 spoke-like walls that seem to have been placed in a random manner.
The core of the innermost ring consists of a cairn that protects what appears to a burial chamber. But this is not some elaborate tomb or mausoleum – the chamber and cairn are much later, being added about 1,500 years after the initial construction of the rings.
The central cairn at the site is an irregular stone heap measuring somewhere around 20 to 25 meters (66 – 82 feet) in diameter and 4.5 to 5 meters (15 – 16 feet) in height. Around the central cairn, there are small and medium-sized stones that are constructed in a shell.
Dating of the Site
The monument is believed to be about 5,000 years old, but very few artifacts have been found from Rujm el-Hiri which would help with the dating. On the basis of the few artifacts that were recovered, the excavators suggest that the rings were actually built during the early Bronze Age, with the cairn added in the late Bronze Age.
A number of extensive and recent studies have been carried out in the 21st century that have clarified this dating of the site. According to recent studies, the site has been narrowed to having been built between the early 4th millennium BC and the mid-3rd millennium BC.
An Unknown Purpose?
What were the ancients doing at Rujm el-Hiri before it was a late Bronze Age burial? According to one hypothesis, the site was used for conducting ceremonies on the shortest and longest days of the year.
Some research has shown that on the longest day of the year, the first sun rays shone through the northeast gate opening, suggesting astronomical alignment. It is believed that the inhabitants of the region could therefore have used the site for worshipping Ishtar and Tammuz, gods of fertility and protection, in order to thank them for a good harvest.
Linked to this, some other researchers believe that the purpose of the site was to function as an ancient calendar. During the two equinoxes, the rays of the sun passed between two marker rocks. Other notches present on the walls could indicate fall and spring equinoxes.
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Or is it the stars? The layout of the site also appears to have been constructed partially based on the night sky, and it may have been used for astronomical observations. By observing the constellations, religious calculations could be made.
Other theories abound. Rami Arav, an archaeologist and expert in the area, has suggested that the site was used as a Zoroastrian “Dakhma” or Tower of Silence. The Zoroastrian dead were laid at the center of the site to allow the birds to remove flesh from the bones.
Some others believe that the site was used for the burial of important individuals or leaders and the tomb present in the central dolmen supports this theory. However, the tomb is empty, and no remains of humans have been found at the site.
At present, we have so many theories about this strange and isolated place that all that can be said with certainty is: we just don’t know.
Summer Solstice Theory: A Strong Contender
With so many theories it is clear that the site remains an enigma, but perhaps the most persuasive theory is that of an ancient calendar. This theory is supported by the work of archaeo-astronomer Anthony Aveni and archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi, who researched the site in the late 1990s. While conducting the research, they noted that the entranceway of the site to the center opened on summer solstice’s sunrise.
Other notches present in the walls indicated the fall and spring equinoxes. However, no ceremonial artifacts were recovered during the excavation of the walled chambers, which indicated that the rooms were either used for residence or storage purposes. Were there stargazers permanently living at Rujm el-Hiri?
According to Mizrachi and Aveni, the walls of the site pointed to the star-risings for a specific period. They also believed that it could also help in predicting the rainy season.
The site remains a popular attraction for people even today, with millions visiting the site every year from across the globe. Moreover, New Age practitioners advocating a return to nature are known to gather at the site during the equinox and summer solstice in order to view the first sun rays shining between the rocks.
But not all who visit hold the site in such reverence. The prehistoric site now falls within a military area, and is now used for providing training to the military forces of Israel.
Top Image: Rujm el-Hiri. Source: GorALexeY / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Bipin Dimri