History Comes Alive at Tel Dan

Come with us on another tiyuul (Hebrew word for field trip) to a most magical place in Northern Israel. It was another perfect day in Paradise, and everyone seemed to be out enjoying a respite from the strict lockdowns over the past two months and from the cold, rainy days of winter. I had always wanted to visit this site – between the natural beauty and Biblical history, Tel Dan more than lived up to our expectations. So, let’s go!!!

Situated at the foot of snow-capped Mt. Hermon and of Mt. Dov adjacent to the Lebanese, Syrian borders, is Tel Dan. In Hebrew a tel is a large hill (or small rounded mountain). First, an introduction to this nature reserve, which will set the scene for the history associated with it. The entire region is lush and verdant, fed by hundreds of underground springs which bubble up to the surface forming little brooks. The brooks run together to form streams, joining up to eventually form the mighty, rushing Dan River. These are the headwaters of the Jordan River which flows into the Sea of Galilee and down into the Dead Sea.

These springs and rivers create are teaming with fresh fish. It is a most fertile area for growing crops. The isolated tel forms a great strategic advantage, as it gives great views in all directions: one can easily see an approaching enemy. It is no wonder that early civilizations settled here. The earliest archaeological findings are of a city first built here in the early-Canaanite period, between 2700 and 2400 BCE. In Genesis chapter 14, we read of the first war in history: the battle of the four kings against the five kings, in which Lot (yup, the nephew of Abraham who later escaped the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah!) is kidnapped. “And when Abram heard that Lot was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them all the way to Dan.” Abram liberated Lot from the hands of his captors here. And it is here, that the ancient city was uncovered!!! Another hurrah for the historical archaeological excavations which confirm Bible history. It is the most remarkable discovery!!! The entrance to the city os formed by a 7 meter tall gate to the city, completely intact – with the earliest complete arch (one of three consecutive arches leading into the city) found in the world and still standing. Incredible to think that the walls and bricks are made of a hard, baked clay. The arches (all three) have been shored up and the entrance to the gate sealed for stability and dare I say, permanent, preservation of the structure. Once it was unearthed, it was subject to rapid deterioration. An impressive arched covering has been erected over the complex to prevent any further damage from weathering. Beautiful basalt steps lead up to the entrance of this ancient fortress/palace/walled city. And here it is, live and in person, thousands of years old. Living history!

This 3700 year old city was known as La’ish. It was also important as it was situated at the junction of trade routes. In the Bible, in the book of Judges, when the spies from the tribe of Dan were sent to La’ish to scout out the region, they saw “the people that were therein, how they dwelt careless.” The tribe of Dan conquered the city, renaming the place Dan, after their ancestor (Judges 18:27-29). Several meters beyond the immense gate (above) lies the ruins of the ‘more modern’ 2500 year old city of Dan. It was expanded during the First Temple period after King Solomon. Israel had become divided into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Judah in the South (Jerusalem area) and the Kingdom of Israel in the North. During this era, Jeroboam, king of the Northern tribes, led a people’s revolt against the heavy taxes levied by King Rehoboam, the son of King Solomon. By setting up a large administrative center here, Jeroboam tried to draw the population’s attention away from Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. He established his own form of cultic worship here at Dan, going so far as to erect an altar upon which he placed a golden calf for the people to worship instead of G-d. Outside the main entrance to the city are the ruins of the alternate temple with its priestly chambers – and the altar itself!!! Bones of animals were found in front of the altar, and remains of incense and cannabis which were burned were also found on the stone altar itself. So sacrifices to the golden calf and pagan rituals were conducted at this site just outside the city walls. The whole story can be found in 1 Kings:12-13.

Thirty-six years after the reign of Jeroboam, the infamous King Ahab and his evil queen, Jezebel, ruled the area from this place. Ahab further expanded the city to over 50 acres, adding outer walls, storehouses and courtyards. The high walls are made of unhewn basalt rock and carved travertine blocks. The walled city is built right into the slope of the mountain, which also helped to preserve it as the soil and erosion from the top of the mountain downward covered the city over the millennia. The sloping open space that leads up to the entrance of the city, called a glacis, is still there, and it is all quite impressive. It is a huge ‘cobblestoned’ area, a bit like a large courtyard.

It is all quite magnificent. I can only imagine Queen Jezebel in all her make-up and finery, ordering her court necromancers and pretend priests, scheming against the prophet, Elijah. Looking out over the Hula Valley to the south, with all the vineyards, fields and orchards, I see King Ahab, who swindled the poor Naboth out of his vineyard there. I see the altar where the pagan sacrifices actually took place. And sitting high atop the walls of the city, I can only imagine this is the place where the ultimate karma happened and Jezebel fell to her death from a high window (1 Kings:16-21). Shortly after these events, the Assyrian army would sweep down from the North destroying the Kingdom of Israel and scattering the ten tribes into the far corners of the earth.

Another great example of realizing the tiny details of history that I had only read about is the perfectly preserved spot where the elders of the city and the king sat. Just a walk up the sloping cobblestone glacis and through the main gates of the city is an area lined with stone benches. Here sat the elders, ready to settle disputes and greet visitors and deal with the important municipal duties of the town. A little further up the promenade is a large stone dais. There are four ornately carved stones into which poles supporting a canopy would be placed. Under the canopy, the king would sit in a position of importance. The hole in the dais where the stone throne would have been can still be seen in situ. Incredible stuff!!!

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the museum at the neighboring Kibbutz Dan. It is here that many of the artifacts found at Tel Dan can be found. There are many tools dating back to Neolithic pre-Canaanite times, as well as incense shovels from the time of the First Temple. Pottery shards, coins, and many other artifacts were discovered during the many digs. Impressive sculptures and a fairly intact painted terra-cotta amphora from Hellenistic times are included in the exhibits there. The most fascinating piece found at the site, now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, is the Dan Stele. It is a large shard of fossilized tablet dating back to the second half of the ninth century, BCE. In Aramaic is an inscription from King Hazael of Damascus boasting of his victory over the king of Israel and the house of David. It was the first time an actual piece of history with the words “house of David” was discovered from an extra-Biblical source, which testifies to the veracity of the Biblical stories.

All-in-all it was a lovely way to spend Valentines Day. Just being out in nature, hearing the birds (O.K. and the constant whir of drones as they surveyed the border to keep us safe) and the rushing of the waters and laughter of children was enough to feed our weary souls. In one area, the fresh water streams had converged into a little oasis that served as a wading pool. It was in full use by several families. In the heat of summer, the place is always packed with families seeking relief. In typical Israeli fashion, we passed several groups of hikers and of picnickers: Israelis are famous for their love of picnics! Throughout the nature reserve are trails ranging from stroller and wheelchair accessible to the most grueling of steep mountain trails. Everything is well marked and well mapped out. Well-kept restroom facilities are available at all ends of the park, and of course, there is a well-stocked gift shop and snack shop. It has everything needed for a perfect day trip.

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