The wheel of giants

A remote Golan spot is one of the most enigmatic monuments in Near East.

Rujm el-Hiri 88 248 (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority )
Rujm el-Hiri 88 248
(photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority )
After the Six Day War, when the IDF conquered the Golan Heights from Syria, it did not take long for the archeologists to follow behind the infantry. In fact, some of them were the infantry and saw "wonderful things," in the epic words of Howard Carter, as he first peered into the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt 45 years earlier. Seeing what they saw, it was not long before archeological expeditions started to investigate the more obvious Roman and Byzantine remains, but it was another 20 years, in 1987, before a group of scholars put together the Land of Geshur Archeological Project, which attempted to evaluate the settlement patterns and economic context of the region over a period of more than 4,000 years before the common era. To do this they concentrated on five sites, the best known of which was at Kibbutz Ein Gev, and the least known, the megalithic stone circle of Rujm el-Hiri. Rujm el-Hiri, also called Galgal Harefaim, is one of the most enigmatic monuments in the Near East. Its name in Arabic means "mound of the wild cat" and the Hebrew denotes "the giants' wheel," both names well deserved, seeing that "mound" implies a burial mound and "wheel" stands for a stone circle. Even the wild cat has significance, because the burial mound is surrounded by five stone rings, which could be considered the tracks of a mad cat running around its prey in ever-decreasing circles. The stone circle was first discovered in 1968 by Yitzhaki Gal, a local surveyor, on the volcanic plateau of the Golan that is dotted with thousands of Middle Bronze Age (4,000 years ago) tombs called dolmens, literally "tables of stone," formed by a large slab resting on three stone uprights to form a protected tomb. Serious investigation and sample excavations started in two seasons in 1988 and 1990 and work has continued sporadically ever since, and today is being conducted by Michael Freikman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But to date no consensus has yet been reached to explain the monument's construction or its location at this remote spot. Many stone circles are located throughout the ancient world and most of them consist of impressive monumental uprights standing in something like a circle, or two circles, one inside the other, like Stonehenge in Britain, and usually without a central feature. But Rujm el-Hiri is different. It is made of walls rather than individual stones or megaliths. It boasts multiple rings around a central mound, and the sight of it from the ground is hardly impressive. From the air, however, it is magical, but who could have seen it from above several thousand years ago? Or was it meant to be appreciated from outer space? Wild theories do not yet abound because so far only serious scholars have put their minds to it, but no doubt one day the fictional scientists will concoct their theories. But so far, what are the facts? There are five stone rings with an outer diameter of about 150 meters. The circles are all of the black basalt stone of the volcanic plateau and they vary in size from small field stones to huge megaliths weighing up to 5.5 tons. The rings are centred around a raised mound that rises up to seven meters above the plain. Excavations here have revealed an elaborate tomb, which the first excavators held to be of a later date than the main circles. On the basis of some Bronze Age jewelry found in the mound, they said the tomb was built after the construction of the main monument. THERE ARE two entrances to the outer circle, one to the northeast and one to the southeast. The first one leads to a passageway that is aligned with the entrance to the tomb and this has suggested an astronomical alignment with the midsummer solstice of June 21. That makes it akin to the ancient chambered tomb of Maes Howe on the Orkneys in Scotland, though there the passageway is so aligned that on the midwinter solstice of December 21 the rising sun shines directly into the back of the inner chamber each year. The alignments at Rujm have not yet been proven astronomically, but the sun does rise between two of the eastern megaliths on June 21. The rings of basalt stones form "wheels" that are connected by radial walls, like spokes, at irregular intervals. They divide the circular areas into unequal segments, as if these were standing areas for clans of different sizes gathered around the central mound, or for their animals corralled there for an annual festival. The fact is that the thousands of stones, carefully laid in concentric circles, must have been the effort of many clans or tribes working in harmony under some kind of unified leadership and to a prearranged plan. According to the latest researchers, this all happened in Chalcolithic times, when men worked in copper and stone, some 6,000 years ago. From the on-site pottery it is clear that the monument was still used in the Late Bronze Age and even as late as Roman-Byzantine times, less than 2,000 years ago. As for the central mound, judging by the few precious relics left behind by early tomb robbers, that became a burial place in about 1300 BCE, when a great chieftain was buried there with his bronze arrowheads and golden earrings. For him (or her?) they made a semi-undergound chamber with large flat stones corbeled out one above the other and capped off by a massive slab to form a primitive dome, a kind of super dolmen, fit for a real leader, a king or even a queen. Who that was we will never know, but was he or she the descendant of an earlier leader who had been able to mobilize his people to build the Giants' Wheel? As one sits in the tomb, as I did with Golan archeological inspector Oren Zingboim, one feels the aura of a great anonymous personality for whom this had been their last resting place, and we wondered what had been the purpose of it all. That is still the question that eludes the archeologists. It could have been some kind of meeting place for ceremonial activities, perhaps connected with an important astronomical event, like the winter or summer solstice. It was always important for farmers to know how to calibrate their well known lunar calendar, which they could observe every month, with the more elusive solar year, which regulated their crops. This would have been especially important to the first agriculturalists, who were turning from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled planters, as was still occurring in Chalcolithic times. However, there is no evidence here of the standing stones that might have set a visual correlation for the rising summer sun, as at Stonehenge, and the alignment that was found here between the northeast entrance and the passageway to the central tomb, came a thousand years later than the original circles, so perhaps it took them a thousand years of experimental sightings to get it right. Or more probably there were some standing stones that later disappeared and were replaced by the more reliable entry and passageway. However, even that later alignment is still not proven and we remain left to wonder what exactly the earlier builders were trying to achieve. It may have been an annual cultic festival of which we no longer have any knowledge, or a center for regular ritual, where the various clans proved allegiance to one another in a kind of mutual nonaggression pact. IN THE last year or so, Freikman has made an in-depth study of this enigmatic monument. He has found that it is not unique; there are several other, though smaller, double stone rings on the Golan, and all are centred around a mounded tomb. It is just that Rujm is the largest one, with five rings. And Freikman now claims that in the center of Rujm the tomb was built at the same time as the rings. Tomb robbers took away the early as well as the later remains, including jewelry and weapons, but in their haste they dropped one Chalcolithic pin in the passageway and this, Freikman claims shows that the tomb was the centerpiece of the original rings. There we have it; it was a major tomb and the rings around it celebrate the importance of the deceased. He (or she) was the big Golan chief of Chalcolithic times and the tribes came around to celebrate his passing into the next world, and also perhaps to check their calendars with the summer solstice. And for this great chief, they shifted 40,000 tons of basalt to make five concentric rings around his or her mortal remains. Perhaps they thought that, as their spirit rose to meet the gods on the mountains, he (or she) could admire their servile handiwork from the air. This vast project was built by all the Chalcolithic settlements around, of which there are dozens. Just to the north is a vast array of fallen stone habitations, animal and human enclosures, with many chambered stone dolmens, all aligned to the nearest great hill, which stands high above the Golan plateau, Mount Peres, only seven kilometers away, on which the local god was thought to reside. Dating evidence comes from the cultic household pots whose shallow tops were used to burn incense. Even if Freikman is correct, Rujm el-Hiri still remains a colossal, mysterious monument in stone, a slumbering giant that has lain on the Golan for thousands of years and still awaits the kiss of life from the man or woman who can find the final explanation for the great work of those thousands of early laborers. If you want to have a go, visit the site by taking the track, passable by car, from Route 87, turning southeast at the Keshet junction, then taking the second right (south) toward Moshav Yonatan, but carry on to the Daliyot stream, and walk from there, but you are warned, it runs all year. Or better, take a jeep and come from the farmlike entry off Route 808, on the right just to the north of the Daliyot junction. It's a rough ride, but it's worth it to see at firsthand one of the major mysteries of the Near East. Zingboim thinks the site deserves more visitors, not just the hippies and nature folk who come at midsummer (like the Druids at Stonehenge), and he hopes, one day, to see a tethered balloon on site, for the enterprising to rise up and see for themselves that magical view from the air. The writer is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research, Jerusalem.