Tag Archives: vultures

Rujm el-Hiri Revisited

I wrote about Rujm el-Hiri in a post on May 2009 and concluded with a variety of suggestions about what the structure may have been used for. Now Dr. Rami Arav who has been excavating at nearby Bethsaida since the late 1980s has proposed a new theory reported in the Nov/Dec issue of Biblical Archaeology Review based on a broader look at the local Chalcolithic civilization (4500-3500BCE) and on similarities he noticed with more distant cultures.

Rujm el-Hiri consists of four concentric circles, the outermost more than 150 meters across, made up of an estimated 42,000 tons of basalt rock. Experts believe that these are the remains of massive walls that once rose as high as 8 meters (think of the ruins of the walls of the storehouses and the Roman camps at Masada).

Excavations at Rujm el-Hiri by archaeologist Mike Freikman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem over the past five years have yielded almost no material remains of the kind that are commonly found at most archaeological sites. The lack of artifacts confirms that the site was never inhabited and so was not a town or fortress but most likely a ritual center — possibly linked to a cult of the dead. What is the reason to go to such great lengths to construct something that was never inhabited, whose location was not strategic?

Chalcolithic Ossuary, British Museum

Burial in the Chalcolithic period was in ossuaries, small clay boxes used to house the bones. Stone ossuaries were seen next in the Second Temple period for Jewish burial – bodies were buried for an initial period of about a year in temporary tombs until the flesh decomposed and only the bones remained. In archaeology, this process is called excarnation. But archaeologists have not found evidence of such preliminary graves from Chalcolithic times.

 

Artifact from Hamatmon Cave, courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

Arav found a clue in the treasure of Chalcolithic bronze artifacts discovered in a cave, in the cliffs above the Dead Sea. He looked at a small copper cylinder with a square opening like a gate with figures of birds perched on the edge and saw it as a ceremonial miniature of an excarnation site.

He also noticed a similarity to round, high-walled structures used by Zoroastrians in Iran and India, known as dokhmas or towers of silence. These are structures used for a process known as sky burial — the removal of flesh from corpses by vultures. The winged scavengers perch on the high circular walls, swoop in when the pallbearers depart and can peck a corpse clean in a couple of hours.

Further evidence is a mural showing vultures and headless human corpses several millennia earlier in southern Turkey, where the local Chalcolithic residents are thought to have originated suggesting that excarnation was practiced there.

Arav’s answer is that excarnation was used — vultures did the job. To this day there are Griffon vultures and other large birds of prey that swoop above the valleys of the Golan. Arav concludes that Rujm el-Hiri was an excarnation facility.

Arav also identified a smaller structure consisting of concentric stone circles on a promontory overlooking the Jordan River as an excarnation site, outer circle is 50 meters in diameter and the inner circle 33 meters. Another round structure was recently identified at Palmahim where only ossuaries were found.

It may be hard to come to terms with Arav’s theory given the Judeo-Christian view of honoring the dead and human body but excarnation is practised in other parts of the world and it’s important to remember that the Chalcolithic period predates the Israelites by as much as three millenia.

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Gamla – Nature, Archaeology and History

Gamla is both a nature reserve and archaeological site making it a great place to visit. We started with an easy hike, through a field of dolmens, prehistoric megalith tombs erected in the early Middle Bronze period about 2200BCE. A dolmen is made up of three large basalt stones, one lying on two other stones standing vertically. The hike takes us across a wooden bridge to the other side of Nahal Gamla for a view of the waterfall, at 51m the highest in Israel.

Gamla Waterfall

Take the trail past a Byzantine town to the Raptor lookout – the nahal is home to a large nesting population of Griffon vultures (that Israel has successfully resettled there) who did a fly past for us over the valley, it’s an incredible sight to see them gliding on the thermals.

The ancient city is situated on a steep hill (a horst like Masada) shaped like a camel’s hump, from which it derives its name (gamal means ‘camel’ in Hebrew). Jews inhabited it from the last quarter of the 2nd century BCE, and it was annexed to the Hasmonean state under Alexander Jannaeus in about 81BCE. Josephus Flavius, commander of the Galilee during the Jewish Revolt against Rome fortified Gamla as the main stronghold on the Golan. It’s fascinating to compare Gamla, a city and one of the first to stand against Vespasian’s legions with Masada, a fortress and the last to fall to the Romans.

Josephus provides a detailed description of the Roman siege and destruction of Gamla (like at Masada). Vespasian and his son Titus led the X Fretensis, XV Apollinaris and V Macedonica legions against Gamla, built a siege ramp in an attempt to take the city but were repulsed by the defenders. Only on the second attempt did the Romans succeed in breaching the wall at three different locations and invading the city. There they engaged the Jewish defenders in hand-to-hand combat up the steep hill. Fighting in the cramped streets from an inferior position, the Roman soldiers climbed onto the roofs that subsequently collapsed under the heavy weight, killing many soldiers and forcing a Roman retreat. The legionnaires re-entered the town a few days later, eventually beating Jewish resistance and completing the capture of Gamla.

According to Josephus, some 4,000 inhabitants were slaughtered, while 5,000, trying to escape down the steep northern slope, were either trampled to death or fell or threw themselves into the ravine (perhaps exaggerated by Josephus, the number of inhabitants has been estimated at less than 4,000 – at Masada 960 lost their lives).

Abandoned after its destruction, Gamla lay in ruins for almost 2000 years and was only identified in 1968 by Itzhaki Gal who was doing an archaeological survey of sites in the Golan after the Six Day War. It was excavated by Shemaryahu Gutmann (who did the original survey at Masada and who excavated there with Yigal Yadin) and Danny Syon for 14 seasons from 1976. The excavations uncovered 7.5 dunam, about 5% of the site, revealing a typical Jewish city.

The Gamla excavations revealed widespread evidence of the battle, about 100 catapult bolts, 1600 arrowheads and 2000 ballista stones, made from local basalt, 200 artifacts of Roman army equipment, quantities unsurpassed anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most were collected near the wall, placing the heavy fighting in the vicinity of the wall and the Roman siege engines to the northeast of the town.

Only one human jawbone was found during the exploration of Gamla, raising a question about what happened to the bodies of the Jewish defenders (like Masada). A tentative answer is suggested by archaeologist Danny Syon – he suggests that the dead would have been buried at nearby mass graves that have yet to be found (as at Yodfat).

One of the most interesting finds is the remains of a typical “Galilean” style synagogue inside the city walls, with rows of columns, tiers of side benches, heart-shaped corner pillars and an alcove for Torah scrolls in the northwest corner. A mikveh (ritual bath) was found nearby. Interesting to compare this to the synagogue found at Masada. The synagogue is thought to date from the late 1st century BCE making it one of the oldest synagogues in the world.

Also found were six coins minted at Gamla during the Revolt, with the inscription “For the redemption of Holy Jerusalem” in a mixture of paleo-Hebrew and Aramaic that shows that the defenders of Gamla saw their fight against the Romans as no less than a struggle for national independence.

The Golan Archaeological Museum in nearby Katzrin displays artifacts from Gamla and other sites on the Golan and a moving film about Gamla – definitely worth a visit.

Gamla, in the Golan

On a recent guiding trip we visited Gamla (from the Hebrew for camel/gamal), city in the Golan where there was fierce fighting between the Jews and Romans under Vespasian during the Great Revolt in 66CE, during which the city was destroyed and 9,000 people lost their lives. Today Griffin vultures make their home in the canyon and soar overhead. The flowers in the foreground are cyclamen (Hebrew rakefet).
 

I guided for an extended family of 8 (both sets of grandparents, parents and children, 11 and 13) for 5 days.
“A million thanks for being a great guide. Your high energy but mellow demeanor was perfect for our group and your deep historical knowledge kept it all interesting and in context for us.”
Here’s a copy of our itinerary:
Tuesday – Galil
  • aquaduct at Caesarea
  • Tsippori, Jewish village, mosaics, did not participate in Roman Revolt
  • Hamat Tiberia, hot springs and mosaic floor of 4th C synagogue

Wednesday – Golan

  • Gamla, Jewish town that fought and was destroyed by Vespasian
  • wind turbines providing alternative energy to Golan
  • Mount Bental, Israeli bunkers, 1973
  • lunch at Witch and Milkman mountaintop restaurant at Nimrod
  • Birkat Ram, crater lake, extinct volcano
Thursday – Rift valley to Jerusalem
  • Island of Peace, Rutenberg hydroelectric plant (1927-1948 )
  • Old Gesher
  • Belvoir Crusader castle “nest of eagles and dwelling place of the moon”
  • Judean desert, Wadi Qelt
  • Western Wall tunnel
Friday – Old City
  • American Colony (hotel where they were staying)
  • Hurva synagogue
  • Cardo and Madaba map
  • Herodion Quarter
Sunday – Around Jerusalem
  • Jerusalem envelope – the separation wall
  • water system, Armon HaNatziv
  • Peace Forest, Ramat Rahel
  • Herodium
  • Yad Vashem
  • Mahane Yehuda