The Equinox Marked at Dawn in the Wheel of the Giants of the Bashan

September 22, 2019

5 min read

On Sunday morning, a biannual astronomical event was marked on an ancient structure in a remote section of northern Israel. The structure remains an enigma to archaeologists but some link it to Biblical giants.

Stonehenge in the Golan

The sunrise on the day of the equinox as seen from the centre of the monument from the eastern outer wall (Photo credit Dr. Mike Freikman)

After the Six-Day War in 1967, archaeologists studying an aerial map of Israel discovered a strange formation of five concentric rings of loose rock located some ten miles east of the coast of the Sea of Galilee, in the middle of a large plateau covered with hundreds of single-chamber megalithic tombs called dolmens. The formation is not recognizable from the ground, appearing as random piles of rocks, but from above it is quite impressive, with an outer ring more than nearly 520 feet wide and eight feet high. It is called Rujm el-Hiri in Arabic, meaning the “stone heap of the wild cat”, and in Hebrew as Gilgal Refaim, or Wheel of the Giants.

At its center is a mound of loose stones over 65 feet in diameter and over 16 feet tall, covering a burial chamber almost 20 feet long. The entire formation is composed of over 40,000 tons of loose basalt rocks. It was estimated that the transportation and building of the massive monument would have required more than 25,000 working days

Estimates as to when it was built vary widely but the site is believed to be between 5,000-6,000 years old. In comparison, the Egyptian Pyramids were built some 4,500 years ago and Stonehenge in England was built some 3,500 years ago. 

Og: the Giant King of the Bashan

It is interesting to note that the region is known as the Bashan, where Og the king of came out against the Israelites at the time of their entrance into the Promised Land but was vanquished in battle.  Og was an Amorite king, the ruler of Bashan, which contained sixty walled cities and many unwalled towns, with his capital at Ashtaroth. Biblical scholars believe that the Prophet Amos was referring to Og when he referred to a giant Amorite.

Yet I destroyed the Amorite before them, Whose stature was like the cedar’s And who was stout as the oak, Destroying his boughs above And his trunk below! Amos 2:9

In Deuteronomy and later in the book of Numbers and Joshua, Og is called the last of the Rephaim, a Hebrew word that is sometimes interpreted as meaning ‘giants.’ The Hebrew name of the site, Gilgal Rephaim, hints at an ancient link to these giants. 

Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine amot long and four amot wide, by the standard amah! Deuteronomy 3:11

The Biblical measurement of an amah, literally the length of a forearm, is generally considered to be 19.2 inches, which would mean that Og’s bed was over fourteen feet long and over six feet wide.

Midrash explains that the “fugitive” who warned Abraham that Lot had been captured was Og. Og had escaped the flood in the generation of Noah by clinging to the side of the Ark. 

If Og had been the leader of a nation of pre-Abrahamic giants in the region of the Golan it would certainly explain the existence of the mammoth stone structures. 

An Archaeological Enigma

There is no consensus regarding its function. Since excavations have yielded very few material remains, archaeologists theorize that the site was not a defensive position or a residential quarter but most likely a ritual center.

In 2007, the site was excavated by Yosef Garfinkel and Michael Freikman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Freikman returned in the summer of 2010 for further investigation of the site’s date and function. Freikman believes that the center area was built at the same time as the rings. 

“I wouldn’t call it a religious center,” Dr. Freikman told Breaking Israel News. “It was more of a gathering place for rituals, though not for burials.”

Dr. Freikman noted that by the time of the Bible and the Patriarchs, the site was already abandoned for several hundred years.

“They probably would have known of it as a prominent geographic feature but they would not have known what it was used for,” he said. “There are at least five other similar sites, albeit smaller, with outer circles about 60 meters in diameter and also surrounded dolmans.” 

Circles in the Ground Measuring the Sun and Stars

Dr. Freikman wrote about Gilgal Refaim in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University in 2017, noting the astronomical aspects of the site:

“Certain architectural elements of Rujm el-Hiri are aligned with celestial phenomena, namely with the azimuth of sunrise on specific days of the year. For instance, it was claimed that at both equinoxes a spectator standing in the geometrical centre of the complex would see the sun rising exactly in the east through the ‘gunsight’ created by two exceptionally large boulders installed in the outermost wall. Due to the precession of the earth, which gradually changes the azimuth of the sunrise, this phenomenon cannot be observed from the same spot today. However, as this is a very slow process, the spectator must move aside only slightly to witness the sunrise as the architect of Rujm el-Hiri intended.”

Archaeologists Yonathan Mizrachi and Anthony Aveni, studying the structure since the late 1980s, believe the site was used as a celestial observatory.  The entrance way to the center opens on the sunrise of the summer solstice.

The equinox, the instant of time when the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the center of the Sun, will be taking place on Monday morning. Notches in the walls indicate the precise locations of the sunrise for both the spring and fall equinoxes. 

The walls at Rujm el-Hiri seem to have pointed to star-risings for the period, and may have been predictors of the rainy season, a crucial bit of information for the sheepherders of the Bashan plain.

Remote and Neglected

The rings of Gilgal Refaim contain more questions than answers. The site is difficult to get to and neglected by the antiquities authorities but Dr. Freikman prefers it that way. 

“If it became part of pop culture and easily accessible to the general public, it would become like Stonehenge or the Pyramids,” Dr. Freikman said. “Fast food restaurants and souvenir shops would be built around it and the crowds would destroy or steal anything worth studying. For the time being, it is good that the general public doesn’t come in droves.”

But in addition to being a science, archaelogy in Israel has political and religious connotations.

“I would like to return and study the site,” Dr. Freikman said. “There is so much to learn. But it is difficult to raise funds for sites in the Golan. Even after President Trump recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, many people are still reluctant to archaeological research in the area.”


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