Rujm elHiri

The megalithic monuments of Britain and Ireland have been studied in great detail by archaeoastronomers. Numerous systematic investigations of the orientations of prehistoric tombs and temples throughout the western Mediterranean have been carried out. But comparable effort has rarely been directed towards similar sites elsewhere in the world. One exception is a curious circular construction built by Early Bronze Age peoples in the Golan Heights, close to the border between Israel and Syria. Its name, Rujm el-Hiri, means "stone pile of the wild cat." Built around 3000 b.c.e., it consists of a massive circular (actually slightly oval) wall some one hundred fifty meters (five hundred feet) across and over three meters (ten feet) thick with broad entrances to the northeast and southeast. Inside this are four further concentric and successively thinner walls with irregularly placed openings. Between the circular walls are curved corridors, some of them divided into segments by blocking walls built perpendicular to the circles (oriented radially out from the center), but there is no evident pattern to them. Most of the walls still stand to between two and three meters (seven to ten feet) high. The result resembles the sort of maze encased in plastic into whose center children try to guide ball bearings. Filling most of the central space, which measures some thirty meters (one hundred feet) across, is a cairn still standing to a height of almost five meters and built over a burial chamber oriented towards the northeast entrance. It is surrounded by three terraces with circular stone kerbs. The obvious conclusion—that the walls were built successively around the cairn—seems to be contradicted by the archaeological evidence, which suggests instead that the central cairn was actually built more than a millennium after the original construction, in around 1500 b.c.e. Rujm el-Hiri, in other words, appears to be a temple that later became a tomb.

Various astronomical alignments have been identified at the site, the clearest being the solstitial alignment of the northeast entrance, which is reflected in the orientation of the later burial chamber. Curiously, though, the southeast entrance is not aligned upon the other solstitial axis: it is too far to the south. On the other hand, two exceptionally large boulders on the eastern side could have referenced sunrise close to the equinox, and it has been suggested that the purpose of this was to indicate that the first spring rains were imminent, allowing final preparations to be made for water to be efficiently collected for irrigation. Statistical analyses of the alignments of over thirty radial wall segments suggest that they may have been used as stellar sighting devices.

What should we make of these alignments? It is almost certainly misleading to think of the site as an astronomical observatory. As a center for religious rituals, however, cosmic referencing would have been important. The location of the temple may have been significant in this regard, in that it resulted in the two most prominent mountains—Mount Hermon and Mount Tabor—appearing, respectively, almost due north and close to December solstice sunrise. By visually linking places of vital cosmic significance, some in the landscape and some in the sky, the builders would have reinforced the sacred power of the temple itself. More controversial, perhaps, is the idea that the radial walls could have functioned as stellar-alignment-fixing devices. But then, what other purpose could they have served? One possibility is that they simply served to restrict and confound access to the central space, the act of negotiating an asymmetric labyrinth serving to instill in the visiting pilgrim a heightened sense of the sacred power of the place. The approximately solstitial orientation of the (later) tomb was certainly nonfunctional but may have been deliberate and symbolic, following the alignment of the original temple.

Although Rujm el-Hiri has been hailed as a Stonehenge of the Levant, and its construction is certainly broadly contemporary with the earliest known (earth and timber) constructions at Stonehenge, the comparison may be misleading and inappropriate. It is a magnificent temple in its own right and gives us some special clues about the beliefs and practices of the Bronze Age cultures of this part of the Near East.

See also:

Cosmology; Solstitial Directions.

Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland; Prehistoric Tombs and Temples in Europe; Stonehenge.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers, 323-326. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Aveni, Anthony F., and Yonathan Mizrachi. "The Geometry and Astronomy of Rujm el-Hiri, a Megalithic Site in the Southern Levant." Journal of Field Archaeology 25 (1998), 475-496.

Dgani, Avi, and Moshe Inbar, eds. Eretz Hagolan [The Golan Heights and Mount Herman], 403-412. Tel Aviv: Misrad Hafitahen, 1993. [In Hebrew.]

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