About 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of the Sea of Galilee in the Golan Heights, is a mysterious set of rock circles that have been there on the plains for 5,000 years: Three sets of geometrically perfect concentric stone circles, the largest of which is 150 meters in circumference, are situated around a bull’s eye pile of stones in the middle of the assembly. The arrangement contains about 45,000 individual basalt stones, each of which could have been lifted by a human being, so the “how” is not so mysterious. But the “what”, the “why”, and the “who” are major chin-scratchers.
It has been estimated that the project would have required about 25,000 work hours to build. Life in the Chalcolithic period was a constant struggle for survival. Wild animals, inclement weather, and competition for resources all plagued any nomadic tribe. Who had the time and the energy to invest in such a project, when they should be hunting, gathering, or storing food for the winter? Moreover, with no surveyor’s tools, no aerial view, and no math to speak of, how did they get it so right? One can see from any aerial photograph how perfect the geometry of the creation is. These simple clans, who roamed the Golan before the invention of writing, never got to see their circles as they should be seen, from the sky.
Erich Von Daniken’s speculative 1968 best-seller Chariots of the Gods proposes that spots like Rujum el-Hiri are proof that the earth was once visited by “ancient extraterrestrial astronauts.” While I never put much stock in those theories, and they have been largely discredited, what fascinates me is that the Bible makes a similar kind of claim. In the Bible, however, the phenomena are the work of “giants” who “once roamed the earth” but no longer exist. Things of this size and dimension can’t have been the work of mere mortals. In the book of Amos, God boasts: “Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of the cedars”. Deuteronomy 2:10 describes the land of Moab thusly: “The Emim had dwelt there in times past, a people as great and numerous and tall as the Anakim.” [anák is Hebrew for “giant”]. Note that even in the Bible, no one ever actually sees a giant; it just claims that once upon a time they were a dime a dozen. Just prior to the Flood, it is reported that “There were giants [nephilim] on the earth in those days”. One notable exception is Og. “For only Og King of Bashan remained of the remnant of the giants [rephaim]. Indeed his bedstead was an iron bedstead…Nine cubits is its length and four cubits its width.”
What’s my point? It is easy to imagine Abraham or Joshua, arriving in the Golan, discovering these mysterious rock circles and saying “Hmmmm, must have been the work of some giants long ago.” For people in Biblical times, imagining giants roaming the earth was a bit like Von Daniken’s “extraterrestrial visitors”: It puts it all together neatly. And indeed, the modern Hebrew for Rujum el-Hiri is Gilgál Refaìm (“ghost circles” or “wheels of the giants”).
Meaning, we still can’t figure it out. In the middle of this giant stone dartboard is a tumulus, or ancient grave, but here’s the kicker: The grave is 1,000 years newer than the stone circles. The circles had existed already for centuries, perhaps an observatory, or a giant solar clock, or a site of worship, or maybe some combination of the three. One day a local chieftain decided that he wanted to be buried in the middle. So when his time came, a new tribe, not connected to the original builders, had to schlep another few thousand stones into the middle of the pile to create a monument to the great man.
We’re an egocentric species, always trying to be the biggest, the smartest, the most audacious, and occasionally, not only trying to one-up each other, but nature itself. This is the meaning of the Taj Mahal, the Washington Monument, the Pyramids of Giza, and Trump Tower. Rujum el-Hiri is just another episode in the long history of hubris that makes us want to build larger, build better, and ultimately risk our lives and our sanity to build the biggest of all. We are always one step away from the Tower of Babel. It is humbling to visit Rujum el-Hiri and remember that while on the one hand, these people (giants? aliens? Og?) have been dead for 5,000 years, their passion to leave their mark on the world did indeed leave us a 21st-century puzzle. Their monument still fascinates us and still leads us to ask questions about ourselves.