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7 May 2003
The wildcat's pile of stones

At the center of the megalithic site of Rujm al-Hiri in the Golan Heights (Israel), a burial area was added about one thousand years after its construction, according to Dr. Yoni Mizrachi, who headed the dig in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Known in Arabic as "the wildcat's pile of stones" Rujm al-Hiri is one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in the region. The huge complex of 42,000 basalt stones, some of which weigh more than 5 tons, dates to the end of the 3rd millennium BCE. The site is in the form of a series of walls - concentric circles and ellipses - with an outside perimeter of almost half a kilometer and a diameter of more than 150 metres.
     Calculations by Dr. Mizrachi and colleagues suggested that openings in the walls allowed the first rays of the sun at the midsummer solstice to pass from the northwestern gate to the centre of the complex. Two stones, 2 metres high by 5 metres wide, allowed the ancients to determine the precession of the equinoxes. Dr. Mizrachi has conjectured that the site as a whole relates to star positions at the time of its construction. Similarity with the form of Stonehenge and other sites in England and France caused a wave of speculation when Rujm al-Hiri was first surveyed in 1967-68.
     The original site apparently had religious, mythological and cosmological significance for its builders. It served for astronomical observations and for planning the agricultural calendar. During the second millennium BCE a burial area and a large monument of stones, 20 meters in diameter and 5 meters high, was added at the centre of the site. There is evidence that tomb robbers entered the burial chamber in the fourth century BCE and plundered gold jewelry, bronze arrowheads, beads, ceramic statuettes and worked flints, some of which were lost as the thieves left the chamber. The adoption of the already ancient ritual site and the richness of the grave goods suggests the burial of a person of considerable prestige.
     Virtually nothing is known of the original architects or the people who added the burial. The Golan is the dividing line between the fertile lands west of the Jordan and the Syrian deserts to the east, and has seen relatively brief periods of permanent settlement, often suddenly truncated. The theory is that the original ritual centre was dedicated to the fertility cult of Ishtar and Tammuz, but it remains unclear whether Rujm al-Hiri provides testimony of long term occupation by a single flourishing culture, or use by successive occupants over the millennia.

Source: Haaretz Daily (6 May 2003)

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