With the thud of modern artillery in the background, archeologists are uncovering evidence that the Golan Heights was as fierce a battleground in biblical times as it is today.
"The battles between the Aramaeans (of ancient Syria) and Israelis were governed by the same geopolitical considerations as today: Whoever holds the high ground has a strategic advantage," said archeologist Moshe Kohavi. He is leading a Tel Aviv University expedition excavating four sites in the Golan Heights with the help of American, Japanese, Finnish and Israeli volunteers.
The sites are the Leviah Enclosure, a wedge-shaped promontory over the Sea of Galilee with gorges on three sides and high walls on the fourth; Tel Hadar, where a large royal "winter palace" has been unearthed on the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee; Tel Soreg, a hilltop town on the Ein Gev river, and Rogem Hiri, which has been nicknamed the "Stonehenge of the Golan."
Afiq, a kibbutz where the archeologists are based, preserves the name of the biblical Aphek, the 9th-Century BC battleground where the Israelite King Ahab's chariots and foot soldiers defeated the army of Ben Haddad, the Aramaean king, who had conquered much of Israel after sweeping across the Golan.
Same Advantage Sought
"Ahab fought for the same advantage as we do," said Kohavi, alluding to Israel's battles with Syria for the Golan in 1967 and 1973. Israel annexed the 42-by-15-mile territory with its 20,000 residents in 1981.
Although ancient sites dot the map of the Golan, most are unexplored. The Syrians put the area off limits as a military zone and foreign expeditions have for the most part avoided it since 1967 because it is still disputed.
"There are more ancient sites than modern ones," said Matti Zohar, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem archeologist working with Kohavi's expedition.
Evidence to support the Golan's historical status as a battlefield comes mainly from the cities' construction, especially the high walls.
An iron arrowhead was found at Tel Hadar and a dog-shaped bronze finial, the top of a standard, was found at Tel Soreg.
"Weapons and armor were precious because they were made of metal," Kohavi said. "It was very expensive and was not left lying on the battlefield. What is found is usually discovered in caches or in tombs, but this is rare."
City walls, the main entrance, private houses and public buildings at Leviah indicate it was a city spread over 20 acres rather than a fort or large cattle pen as previously believed. The emphasis on walls and natural defense gives insight into life during the Bronze Age, 3000-2000 BC.
"The people lived in large cities, probably warlike ones, and they chose their sites for strategic reasons," Kohavi said of a half-dozen similar sites in the Golan. "There was apparently no major power to pacify the area."
"These were large, fortified cities that probably fought each other like the Greek city-states," he said, standing on the ancient city's stone gate and sweeping his hand toward three large squares stretching across about 100 yards, where Israeli students from the Technion University in Haifa were digging out rows of stone that were the walls of ancient houses.
Leviah was an exciting find, Kohavi said, because it "proves that the Golan was a thriving population center" as early as the 4th Century BC "and not a fringe area as had been believed." The pottery and building style also indicated links with ancient Lebanon.
Only a few miles from Syria, the distant rumble of tank and artillery could be heard as Israeli troops conducted maneuvers. "We can't escape from what's going on in today's Golan," Kohavi said.
Focus of Power Struggle
Throughout the Old Testament period the Golan Heights, a volcanic plain 1,650 feet above the Sea of Galilee, was the focus of a power struggle between the Kings of Israel and the Aramaeans who were based near modern-day Damascus.
Its importance was recognized by King David, who sought to neutralize the power of the ruler of the Land of Geshur, as the Golan was known, by marrying his daughter Maacah. Their son Absalom later led a rebellion against David.
Kohavi, seeking the first archeological evidence to confirm the biblical stories, believes one seat of Geshur government may have been Tel Hadar, which was in a no-man's land between Israeli and Syrian armies before 1967, and sits on a rise surrounded with weeds and barbed wire near a crowded summer resort.
Archeologists have unearthed a large royal "winter palace" there on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The palace, which covered two acres next to what is now an amusement park, was destroyed by fire at the end of the 11th Century BC. The most visually striking aspect of the dig are granaries in the palace's basement. An archeologist bent and picked up pieces of burnt grain more than 25 centuries old to show a reporter.
Carved Legs, Beer Jug
A bulldozer helped remove large basalt stones from around the entrance to the ancient palace. Among the finds were two delicately carved legs to a basalt stoneware pot and a perfectly preserved long-necked beer jug that was twisted and partially melted by the intense blaze.
At Tel Soreg, midway between the Sea of Galilee and Afiq, volunteers sifted the remains of the settlement that was continuously inhabited for 2,000 years and is believed by some to have been the biblical Aphek, a possibility Kohavi discounts because it was too small to match the biblical descriptions.
The Golan's battles even touched Tel Soreg, though it was out of the path of armies marching across the plateau two miles away. "When the Aramaeans and Israelites were fighting, the residents of Tel Soreg built a high wall for defense" in the 9th and 8th centuries BC, he said.
Trying to Unravel Mystery
Zohar is trying to unravel the mystery of Rogem Hiri, which the Druze Arabs have named the "stone heap of the wild cat."
The four concentric circles of stone walls with a 6 1/2-yard-high mound of stones in the middle has been likened to Stonehenge, the Neolithic stone circle in England. Like Stonehenge, it may have been an astronomical observatory; the entrance marks the point of sunrise on the longest day of the year.
"It has to be a burial site," said Zohar, standing on the central heap of black volcanic stones. The cone-shaped core had collapsed and the original structure resembled a stepped pyramid like those found in ancient Egypt.
Pottery found there this year dates the site to about 3000 BC.