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Set next to the Dan Stream, one of the main tributaries of the Jordan River, Tel Dan was a major city in Canaanite during Israeli times. Excavations at the site yielded significant remains, including the oldest complete arch in the world. Today, Tel Dan is a national park offering scenic hikes that combine archaeology in a lush green nature reserve.

History of Tel Dan

Dan is first mentioned in the book of Genesis as a Canaanite city that abducted Lot. Eager to free his cousin, Abraham chases the Canaanites to Dan and returns with Lot and his property (Genesis 14). Later, the city changed its name to “Leshem” or “Layish,” yet the tribe of Dan settled in it and reverted its name to Dan (Joshua 19; Judges 18). After the death of King Solomon, his former high official, Jeroboam, crowned himself in the north and formed a cultic high place in Dan (1 Kings 12).  Later, the Arameans targeted the city several times, but its final destruction was attributed to the Assyrians. Its cultic center was still active in the Hellenistic period, but gradually, the neighboring town of Banias (Caesarea-Philippi) became a regional and religious center.

Tel Dan Exposed

Dan’s location was preserved through its Arabic name, ‘Tel el-Qadi’ (‘Mound of the Judge’). A HUC expedition led by archaeologist Avraham Biran excavated the site for 25 years until 1999. Although they excavated only 2 acres (about 4% of the site), they made some of the most significant archaeological discoveries from biblical times:

Tel Dan Cultic Center

Uncovered in the mound’s northern end, the Israelite-era religious center of Dan comprises a big altar and rooms around it, some with the altar’s utensils found in them. A Greek-Aramaic bilingual inscription to the ‘God of Dan’ found nearby indicates the site remained sacred in the Hellenistic period.

Israel’s “Water War”, 1963-1965

tel-dan-syrian-tractorA burnt Syrian tractor next to the Israelite-era cultic complex is a reminder of Israel’s “Water Wars” in the 1960s. From Tel Dan, Israeli tanks targeted Syrian tractors attempting to form a water channel. The Syrians plotted to redirect the Jordan River’s flow into Syria and Jordan, depriving Israel of its precious fresh water. After several military clashes, in which Israel managed to hit Syrian machinery even 7 miles away, the Syrians aborted the vicious project.

Tel Dan Canaanite Arched Gate

Unlike the common belief, the Romans did not invent the arch. Unlike the common belief, the Romans did not invent the arch. The earliest evidence of arches is found in the Canaanite cities of Dan and Ashkelon. During the 18th century BCE, these arches formed the city’s gate. Interestingly, these arched passages were later covered up in both cases, which preserved them.  The arch at Dan’s gate is still complete, and one cannot rule out the possibility that Abraham entered Dan through this gate when pursuing the Canaanites who abducted Lot (Genesis 14).

Tel Dan Israelite Gate

Three hundred feet west of the Canaanite gate is an even more impressive gate complex from Israelite times. Stretching over 1 acre, the gate comprises two gateways, with a raised square platform in the middle. A decorated stone socket in one of its corners suggests it may have had a canopy over it. This elevated platform may have been built for a high official (cf. Deuteronomy 16:18), or perhaps even the king (2 Samuel 18:24), or maybe a deity (cf. 2 Kings 23:8).

“House of David” Inscription

In 1993, archaeologists uncovered a fragment of a royal inscription in the gate’s outer courtyard. Placed by the Aramean King Hazael, the inscription boasts of defeating the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, which he titles the “house of David.” To this day, it is the only document from the Iron Age, aside from the Bible, to mention David and his monarchy. The inscription is on prime display at the Israel Museum.

Touring Tel Dan

tel-dan-whorshipTel Dan is a national park and a nature reserve, popular among tourists and locals alike. Start with a scenic hike along the Dan stream through lush green vegetation. It is followed by ascending to the mound, where shallow wading pools are a sure hit among kids. The ancient cultic center is at the northern edge of the site. A metal frame illustrates the original size of the biblical Israelite altar. Next to it are IDF trenches and a burnt Syrian tank, a stark reminder of the Israeli “water wars” in the 1960s. Continuing among eucalyptus tree rows leads to the Canaanite-era “Abraham’s Gate.”  Conclude the tour at the city gate complex from the Israelite period. Nature lovers can combine the tour of Tel Dan with a visit to the Beit-Usishkin nature museum in the nearby kibbutz Dan.

A tour of Tel Dan can be combined with a day tour in the north.

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