Beautiful Tel Dan Nature Reserve
Tel Dan Nature Reserve is a beautiful park with bubbling brooks and gushing water in a cool, mainly shaded foliage-rich park. The springs constitute the beginning of the Dan River, one of the main sources of Israel’s drinking water. Kids will enjoy the natural wading pool in the middle of the park. There are also interesting and important archeological findings on the tel. These include an intact gate from Canaanite times, remnants of a wall and gate from the Israelite period, and a cultic site first used by Jeroboam for worship of a golden calf when the northern Israelite tribes seceded from the southern kingdom. Consider also a visit to the nearby Beit Ussishkin Museum.
About the tribe of Dan: Following the conquest of Canaan, the tribe of Dan was assigned an area in what is now the larger Tel Aviv area and possibly within the territory of Judah. As evidenced by the story of Samson, who was from the tribe of Dan, the tribe found it difficult to establish itself in this area because of strong opposition from the Philistines. The tribe therefore captured the city of Laish, on what is now Tel Dan, and moved to this fertile area in the north of Israel. As the Book of Judges informs us: “They proceeded to Laish, a people tranquil and unsuspecting, and they put them to the sword and burned down the town” (Judges 18:27). This account is found towards the end of the Book of Judges, but it likely happened close to the time of the Conquest since it is also mentioned in the book of Joshua. Laish had an alliance with Sidon, but Sidon was unable to come to its aid because of the distance involved (Judges 18:28). This raises the possibility that the inhabitants of Laish were Phoenician. Alternatively, they were Canaanite and had an alliance with the Sidonites.
The sources of the Jordan River: The Jordan River has 3 sources - the Dan, Hermon and Snir. Of these, the Dan provides the greatest amount of water, equivalent to the other two rivers combined. The water of the Dan River comes from rainwater and snow falling on Mount Hermon that seeps into the ground and emerges in hundreds of springs at the base of Mount Hermon. Prior to the Six-Day War, the source of the Dan was the only one of these rivers in Israeli hands. One of the consequences of the Six-Day War was that all its water sources originating from the Golan Heights were taken over by Israel. This was fitting, since prior to this war, Syria had attempted to divert these rivers and deprive Israel of water.
Direction: Enter “Tel Dan” into Waze and click on “Tel Dan Nature Reserve.”
Difficulty: Most of the paths are footpaths or paved paths. Within the area of the streams, there is some stepping on stones surrounded by water, but no special footwear is needed, although the park advises not to use flipflops.
Admission: This is a site of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Summer hours are Sunday to Thursday and Saturday 8.00 am to 5.00 pm and Friday and holiday eves 8.00 am to 4.00 pm. In the winter the park closes 1 hour earlier. Just beyond the entrance to the park are WCs, a gift shop selling hot and cold drinks and snack foods, and a large shaded picnic area with benches. Their phone number is 04 695-1579. This is their website.
Public transport: Enter "Tel Dan" into Moovit. The closest bus stop is at the Tel Dan Intersection, from where it is about a 21-minute/1.7-Km walk to the reserve.
Israelite Gate from the First Temple period.
Why were Jews operating a pagan cultic center at Tel Dan?
The division of the Israelite kingdom had been prophesied to King Solomon as a consequence of his dissolute lifestyle (I Kings 11:11), and it materialized during the reign of his son Rehoboam. Listening to his young advisors, Rehoboam refused to lighten the taxation burden imposed by his father when the northern tribes requested that he do so. He replied to them: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions (1 Kings 12:14). This reply did not go down well with any of the tribes, except for the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and the ten tribes seceded from the southern kingdom of Judah to form the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
To prevent the people from drifting back to Jerusalem during the holidays and questioning their new allegiance, their new ruler Jeroboam set up two alters, one in the south of his kingdom in Beth El and the other in the north in Dan for worship of a golden calf. He said: “When this people goes up to offer sacrifices in the Temple of God, in Jerusalem, the hearts of this people will turn to their master to Rehoboam the king of Judah, and they shall kill me and return to Rehoboam, the king of Judah. The king took counsel and made two golden calves, and he said to them [the people], saying: “It is far for you to go up to Jerusalem, here are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (I Kings 12:27-28). Tel Dan is one of two places where the golden calves were placed.
Jeroboam's plan was not necessarily a refutation of monotheism. He was representing the One God in a physical way, just as pagan statues were a representation of the forces of nature. Nevertheless, doing this is specifically prohibited in the Ten Commandments – “You shall not make for yourself a graven image nor any manner of likeness of anything which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them.” (Exodus 20:4-5). Jeroboam should have been aware that the Israelites had tried this once before at Mount Sinai, with the episode of the golden calf, and had been severely punished for it.
Some of the ruins you see are from Jeroboam's original temple and there is also evidence of later periods. The aluminum frame marks the outline of the altar. Note the bama (high place) and staircase. The high place may have been built by King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom in the 9th century BCE. The stairs were used to go up to the high place and may have been built by Jeroboam II, also from the Northern Israelite kingdom, in the 8th century BCE. Cultic practices continued here until the destruction of the tel by the Assyrians in 432 BCE. The walls surrounding the temple were built by the Greeks many years later. Of interest is the finding of a stone in the sanctuary inscribed in Greek and Aramaic with the vow: “to the God who is in Dan.” The original is in Jerusalem’s Skirball Museum.
Abraham’s Gate, the intact gate of the city of Laish.
This Cultic center, built by Jeroboam after the split of the two kingdoms was initially used for the worship of a golden calf.
EXPLORING THE PARK:
Be sure to take a brochure (also available in English) at the visitor center. It contains a map showing the paths within the park. The most direct route to Ancient Dan is on a paved path that is also suitable for a wheelchair or stroller. However, this path misses a lot of the park. There is also a Short Trail that covers the streams, takes about an hour, but misses out on the historical sites. The route described here covers almost everything, takes about 2½ hours and is about 5 Km.
From the first intersection take the Long Trail to the Dan Spring. At the next intersection, make a right turn to the Garden of Eden. Continue past the flour mill to join the paved path and this will take you past the Wading Pool and then to the Israelite Gate.
The kids will appreciate the Wading Pool. Appropriate footwear can be helpful. The water is extremely cold.
The gate you are viewing is from First Temple times. Note the bench inside the city gate. The city gate is where administrative and legal affairs for the city took place, and the city elders would have sat here. The raised square platform may have been for the king’s throne. It is from this site that fragments of the famous Tel Dan inscription were found in secondary use (see below in relation to the Ussishkin Museum). Tel Dan was occupied until the Roman period when it was abandoned and the inhabitants moved to Banias. There is a (modern) WC near this gate.
Continue further along the paved road to Abraham’s Gate, which is part of the gate of the ancient city of Laish. It was built sometime during the Middle Bronze Age (2000 - 1550 BCE) with baked mud bricks and is the oldest intact archway ever found. It is called Abraham’s gate, because Abraham could well have passed by here on his way to Syria when rescuing his nephew Lot from the coalition of kings that had attacked Sodom (Genesis 14:14).
Visiting the Cultic Site is definitely worthwhile. Go back to the Israelite city, go through the gate, and climb up through the city ruins. This path will lead you to the Cultic Site. While here, take the short circular route to the Bunker Lookout. This bunker was used by the Israel Defense Forces prior to the Six-Day War. From here you can see the slopes of Mount Hermon, Syrian earthworks for their intended diversion of the Hizbani River, and the Lebanese village of el-Hiyyam.
Choose a way back from the Cultic site using the brochure map depending on what else you would like to see and the time you have available.
NEARBY PLACES OF INTEREST:
The archeological and nature museum Beit Ussishkin
Beit Ussishkin Museum is an archeology and nature museum in Kibbutz Dan that displays the nature, geography and archaeology of this part of the Galilee panhandle. It is adjacent to Tel Dan Reserve, is run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and is definitely worth visiting. Enter “Beit Usshishkin” and click on “Beit Usshishkin Nature Museum”. It is open Sunday to Thursday 8.00 am to 4.00 pm, and Friday and Saturday by appointment. Their phone number is 04 694-1704. Tours are available. This is their website.
The museum was initiated in the 1950s because of the concern that drainage of the Hula Valley would eliminate much of the wildlife of the area. A 10-minute movie with English subtitles is shown. The displays of wildlife, including scenes with stuffed animals, are impressive. Some of the archeological findings from Tel Dan are also shown. This includes the Tel Dan Stele composed in the 9th century BCE.
On this monumental victory stone slab chiseled in the Phoenician script the king of Aram-Damascus prides himself on killing 70 kings, including Jehoram son of Ahab and “Ahaziahu son of Jehoram king of the House of David”. This stele created considerable excitement in the archeological world when it was discovered since this was the first time that the expression “house of David” had ever been found. It thus confirmed that King David existed and formed a dynasty as related by the Bible. Until this time, because of a lack of archeological evidence, there were influential Israeli archeologists who thought that King David was no more than a tribal chieftain and not the ruler of a kingdom. The original is in the Israel Museum.
It is likely that Tel Dan changed hands several times in the struggle between the Arameans and Northern Kingdom. We know from the Bible that Chaza’el, king of Aram, conquered the Northern Kingdom, although he was unable to capture Jerusalem. He is the probable author of this victory stele. The Bible ascribes the death of Jehoram the king of Israel and Ahaziahu the king of Judah to Jehu, a usurper king of Israel, and not to Chaza’el, although Jehu did have an alliance with Chaza'el (2 Kings 9).
Replication of the Tel Dan Steele which mentions the “house of David.” It is written in the Phoenician script.