Archaeology in Israel: Biblical City of Dan
The mound of the biblical city of Dan is located at the foot of Mount Hermon in the northeast of the country. The fertility of the area around Dan is mentioned in the Bible: For we have seen the Land, and behold, it is very good. (Judges 18:9)
The site extends over an area of 200 dunams (50 acres). The Dan river, one of the sources of the Jordan river, emerges at the foot of the mound.
These natural advantages and its location on the main trade route from the Galilee to Damascus made Dan the most important city of the northern part of the Kingdom of Israel. Today it is one of the most attractive archeological sites in Israel. Every year since 1966, large areas have been excavated; the discoveries are of special importance for understanding the biblical narrative which repeatedly mentions the city of Dan.
During the Canaanite period the city was known by the name Leshem (Joshua 19:47) or Laish (Judges 18:29). During the 18th century BCE, Laish was fortified with huge man-made earthen embankments which created ramparts encircling the entire city. The ramparts of Canaanite Dan constitute one of the best examples of the defense systems common in that period.
On the eastern side of the city, an intact city gate complex was preserved, consisting of two towers flanking a recessed arched gateway. Stone steps led from the outside to the 2.4 m. wide entrances. The 18th century BCE ramparts with the gate provided adequate defense for Canaanite Laish. During this period, the patriarch Abraham came to the city, after defeating the kings of the north who took his nephew Lot prisoner. (Genesis14:14)
Laish Becomes Dan
Above the destruction level of the last Canaanite city, a new occupation level was revealed, very different in architectural character and material culture. This new settlement pattern represents the conquest and settlement of the city by the tribe of Dan during the 12th century BCE. The tribe of Dan had previously occupied a small area in the western foothills of the Judean mountains. The Bible relates how 600 members of the tribe migrated northward and after conquering Laish ...called the name of the city Dan after the name of Dan their father. (Judges 18:29)
The Israelite Bamah (High Place) of Dan
Above the spring, on the northern side of the mound, the cultic precinct of the Israelite city of Dan was exposed. The existence of a cultic center at Dan is attested to in the biblical text: ...and the children of Dan set up for themselves the graven image. (Judges 18:30) The High Place exposed at Dan was established by Jeroboam I, king of Israel at the end of the 10th century BCE, after the division of the kingdom. Jeroboam I built altars bearing a golden calf in two cities: ...he set one in Beth-el and the other he put in Dan...and the people went up to worship...even unto Dan. (1 Kings 12:29-30)
The sanctuary occupied an area of about 60 x 45 m. In the broad courtyard, enclosed by a wall with rooms around it, stood an altar. It was restored in the mid-9th century BCE by Ahab, king of Israel, who had a large (20 x 18 m.) bamah erected. The outer walls of the bamah were composed of large ashlars with a groove between the courses, which originally contained a wooden beam; this is reminiscent of the construction of the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem: ...with three courses of hewn stones and one course of cedar beams. (1 Kings 6:36; 7:12)
During the reign of Jeroboam II at the beginning of the 8th century BCE, a monumental staircase was added to the southern side of the bamah and a smaller altar was erected. In one of the rooms bordering the cultic enclosure, three iron shovels (54 cm. long) were found, which may be identified as mahta and ya'eh which were used in the Temple in Jerusalem to remove the ashes from the altar.
The bamah of Dan was destroyed when the city was captured by Tiglath Pileser, king of Assyria, in 732 BCE. Soon thereafter, it was restored but never regained its former importance.
An inscription from the Hellenistic period, in Greek and Aramaic, incised on a flat limestone slab, was found at the site. It mentions Zoilos (Zilas in Aramaic) who made a vow "to the god who is in Dan." This provides proof positive of the identification of the site as biblical Dan.
The Israelite City Gate Complex
The monumental city gate complex and a long section of the wall of Israelite Dan were exposed at the foot of the southern side of the mound. A 400 m2 square leads to the gate complex, which is composed of an outer and an inner gate, both built of large basalt stones. Beyond these gates, a magnificent processional road winds its way up the slope to the city.
The inner gate is the best preserved and is a good example of Israelite city gates during biblical times. It consisted of four guard rooms, two on each side of a paved passageway. The threshold, made of a large basalt stone, includes the doorstop and hinge-sockets which once supported the massive wooden doors.
Outside this gate, five undressed stones (up to 60 cm. in height) were found standing erect. They served as matzevot (erect stones) marking a cultic place. In this context, Josiah's deed comes to mind: he broke down the high places at the gates which were at the entrance of the Gate of Joshua the governor of the city... (2 Kings 23:8)
Also outside this gate a bench was exposed, reminiscent of the place where the elders sat in biblical times, a custom referred to many times in the Bible. (Genesis 19:1; Psalms 69:13; Ruth 4:1-2)
Next to the opening of the gate itself, four squat, decorated stones served to hold four pillars supporting a canopy. It is probable that the king or judge sat here when he came to the city. Then the king arose, and sat in the gate and they told all the people, saying behold, the king doth sit in the gate. And all the people came before the king. (2 Samuel 19:8)
The Aramaic Stele
Fragments of a large inscribed basalt stele were found in the square located in front of the Israelite city gate complex. The largest of these fragments measures 32 x 22 cm. and, of the original inscription, thirteen lines have been partially preserved. The language is ancient Aramaic.
The 9th century BCE and the beginning of the 8th century BCE were marked by military conflicts between the kings of Israel and the expanding kingdom of Aram-Damascus. (1 Kings 15:20) Thus the stele was erected by one of the Aramean kings of Damascus who captured Dan - although which king cannot be ascertained as yet. It is probable that in lines 7-8 two kings of Israel and Judah, who ruled at the same time, are mentioned: Jehoram, king of Israel and Ahaziah, king of Judah, referred to as a king of the House of David. These two kings were allies and were defeated by Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus. (2 Kings 8:7-15, 28; 9:24-29; 2 Chronicles 22:5)
The stele describing Hazael's victory over his enemies was, in all probability, erected by him when he conquered Dan in the mid-9th century BCE. It is reasonable to assume that Jehoash, king of Israel, who fought the Arameans three times and defeated them (2 Kings 13:25) recovering territories previously lost, including the city of Dan, symbolically smashed the stele erected there by Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus.
Although the broken stele raises serious historical problems, it is one of the most important written finds in Israel and the first non-biblical text which mentions the House of David by name. It is hoped that more fragments of this unique stele will be uncovered in future excavations.
Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry