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Tour of Tel Dan and Banias

This post is about the ultimate tours of Tel Dan and Banias. Both are important archaeological tels situated in northern Israel. These tells are filled with archaeology and connected to important biblical events. So in more ways than one this tour is connected to the biblical text. Naturally, I will mention the relevant context while we are touring these sites. 

Tour of Tel Dan 

In 1966 the archaeologist Avraham Biran began the excavations at Tel Dan in the north. Here he dug for more than 30 years. The 5,000-year-old “Tel” is a mound formed by layer-upon-layer remnants from civilizations that once occupied the site. In the Tel, Biran discovered the largest religious site ever found that dates from the Israelite period. The excavations revealed fragments from the period when the Canaanite settlement of Laish was re-settled by the Israelite tribe of Dan. Although this point is based on the Bible and no evidence has proven this.

Dating from the earlier period of the patriarchs, Biran excavated an arched gate. As well as a tremendous dirt wall that surrounded the city. Also, Biran found artifacts from the period of the Jewish monarchy. For example, the city’s defenses; walls, and gates as well as the High Places of the Gate mentioned in the Bible.

Tour of Tel Dan: The Tel Dan Stele

Biran’s most important discovery at the Tel was an inscription on a slab of basalt. Also known as the Tel Dan Stele, that consists of 13 lines in the ancient Canaanite script that mention The House of David. Regarding the significance of this inscription Hebrew University archaeologist Professor Amnon Ben-Tor said:

“In this inscription, which dates to around 800 BCE, Biran believes that a king from the House of David is mentioned as being struck down in the battle with the Arameans. This is the only extra-Biblical source ever found to date that mentions the existence of the Davidic dynasty. And it indeed is an extra-Biblical source that confirms the existence of David as a real historical figure. During the last few years, a number of English and Scandinavian researchers have published works suggesting that the kingdoms (and figures) of David and Solomon are literary inventions rather than historical facts”

Banias: The Ancient Caesarea Philippi

On our tour of Tel Dan we will explore also Banias; better known in the New Testament as Caesarea Philippi. So the history of Banias has interested scholars from many fields and has been the focus of scholarly publications dating back to the nineteenth century. The rediscovery of Banias by scholars; travelers and explorers from the west marked the beginning of academic interest in the site’s religious history.  Together with that attention came a series of reports and studies which were primarily geographical; historical and epigraphical in nature.

It was not until the early nineteenth century that visits from westerners began to bear scholarly fruit. German explorer and Collegian-Assessor of the Emperor of Russia, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen arrived in the small village of Banias in January 1806. He came to Palestine more on a mission of exploration than on an errand for the Emperor. His narratives of the ruins at the site testify to his knowledge of his antiquity. Seetzen stopped by the Grotto of Pan to satisfy his intellectual curiosity in an epigraphic exercise:

“I copied some ancient Greek inscriptions, dedicated to Pan and Nymph of the fountain”

Tour of Tel Dan and Banias: Johann Lewis Burckhardt

On the heels of Seetzen came noted Swiss explorer Johann Lewis Burckhardt. He reached Banias in 1810. Also, he remarked, “The district of Banias is classic grounds; it is ancient Caesarea Philippi.” A lack of money seems not to have hindered Burckhardt in his exploration of Banias and its environs. He visited the castle of Subaybah (Nimrod Fortress) and the Greco-Roman ruins of the city. Moreover, he also made careful notes on the ethnicities he saw like the Druze.

Furthermore, he also included in his descriptions was the natural and geographical features of the site; including waterways; and especially the fountain near the grotto which fed the Jordan River. Burckhardt devoted several pages to the analysis of the old Sanctuary of Pan; one which was certainly antiquarian but perhaps also proto-archaeological. Here, he recorded the dimensions of niches on the rock face and rendered a drawing of the temple district; then partially covered by earth. 

His command of the site’s history is demonstrated in his citations of Josephus and Eusebius. His survey endeavors are important to the archaeology of Banias. As is illustrated by his concerning the contents of the niches; the possible use of proximate hewn stones in the Augusteum. And the general description of the site. Though he made the mistake of his forebears in conflating Banias and Ancient Dan; his survey narrative is no less valuable to the scholarship of the site. The last of his descriptions included the Tomb of Khadir and its significance to Druze and Eastern Christian. Also the bridge on the west side of the city; the general profusion of hewn stones; architectural remnants, and several columns of granite. 

Tour of Tel Dan and Banias: Reverend W. M. Thomson

The next great contribution to its study was Reverend W. M. Thomson’s expedition to the site in 1843. Thomason gave a detailed description of the contemporary state of the city and its ancient condition. His narrative expanded upon the work of Seetzen and Burckhardt and was much more extensive. In 1851 French archaeologist, Louis Félicien Joseph Caignart de Saulcy – one of the founders of Biblical archaeology – visited Banias on the expedition to survey the antiquities and geography of Palestine and Syria. He too surveyed Banias and also recorded inscriptions from the site. Perhaps one of the most important services de Saulcy provided was to establish a clear historical and geographical distinction between Dan and Banias.

Modern Scholarly Research 

The second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century has been marked by detailed archaeological and historical investigations of Banias. Zvi Ma’oz was the first archaeologist to conduct any significant excavations at the site of Banias. His work centered around the cave of Pan and the sanctuary of Pan. As the rationale for Banias’ existence lay in the founding of the shrine at the cave, large scale excavations there are logical.

Ma’oz produced a number of reports on his excavation efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s. Ma’oz is also responsible for a significant portion of the numismatic analysis of the coins retrieved from Banias. As images of gods and temples adorned coins from the Banias mint, this contribution by Ma’oz is integral to a better understanding of religion at Banias. He has also recently completed a history of the site from the Hellenistic to the Roman periods based on his field excavations. 

Vassilios Tzaferis 

A retired archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority is another scholar who has been crucial to recounting the story of Banias. He was the principal investigator of the site during the late 1980s and the 1990s. Tzaferis’ research and archaeological investigations dealt with a number of areas in the site, some of the religious importance and some of the political importance, including the so-called palace of Herod Agrippa II. 

Along our private tour of the two sites, we will know more in detail about the different excavation sites. Moreover, we will examine the different archaeological reports. And what the highlights of what the archaeologists found during their excavations. Among others the Tel Dan Stele. We will set off the more theoretical discussions like if there was such a figure meaning King David or was he a mythological figure? The answer is waiting for you on this tour of Tel Dan and Banias.

Guided Tour of Tel Dan and Banias 

On my private tours of Tel Dan and Caesarea Philippi, I try to show my guests the beauty of these two biblical sites. Relatively there is much preserved and is for sure worth a visit! So don’t think about it too much and book it! 

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Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history.

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