The 10 greatest mysteries in Israel

Is there a mermaid in Kiryat Yam? What is the ancient 600-year-old wheel of ghosts in the Golan Heights? And where are the Maccabees really buried?

If you’ve ever seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know that the history of the Holy Land is filled with intriguing mysteries. Despite Indiana Jones-style explorers’ best guesses, we don’t know where the ark and other precious furnishings from the first Holy Temple lie buried. And we’re still not certain who wrote each of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Here is a list of other perplexing mysteries in Israel, some from thousands of years ago and others as recent as yesterday’s news.

1. Galgal Refaim

The mysterious ancients responsible for Britain’s Stonehenge could not have built Galgal Refaim (“wheel of ghosts”) or Rujm al-Hiri in Arabic (“stone heap of the wild cats”) between roads 808 and 98 in Israel’s Golan Heights. But like the much younger Stonehenge, Galgal Refaim (also called Gilgal Refaim) is remarkable for its stone structure achieved perhaps 6,000 years ago. An estimated 42,000 tons of basalt stone are laid out in four huge concentric circles that may have reached as high as 30 feet. The prevailing theory is that it was some sort of burial complex or cultic center – or both.

2. Kinneret mystery mound 

This drawing shows how the mound sits in the Sea of Galilee.

This drawing shows how the mound sits in the Sea of Galilee.

A stone’s throw from the baptismal site of Jesus on the Jordan River, Israeli researchers uncovered a third-century BCE conical mound of stones in the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret to Israelis). Today it’s a convenient rest stop for summer birds, but some Christian speculators think it could have provided the platform for Jesus’ miracle of walking on water and rescuing followers. Prof. Shmulik Marco from Tel Aviv University believes the stones were a cairn to protect human remains, most likely constructed on land and pushed out to sea by an earthquake.

3. Lost tombs of the Maccabees

This tourist spot isn’t the real deal. Photo by Matti Friedman/Times of Israel

This tourist spot isn’t the real deal. Photo by Matti Friedman/Times of Israel

Ancient sources reveal that the tombs of the Hasmonean heroes of the second-century BCE Hanukkah story – Mattityahu the priest, his wife and his five sons, known as the Maccabees – were marked by a magnificent pyramid structure visible from miles away. Yet adventurers and scholars have been searching unsuccessfully for this monument in the Modi’in area since 1866. A modern tourist site dubbed the Maccabean Graves actually dates from centuries after the time of the Maccabees. Antiquities Authority Archaeologist Amit Reem is trying to raise enough money to re-explore a site first suggested as the Maccabean tomb by a French scholar in 1896.

4. The helmet of the ancient warrior

Photo of ancient helmet courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority.

Photo of ancient helmet courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority.

 

A 2,600-year-old bronze helmet covered with gold leaf and decorated with snakes, lions and a peacock’s tail was discovered during a dredging operation in 2007 in the waters of Haifa Bay. The Marine Archaeology Unit of Israel Antiquities Authority says it is one of the most ornate pieces of early Greek armor ever found, and surmises that it was worn by a wealthy Greek mercenary working for the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II. The helmet is now on display at the National Maritime Museum in Haifa, but how it got into the water in the first place is a mystery buried with its owner.

5. Atlit-Yam

Was this Israeli version of Atlantis washed away in Noah’s flood? Overtaken by a prehistoric tsunami or glacial meltdown? Nobody is sure how the Late Neolithic-era Atlit-Yam village, located some 400 meters off the shore between Atlit and Haifa, got submerged. But when it was discovered in 1984 during an underwater archeological survey, it was hailed as the largest and best-preserved prehistoric settlement ever uncovered off the Mediterranean coast. The approximately 8,000-year-old village contains buildings, human graves, wheat seeds and animal bones.

6. The Kiryat Yam mermaid 

NBC and Animal Planet are among the international media outlets that have produced segments about the alleged mermaid spotted in the waters off Kiryat Yam, a blue-collar Israeli town near Haifa. The mayor even offered a $1 million reward to anyone who could prove the mermaid – or whatever is lurking in the water — really exists. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responded to speculation about the Israeli mermaid several years ago by stating, “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” Locals aren’t convinced.

7. The James Ossuary

Photo of the James Ossuary by Zev Radovan.

Photo of the James Ossuary by Zev Radovan.

Is a limestone casket from the early Common Era the resting place of Jesus’ brother? That was the subject of a long legal battle in Israel. The bone box, or ossuary, bought 25 years ago by an Israeli collector from an Arab antiquities dealer bears the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The Israel Antiquities Authority charged that the “brother of Jesus” part was forged by the collector, but he was acquitted by a Jerusalem court in 2012 and got to keep his treasure. Though the debate continues unabated in scholarly circles, the ossuary is sure to be a hit with tourists if it ever goes on public display.

8. King Solomon’s Mines

Archeologist Erez Ben Yosef directs digs at the Timna site.

Archeologist Erez Ben Yosef directs digs at the Timna site.

Did the wise Israelite King Solomon really have anything to do with the copper mines at Timna, near Eilat? The site traditionally called by his name was long thought to post-date him, and only last year was it determined – by carbon-dating ancient date and olive pits dug up there – that the mines were indeed in active use during Solomon’s 10th century BCE reign. Nevertheless, some historians think the mines were overseen by Egyptian or Edomite governments. Is some other, still-undiscovered site the real King Solomon’s Mines that are the stuff of legends and modern books?

9. Zedekiah’s Cave

Photo of Zedekiah’s Cave courtesy of the Tourism Ministry.

Photo of Zedekiah’s Cave courtesy of the Tourism Ministry.

Speaking of Solomon, this quarry under the northern wall of Jerusalem’s Old City lay buried for more than 300 years until, in 1854, an American missionary’s dog dug through dirt near the Old City wall and disappeared through an opening. Legend has it that this was the cave through which biblical King Zedekiah unsuccessfully attempted to flee Jerusalem during a Babylonian siege in 422 BCE.

The cave’s other nickname is Solomon’s Quarry, and the Freemasons of Israel hold an annual secretive ceremony here as they consider King Solomon the original freemason. But it’s more probable that stones cut here were used for the fourth-century BCE Second Temple of Herod rather than Solomon’s ninth-century First Temple.

Adding to the cave’s mysterious allure, in 1968 an East Jerusalem man claimed his grandfather had buried three cases of gold in Zedekiah’s Cave and offered a quarter of the loot to the government if it would finance a dig. Nothing was found.

10. Oil in them thar hills?

As Israel’s discovery of huge natural gas reserves is poised to impact the country’s economy in future years, careful readers of the Bible are optimistic that they, too, will find vast oil fields hidden in the Holy Land – and some of them have hit potential pay dirt.

Evangelical Christian John Brown, founder of Zion Oil & Gas in Texas – and his 30,000 investors – believe that the book of Deuteronomy contains clues to oil fields in northern Israel, though four drilling expeditions thus far have come up dry. Meanwhile, Israeli oil company Givot Olam – whose hunches also are based on biblical passages — has indeed discovered onshore oil in commercial quantities, and is working with the government to develop these sites. In addition, Shemen Oil and Gas Resources last year discovered oil off the coast of Ashdod.

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.
  • Asher Zeiger

    Considering that King Zedekiah lived from about 610 BCE (give or take a few years) until a few years after the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE, it is highly unlikely that Zedekiah used that cave in 422 BCE – some 160 years after the Temple was destroyed, and 110 years after the Persians removed the Babylonians from power

  • Jonathan Waxman

    As to the date of King Zedekiah’s attempted escape in 422 BCE: while in some Orthodox circles this is the correct date, most historians would date it to 587/586 BCE. By 422, the Babylonians were long gone and the Persians had been ruling for over a century.

  • honeybee

    Leave it to Texans to drill dry holes!!! The circles above remind me of more primitive stone circles ,in Wyo,USA , used as seasonal marking calendars by Amer. Indians.

  • Ian Kobi Cooper

    Great article, however King Herod’s Temple (aka Temple version 2.2) is not from the 4th c. BCE but rather the 1st c. BCE. Solomon’s Temple was 10th c. BCE, not 9th c. The Zedekiah date – as mentioned in other comments – is also incorrect. Please correct this.