Top Archaeological Sites in Israel
BY Lee Saunders DATE 15/03/2022
Archaeology grounds us in a place and time and if you are looking for ancient ruins, there are few places on Earth that can match the archaeological sites in Israel for their fascinating history and unrivalled significance. With new excavations and discoveries emerging year after year, here we recommend 10 of the most interesting sites to visit: a perfect road trip from any of the Dan Hotels in Israel, to learn more about all of our yesterdays.
First up, Qumran tells an interesting story. Best known as the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, was established during the Hellenistic Period around 134-104 BC. It was during this era that the Essenes Jewish sect lived here as a communal monastery-like community. Fast forward to 1947 and local Bedouins discovered a clay jar containing 7 scrolls in caves about 1.5km from Qumran. Scholars evaluated the age and value of the parchments, with further explorations uncovering almost 1,000 texts written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Nabataen, including the oldest known existing copy of the Old Testament. Believed to have belonged to the Essenes sect, the scrolls are today housed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, a 10-minute drive from the Dan Panorama Jerusalem. The Qumran Visitors Center shows you an audio presentation about the scrolls and the settlement and you can also see aqueducts, cisterns, reservoirs, and much more.
One of the country’s flagship archaeological sites for tourists is the awe-inspiring fortress, Masada. Standing tall in the Negev Desert, built by King Herod, Masada offers tourists the opportunity to ascend the Snake Path, approximately 400 meters from the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, to the peak where archaeological remains tell a remarkable story of heroism, endurance and resilience, against all odds. What better way to test yours than with this epic 90-minute climb: choose an early morning tour from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to tackle a breathtaking sunrise hike as the sun peaks out over the Jordanian Mountains.
Although considered a ruthless leader – who represented Rome in Judea between 37BC and 4BC – Herod was also a visionary and responsible for many of Israel’s most architecturally advanced structures. He was responsible for Masada, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the port of Caesarea, and Herodium, home to an impressive palace, as well as his own mausoleum, about 10km south of Jerusalem, easily accessible from another King – the King David Hotel. Within the complex, you can see courtyards, palatial halls, while synagogues and churches have been uncovered in the area. From the elevated position of the palace, there are splendid panoramic views across Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the Judean Desert.
One of the world’s earliest known mosques, built around 1,200 years ago, is in the Bedouin town of Rahat. Dating back to the 7th or 8th century, it is the first known mosque from this period in the area, rivalling the age of those found in Mecca and Jerusalem, and is one of the first mosques constructed after the arrival of Islam. On the outskirts of the northern city of Tiberias, remains have also been discovered of a mosque potentially constructed as early as A.D. 635 by a companion of the Prophet Muhammad.
Archaeological Digs in Israel for tourists
One of Israel’s largest archaeological sites, Bet She’an (or ‘Skythopolis’) should not be overlooked by tourists. Up in the Galilee, in northern Israel, Bet She’an became a flourishing multi-cultural Roman city in the 1st century and a provincial capital in the 4th century. Today’s main attraction is the Bet She’an National Park, which houses the remnants of the Roman and Byzantine city of Bet She’an. Rising above them is the high mound on which Biblical Bet She’an stood. The Park encompasses the restored ruins of a 7,000-seat Roman theater, Greek colonnaded streets, gladiator amphitheater, Byzantine bathhouse and marketplace, Roman and Greek temples and a Samaritan synagogue.
Another major national park – Bet Guvrin – Maresha National Park – lies at the heart of the “Land of a Thousand Caves,” an impressive archaeological site in Israel, around 60km south of Jerusalem. With a tumultuous history from the First Temple Period through to modern times, the stunning bell-shaped caves remain the big draw for many tourists. A special program at Beit Guvrin allows anyone to join an archaeological dig for a day on a real site where important artifacts dating back to the Roman era are often found.
Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the extraordinary Megiddo, an ancient city in the Lower Galilee that has arguably seen more battles than any other location in the world. For Christians the word Megiddo is synonymous with the end of the world, as referenced in the Book of Revelation. Megiddo, or Armageddon, is believed to be the site of the Final Battle. Throughout its long history, Megiddo served as an important settlement for both the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Israelites. A staggering 26 settlement levels have been excavated here, covering over 5,000 years of history, dating back to the Chalcolithic period, between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. When visiting, you can go to the museum which uses models to recreate the original structures that stood here. Highlights include a late Bronze Age gate, a palace, Solomon’s Gate, as well as a royal Canaanite tomb from the Middle Bronze Age.
Sitting in the Negev Desert is Shivta, a Nabatean city that was once part of the Nabatean Spice Route, where frankincense and myrrh was transported from Yemen to ports on the Mediterranean. Founded around the 1st century BC, Shivta was home to a mixed population of Romans and Nabateans. Today, a UNESCO Heritage Site Desert, Shivta has two magnificent churches from the Byzantine era, among architectural treasures such as the Governors House.
In northern Israel, on the Sea of Galilee, Kursi National Park is home to the ruins of a Byzantine monastery where Jesus is said to have performed an exorcism on a man possessed by demons. Built in the 5th century, the whole monastery complex was enclosed by a defensive stone wall with a watchtower, with a large church in the center. As well as living quarters for the monks, archaeologists have uncovered a guesthouse and bath complex for pilgrims, as well as a paved road leading from the monastery to the harbor where pilgrims would have arrived.
Dotting the wilderness of the Judaean Desert, the grey-domed Saba Monastery (or Mar Saba) hangs dramatically down the cliff edge of a deep ravine and is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited monasteries in the world. Founded by St. Sabbas, a monk from central Turkey, in the 5th century, this Greek Orthodox monastery overlooks the Kidron Valley at a point halfway between the Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. During its heyday the monastery was home to more than 300 monks. Though it remains a functioning desert monastery, its numbers have dropped to fewer than 20 in the 21st century.
Written by Lee Saunders