Gilgal Rephaim – also spelled Refaim – is an ancient and mysterious stone monument in the Golan Heights. Here is an aerial view picture so you can get an idea:
The Gilgal is the Israeli Stonehenge. Gilgal Rephaim, or the "Wheel of Giants," is composed of over 40,000 stones that are arranged in 4 circles. It is quite big – the diameter of the outer circle is about 150 meters/490 feet. The site is estimated to be 5,000 years old.
Unlike the real Stonehenge in England, this prehistoric structure is composed of much smaller piles of basalt rocks. As a result the site went unnoticed for hundreds of years (until it was spotted from the air after the 1967 Six-Day War).
It is not totally understood what the purpose of the structure was. In fact there are all sorts of theories about it. Some think it was a sort of a calendar or maybe a tomb or worship site.
As mentioned, it is best seen from above. However it sits on a plateau with no hills around it – which raises further questions regarding the purpose of the structure.
Gilgal or Galgal in Hebrew means a circle. Refaim means ghosts. But the Refaim were also a race of giant people that lived in the Bashan, which is the Golan of today. And they might just be the ones who built the place.
This place, like Stonehenge, is still a big mystery. So for all you mystery hunters and anyone interested in strange and ancient monuments, come and take a look!
By the way, Gilgal Rephaim is also known by its Arabic title of Rujum-el-Hiri (also spelled Rujum-al-Hiri or Rujm-el-Hiri), which means “stone heap of the wild cat.” How a wild cat fits into all this is also a mystery, we'll let you try figure that out.
Reading about Gilgal Rephaim online is one thing, finding it is another!
You see, in May 2016 I was on vacation in the Golan Heights and had a little time, so I went on a hurried quest to find and visit this mysterious site quickly (I mean why not – who wouldn’t want to visit the Stonehenge of the Middle East!).
Before I continue with my experience, let me tell you – this is not your average, tourist-friendly, easy-to-find attraction. Most tourist sites are right next to a road, have a nice, simple entrance for cars, clear directions, etc. Gilgal Rephaim – not at all - it's an adventure just to find it!
First off, the site is not near any main road. In fact, it’s located in a large area used by the military for training exercises! Military training exercises!!! The Golan Heights tourist map actually states to call the military before entering the area (which I did) and the site is apparently only open to public on weekends and holidays. Here’s the military number to call (from within Israel): 04-697-7224.
And if that doesn’t scare you just bear in mind that possibly 1/3rd of the Golan still contains landmines left behind by the Syrians from the 1967 and 1973 wars. Fine, all these landmined areas are behind fences and are very clearly marked (in Hebrew and English), and the Gilgal is not in one of these areas, but still – this is not your average friendly tourist site!!!
Per the tourist map, the site is supposed to be located next to a dirt road between the 808 and 98 main roads.
According to the lady I spoke to at the museum office in Katzrin, there are two possible ways to reach Gilgal Rephaim. The first involves a one-hour hike. You take the 808 main road and stop south of the east-west Gamla dirt road (click here for more details about Gamla - a nature reserve and archaelogical site). There is a “Golan trail” (which I assume is a walking trail) off the 808 heading east, which apparently you take for about an hour to get to the Gilgal.
The second option she briefly mentioned involved really bad roads that kind of require an ATV or 4x4 (pictured above).
What did I do? Same thing I do whenever I need to get to my destination – I just used Google Maps. ;-)
The app took me and my uncle (who was kind enough to drive me) first east along the 87, then south and south-west along a bunch of bad roads. It became pretty obvious pretty quickly that these were the roads the museum office lady was talking about that you kind of need an ATV to traverse.
The 15-minute ride along bumpy, pothole-filled gravel/dirt roads was pretty uncomfortable, but the road from hell finally came to an end and we hit our destination (per the app). In front of us was an old, locked gate surrounding a complex of ugly, abandoned buildings, plus a horse or two inside. Kind of creepy.
Anyway, I noticed a couple of tourists in the field to the right (beyond the razor fencing) and bravely climbed through the hole in the fence. Carrying on, I traversed through long grass and found numerous stretches of piled rocks in odd formations.
But was this Gilgal Rephaim, or just some other pile of rocks? Remember that this site went unnoticed for centuries - as the formation is not visible from the ground. This fact makes it kinda tricky to know that you’ve found it. Plus the Golan, and this region in particular, is simply loaded with odd piles and rows of basalt rocks all over the place in the bare fields. I mean you’ll see rock piles and formations on the sides of the road everywhere in this region!
So did I find Gilgal Rephaim? After doing further research, my answer is: NO. What I found was some other odd stone-pile structure that you see all over the region. But did I have an adventure trying? Oh yes...
Combining my tourist map with Google Earth, I think I figured out the easiest way to get to Gilgal Rephaim. Here's a screenshot of the area I captured:
The bad route I took that I described above (with the terrible roads) landed us up at an abandoned building complex north of the Gilgal and still very far out from the site. So I would definitely recommend against that (even if Google Maps directs you there like it did for me).
My recommended directions are instead to take the 808 road (a decent road to drive on) and stop off there about midway between the Gamla road and the Daliyot junction, then hike eastwards along the stream.
It's a bit of a hike (about 40 minutes) plus you'll want to spend some time around the site itself, so remember to bring a cap, suncreen, water bottle, etc.
And like I mentioned above the site is apparently only open to public on weekends and holidays, plus you need to call the military number before arriving (04-697-7224 from within Israel).
If you successfully visited Gilgal Rephaim and have more exact directions or things to look out for (signs, etc.) then please let us know! Send us a submission using the submission option lower down on this page including pics if possible. Doing so will help more tourists reach this unique attraction and maybe make the trek a bit easier. ;-)
The pictures and video above and below show what the real Gilgal Rephaim looks like from the ground. You can use it to compare to what you see when you're searching the area.
Also note common descriptions of the site: "a labyrinth of crumbling stone walls overgrown with weeds" and "a central chamber or burial mound five meters high..."
Of course there is always the option of using an experienced tour guide to take you directly (and confidently) to the Gilgal. Plus they can provide even more information and updates on the site, area, archaeology, history, etc.
I recommend Charlie Guide, who I know personally and who has been touring people around Israel for decades.
Here’s a video some hikers took of their trip to the Gilgal, including exploring the central chamber/tomb briefly. It should give you a good idea of what to expect from the hike and the site itself.
Enjoy your trek to the Gilgal! Let us know if you find a giant or a wild cat! ;-)
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