Updated: Apr 4, 2021
I am fascinated with prehistoric archaeology and the Leopard Temple in the Uvda Valley, about an hour’s drive from Eilat, is one of my favorite sites. When I stand at this place, used by ancient peoples for 4,000 years (let me spell that out, four thousand years!) as a cultic sanctuary, from the Neolithic Age, (mid 6th millennium BCE) through the Chalcolitic to the Bronze Age, (mid 2nd millennium BCE), I can barely comprehend this time span of human spirituality. Wow. Just wow.
After an Israeli army tank on maneuvers in the Uvda Valley drove past some sand dunes and soldiers noticed strange formations on the ground, archaeologists excavated and cleaned the site in the early 1980’s. It consists of a courtyard, surrounded by a parallelogram-shaped, low, double wall, each side 12 meters long.
In the courtyard were found four altars from different eras spanning 4,000 years, each one a shallow pit, dug into the ground and lined with stones. Using Carbon 14, the oldest carbonized remains were dated to about 7,500 years ago. Do you get that? People like you and me were here, in the middle of nowhere, bringing and sacrificing offerings to their gods, starting seven thousand five hundred years ago. Who were these people? Who were their gods? What did worshippers ask for? Why here?
To the western side of the courtyard we find what archaeologists dub the “Holy of Holies”, a reference of course, to the most sacred chamber in the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where monotheistic Jews believed rested the essence of God. The “Holy of Holies” at the Leopards Temple is an elongated, rectangular, stone-surrounded enclosure that contains exactly 17 upright, unhewn stones. Archaeologists believed these stones represented gods or venerated ancestors.
Upright stones? This reminds me of one of the our most important Biblical stories about Jacob, one of our forefathers. Jacob left Beersheva and set out for Haran and on the way camped for the night. He took a stone and used it as a pillow. He dreamed about a stairway reaching to the heavens, with angels going up and down. At the top he saw God, who reiterated the promise He made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, whereby his descendents would be numerous like the dust of the earth and will spread out far and wide, populating the land.
(Genesis 28:16-19) When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.
Jacob called the place where he erected an upright stone Beth El, the house (or place) of God.
The act of placing an upright stone on holy ground, at the place where God or the gods reside, does not begin in the Hebrew Bible. It is as ancient as the Neolithic era, when worshippers erected cultic sites with standing stones on both sides of the Jordan Rift Valley, on the Golan Heights, in the Syrian Horan and in Jordan. Later civilizations such as the Nabateans also venerating upright stones, and worship at the megalithic Kaaba stone in Mecca precedes Islam.
Unhewn stones? Isn’t that a Jewish thing? God required Moses to build him an altar, explicitly only with stones untouched by iron. He says to Moses:
And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them. (Exodus 20:22)
God demands uncut stones because He knows weapons of war are made of iron. He wants no tool that is used for war to be used to build his altar, his Temple. Greg Salisbury, in his article Have You Got the Stones to Make Peace? in the Jewish Exponent (Sept 4th, 2015), writes:
The prohibition against using an iron tool to shape the stones runs like a thread through ancient Jewish history. While invading Canaan, Joshua built “an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded” (Joshua 8:31). When Solomon built the First Temple, “only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built” (1 Kings 6:7). When Judah Maccabee and his band of brothers liberated Jerusalem in 164 BCE, “they took unhewn [whole] stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one” (1 Maccabees 4:47).
So no, uncut stones go way back. What I find absolutely titillating is that these desert people who built this sanctuary and worshiped in it long ago, had much in common with our Biblical forefathers and their stories.
Lets get back to the Leopard sanctuary. To the east of the courtyard we find what gave this archaeological site its name, a series of 16 animal figures outlined in the sand with stones pressed into the ground. The row of 16 creatures is about 15 meters long and depicts female leopards (so identified because of their raised tails) and one headless antelope. Archaeologists believe this ancient religious art installation represents the story of life and death, predator and prey, the cycle of life. The leopards, probably also representing goddesses of fertility, are all facing eastwards, towards the rising sun (life, new day, new beginnings) and the antelope is facing west (sunset, death, finality).
Sometime at the beginning of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, ancient people began to settle down in small groups, plant crops, domesticate animals. They needed as much help as they could get as life was difficult, especially around the Fertile Crescent where much of their success depended on the amount of annual rain, the seasons and the climate. They began worshipping in some organized manner, first the Sun and Moon and stars, and then trees, mountains and what they perceived as powerful and wise animals. These gods were called upon to bless the crops, to provide rain and to keep away evil things.
On the small hill next to the Leopards Temple are the remains of circular grain threshing floors and a few structures used as living quarters. Historians believe that ancient farmers cultivated wheat and other grains here during the winter and used the water from flash floods to irrigate the crops. It is believed the farmers left after the harvest, only to return the next year for the next planting. Perhaps these farmers created the sanctuary to honor not only their gods but the powerful predators of the desert, the leopards. Were they asking them for divine help? For protection? For their blessing for a plentiful grain harvest? For ample rains in the high desert that would spill to the valley? Who were these people?
I love a good archaeological mystery.