The Tribe of Dan, one of the 12 “Israelite tribes,” may have started as no such thing. New archaeological evidence suggests that the Danites originated with mercenaries hired from the Aegean and Syria by the Egyptian overlords of Canaan to keep order.
According to the Bible, after the Israelites conquered Canaan, the land was split between the tribes – with the exception of the tribe of Dan. Bitter at their lot, the tribe went northward, conquered and destroyed the city of Laish (also called Leshem), then rebuilt it and renamed it after their ancestor (Judges 18:1-29).
“And the coast of the children of Dan went out too little for them: therefore the children of Dan went up to fight against Leshem, and took it, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and possessed it, and dwelt therein, and called Leshem, Dan, after the name of Dan their father” (Joshua 19:47).
Tell el-Qadi had been identified previously as the biblical city of Dan. Now recent excavations have uncovered a large neighborhood from the 12-11th century B.C.E. that shows compelling Aegean influences.
The discoveries have rekindled a longstanding academic brawl over the origin of the Danites. Were they really just a tribe of Israel that was left in the cold, found a conveniently isolated city and conquered it? Do they have anything to do with a mysterious kingdom called Danuna mentioned in ancient writing found in Turkey? Or maybe with the Denyen – a faction of invading Sea Peoples, according to ancient Egyptian sources? Or with the Danaoi, one of the Greek tribes? Or are these all one and the same? The findings at Tell el-Qadi (now Tel Dan) suggest they could well be.
The city of Dan was built on a mound near the southern foot of Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in the Golan Heights. Certainly by the standards of the arid Middle East, the area is lush and fertile, well-watered by natural springs. The city’s position was also strategic, smack on a key trading route between Tyre and Damascus.
The first settlement there dates back 7,000 years, to the Neolithic period. Among the earliest mentions of the city are Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts going back nearly 4,000 years, to the 19th century B.C.E. The site remained more or less continuously occupied through to the end of the Roman period.
By the Middle Bronze Age, around 2000 B.C.E., it had become a mighty city, surrounded by massive ramparts, called Laish (La-EESH). By the Late Bronze Age, Laish had established sprawling trade connections with the countries and coastal cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including Sidon and Tyre to the north, Egypt to the south, and to the west, Cyprus – and Mycenaean Greece.
Aegean influences: Weapons and gods
Laish’s ties with the Aegean seem to have been strong as far back as the 14th century B.C.E., as attested by the discovery of a tomb built with rough stones in a style akin to that found in Enkomi, in today’s Cyprus, and in Ugarit, on the coast of today’s northern Syria.
In the tomb, the archaeologists found more than 100 ceramic vessels that proved, by chemical analysis, to mostly originate in the Argolid in Greece, the center of Mycenaean culture during the Bronze Age.
This was a time in which the Egyptians were expanding northwards. As Canaan became a province of Egypt, Laish became part of their administrative system.
The excavations at Tel Dan began in 1966 under the direction of Avraham Biran and continued until 1999. After a hiatus of several years, Dr. David Ilan of the Hebrew Union College renewed excavating and, based on old material and new findings, he began to suspect that an old theory about Danite origins, first proposed by Michael Astour and Yigal Yadin in the 1960s, might be right, though their idea was at odds with the biblical narrative. Namely, that the Danites didn’t begin as a tribe of Israel at all, but originated in the Aegean world.
Among the Aegean influences in the city of Dan, Ilan identified pithoi (large storage vessels) in several of the houses, along with pottery, figurines and ritual items originating in the Aegean, Syria and Egypt.
The finds indicate that the peoples living in Dan were a mixed bunch who brought their eating habits, grooming practices, weapons of choice, and their gods with them to the city.
Cultic chamber with bird bowl
Among the more tantalizing discoveries was a modest rectangular building containing a small chamber—a holy-of-holies—in the corner. Ilan has identified this as a cultic structure of a type common in the Aegean. Similar buildings have been found in Enkomi and Kition in Cyprus, and at Phylakopi, on the island of Milos in Greece; locally, the same type was found at the Philistine site of Tel Qasile (in Tel Aviv).
Inside the putative sanctuary in Dan were fragments of a ceramic bowl to which a ceramic bird’s head was attached, called a bird bowl. A similar find was made at Tel Qasile (this is a good point to note that the Philistines who lived there are also thought by some to be of Aegean origin).
The excavators at Dan also found vessels decorated with Aegean-style birds, chalices, offering bowls, a model silo, and curious brain-shaped stones that may have been used in ritual.
Ilan postulates that these Aegean-style artifacts in Dan suggest the presence of worshippers hailing from the Aegean—perhaps the Denyen, Danuna (or Danaoi in Greek), in short, one of the ancient Greek tribes. The Denyen/Danuna were also one of the so-called “Sea Peoples” of Aegean origin who invaded Egypt, as described in Ramesses IIIs mortuary temple relief (1175 B.C.E.).
Surrounding the putative cultic structure, the excavators uncovered an industrial area featuring furnaces, crucibles, blowpipe nozzles, scrap metal, and slag from bronze smelting.
We found all kinds of broken objects from the Middle and Late Bronze Ages that they melted and recast into new bronze objects, tools and weapons, Ilan says. They were scavengers and recyclers who were desperate for metal. These were crisis years.
The mysterious proliferation of ‘Dan’
Whether or not the Danites of ancient Israel originated in a Sea People will take more proving. Meanwhile, we can say that a slab carved in Luwian script from the 8th century B.C.E., some 2800 years ago, discovered in southern Turkey, attests to the existence of a Danunian Kingdom.
Elsewhere, in a letter found in the El-Amarna archives (written to Pharaoh Amenhotep IV), the king of the Phoenician city of Tyre mentions a country called Danuna.
Given the indications of very strong cultural ties between Dan and the Aegean world, Ilan believes that Michael Astour and Yigal Yadin were correct: the people of Dan originated, at least in part, with the Denyen/Danuna/Danaoi of the Aegean coastal region, probably in the coastal region where Turkey and Syria meet today.
The most famous Danite in the Bible is Samson, a quite essential archetype of a Greek hero: He is very strong, his power resides in his long hair, he tells riddles and he hangs out with Philistine women, Ilan points out.
Yet more oblique evidence may be found in the song of Deborah, describing the tribes’ various roles: And Dan, why did he stay with the ships, (Judges 5:17). Dan was apparently the only Israelite tribe that had ships, and was conspicuously absent from giving support to Barak against the forces of Sisera. The writer of Judges seems to hint that the Danites originated elsewhere and were different from the other tribes.
The arrival of the Danuna mercenaries
If Aegean mercenaries came to Dan, they would have been hired. The ones who would have hired them were the Egyptian overlords of Canaan, to help them keep order in the land.
Archaeological evidence of ancient Egyptian control over Canaan has been found throughout Israel.
The Egyptians began raiding the Canaanite lands for plunder and slaves in the 15th century B.C.E., though there was a hiatus in the 14th century: Egypt was undergoing a period of instability and seems to have neglected this area, allowing the Hittite kingdom, based in what is now modern Turkey, to become a major player in the region.
Recognizing this threat in the 13th century B.C.E., the Egyptians seemed to have changed their policy in Canaan.
The Egyptians were worried about the Hittites in the north, who were expanding, encroaching on their borders and making deals with vassal kings in Syria and Lebanon, Ilan explains.
Instead of having local proxy rulers, who tended to be unreliable and rebellious, the pharaohs decided to meet the mounting threat of the Hittites by establishing a series of small forts and administrative residences across Canaan. Aside from that at Beth Shean, these have been found in the archaeological sites of Tel Afek, Deir al-Balah, Tel Sharia, and in Tel Lachish.
In Tel Dan itself, the archaeologists found Egyptian cooking pots, a razor blade, and “practice arrowheads” made out of bone that look Egyptian, Ilan told Haaretz. He believes that Laish (Dan) was under Egyptian control during much of the Late Bronze Age.
But the outposts of the Egyptian empire were not manned solely by Egyptians, Ilan believes. They staffed these places with professional soldiers from the Aegean, Cyprus, Syria, Turkey, Libya, Nubia, and other countries. Much like Roman legionnaires, these soldiers would commit to serve the Egyptian crown for life. And like the legionnaires, they may have been given land grants at the end of their service.
This system of rule was highly advantageous to the Egyptians, since the foreigners had no allegiance to the local population, allowing the Egyptians to maintain a Pax Aegyptiaca.
This would explain the layers of mixed cultural material at Tel Dan, with elements from Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, and the Aegean, says Ilan. We also have dozens of Egyptian cooking pots! These people served the Egyptians and the Egyptian army but they also included merchants doing business, he adds.
As is the nature of things, Ilan believes that these foreigners married local Canaanite women, a theory supported by the local (Canaanite) cooking vessels found inside the houses. And their children were something new.
But in the late 12th century B.C.E, in part of a thundering collapse of civilization throughout the Middle East, the Egyptians withdrew from Canaan. The erstwhile mercenaries, however, remained. David Ilan believes that these people who stayed behind at Tel Dan—Danuna, Egyptians, Canaanites and various other hybrid people—created a new amalgam society, and it is these who would become the Danites of biblical lore.