Did Any of the Lost Tribes Go North? Is the “Sambatyon” the Bosphorus?


 Did Any of the Lost Tribes Go North?
Is the “Sambatyon” the Bosphorus?
Yochanan Hevroni Ben David
(John Hulley)

One of the three places where the lost tribes are located –so the sages say 1–lies 1 beyond the “Sambatyon”. There live some of the descendants of those Israelites who were into exile by the conquering Assyrians a little before 700 BCE. 2 According to the Torah3 the redemption of Israel is to include not only return of the Jews to the land but also reunion of the tribes. Vast resources, both human and material, will thus be added to the infant state. The union will be achieved at the spiritual level. 4

From time to time rabbinic and other travellers have gone in search of the lost tribes. Today the quest continues under the authority of the Chief Rabbi of Israel. As a part of this effort, attempts have been made to indentify the “Sambatyon” in lands to the east in Asia or southwards in Africa; but the result to date have been meager. In this paper the direction of inquiry is northwesterly towards Europe.

The investigation may begin with a saying by Rabbi Akkiva as quoted in a midrash (symbolic commentary) :

“…the river Sambatyon carries stones the whole week but allows them to rest on Sabbath.” (Genesis Rabba 11:5) The Ramban (Nachmanides), commenting on Deuteronomy 32:36, wrote “…it is called Sabatyon because of its rest on the Sabbath. “[Sabbatyon is a variant spelling. In Hebrew it is written either rest on the Sabbath. “[Sabbatyon is a variant spelling. In Hebrew it is written either

סנבבטיון   סבטיון   סמבטיון

or  שבתיון

It is characteristic of midrash that factual accuracy takes second place to the spiritual message (in this case the holiness of Sabbath!); the content may be even fantastic. Thus far the “Sambatyon” has remained in this category; it has eluded the efforts of generations of searchers to find its actual location. More startling, if less consistent, details are given in classical sources: Pliny National History 31:24; Josephus  Wars of the Jews 7:96-99 and also medieval writings.5

The larger rivers of the Earth have been identified; but none has been found which stops regularly Sabbath. Some of them do sometimes stop, for instance if they dry up in the summer; but such changes are seasonal, not weekly. At river mouths the incoming tide may block the out-flowing waters; but such interruptions occur roughly twice a day, not once a week.

The Bosphorus however has characteristics reminiscent of the “Sambatyon”. It is a narrow strait – the one through which the waters of the Black Sea rush past of Istanbul towards the Aegean (see map). There the current does slow down drastically, stop or even reverse on average about once in a week. This condition may last for a day or more.

How the Bosphorus “rests”

Contrary (i.e., southwest) winds can pile up water on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Marmora, while drawing it off the southwestern shore of the Black Sea. Maximum effect results when the winds over both seas are in this direction. In such conditions the normal gradient of the Bosphorus can be reduced, eliminated or even reversed. The current may slow down, stop or go back. and the effect may last as long as a day or two. 5 It has been estimated that such a combination of winds occurs on average on about five days a month. Observations cited by Labaree 7 for a six month period from April through September yield an average of 4.8 days a month. The average is not far from once a week.

The phenomenon is not new. It was mentioned in the first century by Strabo: “..the strait at Byzantium.. as Hippachus reports, even stands still sometimes..”. (Geography 1.3.12) The effect is irregular; it does not fall on any fixed day of the week. However in certain circumstances (illustrated below) it would have been possible for a group of migrants to come away with the impression that it did.

For the most people the crossing would present a major obstacle. There were no bridges there in those days, nor power boats. Xerxes, the Persian Emperor, had a bridge of ships built for his invasion of Europe (513 BCE). For others the only practical choice was to sail over – a difficult task. At its narrowest the Bosphorus is 700 meters from one side to the other. At mainstream it is at least 40 meters deep. The current averages five kilometers an hour, sometimes rising to double that. 8 Treacherous whirls, eddies and crosscurrents compound the dangers.

Travelers would accordingly have needed help from the local inhabitants – the Bithynians. These were known for their sailing skill; 9 but in those days mariners possessed only the technique of sailing before the wind, and had to rely primarily on rowing. To sail up to the Bosphorus is reckoned to have been impossible on average days. It is supposed that Greek merchant ships heading for the Black Sea would wait a few days at the southwestern end of the Bosphorus. 10 When the current slowed, stopped or reversed, they might sail up it in a few hours.

For the same reason people trying to cross would also have needed to wait. Rowers of freight or passenger craft would not have been able to equal the average rate of the current.  Crossing on a typical day, they would therefore have been carried further downstream than the distance across; they would then have faced the arduous task of dragging the boat upstream against the powerful current. Thus a group of migrants is likely to have waited for the opportunity to cross.

No doubt the Bythynian ferrymen would have explained the reasons. However, if the migrants were Assyrian deportee of Israelite extraction, the language could have been strange to them.  Bithynian is believed to have been a dialect of Thracians; 11 this was spoken across the Bospherus in southeastern Europe, but was an instrutive exception in Asia Minor. Even if learned men were counted among the Isralite migrants, they would have been unlikely to know the language.

Thus it would have been possible for them to come away with an inaccurate impression, particular if the crossing fell on a Sabbath. The latter event could have been erroneously blended with information that the current stopped roughly every seven days. In this way the tradition of a river which stops regulary on Sabbath could have originated. Beginning with the migrant group of Israelites deportees, the story could  eventually have transmitted back to Jerusalem, perhaps better aboard a ship plying to the Mediterranean.

This is conjecture. The fact that the tradition could thus have originated does not prove that it actually did so. It does make clear however that the Bosphorus has characteristics conducive to such an origin in a way that other rivers and straits do not. Further lines of evidence that the “Sambatyon” could be the Bosphorus may be worth checking.


How the Stones were stilled

According to the midrash (see above) stones came to rest in the “Sabatyon” on the Sabbath. A parallel may be seen in the best-known tradition relating to the Bosphorus, the legend of the Argonauts. An important part of the story centered on the “clashing Rocks” (Symplegadae”). At the entrance to the straits stand two giant rocks which still today are a peril to shipping.  In times gone by these were said to have been so loosely emplaced that they would on occasion strike each other. Boats attempting to pass between them might thus be smashed to pieces, with the loss of all on board. According to the legend, the rocks would come to rest only if and when heroes would successfully pass through them.

The legendary voyage of Jason and his Danaan Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece fulfilled the condition. They passed through, sustaining only slight damage to the stern of the ship “Argo”.  And the rocks are said to have become stationary. According to tradition, the Black Sea was thereby opened to navigators from the Aegean from that time forth.

The tale was probably still fresh in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE; it was often referred to by Greek writers in classical times. 12  It is reasonable to assume that passengers crossing the Bosphorus would have heard it from the Bythian boatmen. And they may have found it worthy of mention in a letter to Jerusalem. To combine the stilling of the rocks with the stilling of the current is a simple step. The physically characteristics tradionally attributed to the “Sambatyon” would thus be accounted for.

“Sam-batyon” or Sam-bythion”?

Another line of evidence can be found in the name- possibly an ancient one. “Bosphorus” is Greek (“Bosporus” in the original), and Greek names presumably did not come in general usage in the area until the period of Greek preeminence. Greek traders and colonists began to penetrate the Bosphorus in the seventh century. 13   After that their presence increased only gradually. An older non-Greek name is therefore more likely to have been used by the locals at least until the fith century BCE.

The Bithynians controlled the left bank of the strait. It would not been surprising therefore if they identified the waters by their own name. The latter part of the word “Sambatyon” is radical similiar to “Bithynia”. In those days vowel signs were not used in Hebrew script; nor was there a dot in the letter  tav to distinguish the “t” from “th”. “Sambatyon” is usually spelled  with a   (tet), although it is also found  with  (tav). All available Hebrew texts were written centuries after the event. For the present hypothesis it would be necessary that (tav) be the original spelling. Thus “batyon” and “bithyon” would be written identically. A letter from the Israelites could have contained a word by which they meant to convey bithyon; but if those in Jerusalem were unfamiliar with it, they could as well read it as “batyon”.

The word “bithyon” would probably mean of the “Bithyai”. The letter was an early name for Bithynians (the additional letter “n” there being apparently adjectival). The same root may be seen in the river “Bithyas”, the town “Bithylopolis” and the eponym “Bithys” which was a  common personal name locally. 14

The first syllable – “sam” – is less clear. It could be modified form of a prefix “san”; following linguistic laws of euphony, the “sam” would reflect a substitution of “m” for “n” before the letter “b”. Indeed “Sanbatyon” is open of the variant spellings of the name. What “san” would mean is doubtful; but a possible meaning might be inferred from its appearance in the name of Bithynia’s largest river, the Sakarya, which was known in ancient times as the Sangarios. In Thrace there was also the Sandanos. 15 Thus in the same linguistic area there would have been:

Sangarios – in Bithynia

Sanbithyon- Bosphorus

Sandanos – in Thrace.

Despite the apparent parallelism, the possibility of coincidence cannot be excluded, so long as the meaning of “san” remains unknown. Perhaps it pertains in some way to rivers or straits.

By another interpretation, the first syllable “sam” could be a garble for “yam”, the Hebrew word for “sea”. In the ancient alphabet then in use, the letter  for “y” (yud) was closer to (samech), one of the letters for “s” than it is today. 15 (In Hebrew “Sambatyon” is usually written with a   (samech) though sometimes with a   (shin). As may be seen both letters Yud; samech   consisted of a long vertical or near vertical stroke and three short horizontal ones. They could have easily been garbled; errors were common in ancient letters. Thus the word(s) intended by the writer could have been “yam Bithyon” or “sea of the Bithynians” (The word for “sea” may have meant both the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora below it, since the Bithynians and their kin controlled the land adjacent to both.)

The possible derivation of a pre-Greek name for the Bosphorus from the word “Sambatyon” adds to the probability that the two are the same.

Why the Name remained a Mystery

It is easy to understand why this name was not known in Jerusalem. After all, Bithynia was a small country a thousands kilometers away from the northwest. It is not even mentioned in the Tenach ( the Torah, the Prophets and Wrtings). But why was its meaning not sought and found?

One of the reason could be that a message about it arrived in Jerusalem in a period of maximum confusion. Early in the sixth century nearly all the religiuos leaders, along with the ruling classes and many others, were deported in successive stages to Babylon. 17 The first temple was destroyed. In these terrible circumstances information coming from exiles of the northern kingdom may not have received much attention. The current exile of the southern kingdom would have taken priority.

With the passage of time, correct identification of the “Sambithyon” became more diffecult because of the change of the name to “Bosporus”. The return of Ezra and Nechemiah from Babylon did not occur until more than a century after that exile. Meanwhile Greek power and, with it, Greek names were spreading through the east Mediteranean area. By the time the people of Judah had begun to recover from the effects of the Babylonian exile it would have been more diffecult to rediscover the whereabouts of a river which they still called “Sambatyon”.


Several lines of evidence converge on an identification of the “Sambatyon” with the Bosphorus. The peculiarity of stopping on the Sabbath can be plausibly explained by reference to a single crossing on that day, combined with the information that the Bosphorus does slow drastically, stop or reverse every few days. The peculiarity of stones coming to rest can be explained as a blend of the stopping of the curent with the Argonaut legend. The name itself, with an acceptable change of pronunciation, can be derived from that of the neighboring

country of Bythnia. And the fact that the Greek name “Bosphorus” soon replaced it can explain the subsquent inability of the Jews (themselves disorganized by the Babylonian exile) to locate what they still knew as the “Sambatyon”. These pieces of evidence are circumstantial, and the identification can therefore only be conjectural. On the other hand they are unique, and their combination is exceptional. Not only the behavior of the water and the stones, but also the origin and disappearance of the name can all be counted for. The Bosphorus may thus be the best candidate so far proposed for the “Sambatyon”.


But the evidence is of little avail unless a group of Israelites can reasonable be supposed to have crossed this body of water during the period that the older name would have been in use. The Bithynians arrived in the area shortly after 700 BCE. The Greek name “Bosporos” probably became common after 500 or so. A crossing by Israelite deportees therefore should have occurred between 700 and 500 or not long thereafter.

At the time of the Assyrian exile, Iranian tribes – Mees, Persians, Scyths – were already pressing hard on the eastern borders of the Empire; soon the pressure would become overwhelming. Assyria collapsed in 605. In those conditions opportunities arose for the deportees; what actually happened can be reconstructed in part with the aid with modern archaeology. Evidence on this will be published separately.



1    Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 65B; Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 10:6; Lamentations Rabba   2:9; Genesis Rabba 11:5 , 73:6, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Exodus 34:10; Nachmanides on Deuteronomy 32:36.

2    2.Kings 17:6; 18:11; 1. Chronicles 5:26.

3    e.g. Deuteronomy 30:1-5; Jeremiah 3:18, 33:14-26. For summary and references see Rafael Eisenberg. A Matter of Return (Jerusalem: Fledheim, 1980), chapter 6.

4    Genesis 49:22-6; Deuteronomy 33:13-17.

5    Eisenberg, pp. 135-7; Encyclopedia Judaica on ” Sambatyon”.

6    C.G. Gunnarson and E. Ozturgut, “The Bophorus” in E.T. Degens and D.A Ross, eds. The Black Sea Geology, Chemistry and Biology. (Tulsa Oklahoma: American Association of Petroleum Geologists), 1974, p. 103

7    B.W. Labaree “How the Greeks sailed into the Black Sea”, American Journal of Archeology vol. 61 (1957), pp. 29-33.  cf. “Currents”. Black Sea Pilot Hydrographic Department, Admirialty, London, 1955 edition (or other editions presumably)

8    Taken from Labaree

9    “Bithynia” in Realenclopedie der klassischen Aletrtumswissenschaft, A. Pauly. G. Wissowa et al. eds. (Stuttgart: Druckenmuller Verlag, 1894), vol. III, p. 514.

10    See Labaree.

11    Pauly, loc. cit, p. 510.
12    References in Pauly, op. cit. “Argonautai” in vol. II, 1. pp. 759-762; “Kyaneai” in vol. XI. 2. p. 2236.

13    J.M Cook the Greeks in Ionia and the East (London: Thames and Hudsons, 1962), p. 50 ff.

14   Dimiter Detschew. Die thraktische Sparchreste Vienna: Österreichische Akademie Wissenschaften, 1957, pp. 63-6.

15   Pauly, “Thrake” loc. cit. vol. VIA 1, p. 408.

16   Encyclopedia Judaica, on “Alphabet, Hebrew”, pp. 683-4.

17  In 597 BCE: II.Kings 24:8 ff,; Jeremiah 13:18-19; II.Chromnicles 36:9-10. In 586 BCE: II.Kings 25:1-21, Jeremiah 39:1-10, 52:1-30; II.Chronicles 36:17-20.

*  *  *

Originally published in the Chasidic Chabad Lubavitcher journal B’Or HaTorah back in 1987: B’Or Ha’Torah 6 (1987): 127-133 –  Special thanks to NazareneSpace volunteer Mikha’Ela for typing in the original article).

Holding a BA in Economics from Harvard University, Yochanan Hevroni Ben David (John Hulley) worked as a senior economist at the World Bank for ten years. He has published on subjects ranging from geophysics to trade, in journals such as Nature and World Politics.

In 1983 Ben David came to live in Israel, where he settled in Kiryat Arba. This paper was said to be an excerpt from a book in progress on the lost tribes and related topics.  To my knowledge that book has thus far never published.

This article appeared originally in a copyrighted magazine.  It is presented here in accordance with the Fair Use provision in that it is presented here for a non-profit, educational purpose, the original work was non-fiction, educational article, the material here comprises only four pages of the original copyrighted work, and this use has essentially no effect on the potential market for, or value of the original work.

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