Archaeology in Israel: Ashkelon

    March Purim 2001            
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Ashkelon, archeology in Israel


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By Jacqueline Schaalje

Ancient Ashkelon lies in a beautiful park. Judging from the heaps of families who visit the park over the weekend with their favourite attribute, a portable barbecue, hardly anyone seems to care about the antiquities. It is possible to meet tour groups who follow their enthusiastic leaders, telling interesting things about Ashkelon - that can only be seen by using the imagination.

A visit to Ashkelon takes some preparation; otherwise it can be disappointing. Many sites are locked, closed or still worked upon. Okay, let's have the hard words out: without some background information, Ashkelon is just a teeny bit boring.


Ashkelon's past cannot be accused of dullness. From earliest times it was a thriving city numbering 15,000 souls and measuring 51 hectares. Its strategic position on the coast helped the city develop, including its natural harbour and a perennial spring that made it a convenient resting place along the 'Way of the Sea', the international trade route connecting Babylon and Egypt.

Ashkelon's first inhabitants were Canaanites who built the most expressive feature of Ashkelon that is still seen today: a giant wall that spans around the city. The current wall is the 'new' Crusader version.

The Canaanites were not independent rulers but had to accept Egyptian control a lot of times. A reminder of the not-always-friendly Egyptian rule is preserved in the Merneptah stele, the first inscription that mentions Israel by name. It was found in Egypt. The text proudly boasts that Israel was "laid waste" by Pharaoh; Ashkelon is mentioned among the conquered cities.

Meanwhile life continued in Ashkelon and the Canaanites all through the Bronze Age (from 2000 BCE) - until the Philistines conquered the city. After this fierce people of warriors had landed from their origin in the Aegean they quickly adapted their life to the circumstances in the Levant and built five independent city states on the coast of Israel. Ashkelon was one of them.

As the Philistines expanded their power in Israel they clashed with another people, the Israelites. The Bible tells an episode about Ashkelon in the story about the hero Samson (Judges 13-16). Ashkelon is mentioned in Judges 14, where Samson kills 30 men in revenge for the Philistines having given his (Philistine) wife to another man. Samson himself came from Timna, an Israelite town.


Samson was a 'Judge'. Samson seems to demonstrate the bad luck, which follows from a marriage with a woman who was not Jewish. The Philistines were un-circumcised and impure.

As is known, Samson's fate ended badly: the Philistines took him to Gaza (another Philistine stronghold), and tore his eyes out; during his arrest Samson brought down the columns of the pagan temple and killed many men and himself.

The Philistines were secure in their positions along the coast and while the Israelite kings David and Salomon partly subdued them, they would never come anywhere near to Ashkelon. The city continued to thrive and was famous for its export of wine that was shipped as far as Germany.

The growth of wealth and welfare came abruptly to a halt when the Babylonians appeared in the coast-region. In 604 BCE they sacked Ashkelon, a few years before the destruction of Jerusalem (587/6 BCE). The end of Ashkelon is described by the prophet Jeremiah, who lived around the same time.

The Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans subsequently conquered Ashkelon. King Herod rebuilt it and built a palace. The harbor continued thriving. The city exported a vegetable, which became popular throughout the Mediterranean, the scallion. Its name is a corruption of Ashkelon.

At a later point, Arabs and Crusaders took turns at wresting the city from each other. The Arabs were the last inhabitants, but after the 13th Century Ashkelon disappeared from the map, until this century when it became again a sizeable city, which lies outside of the excavations.

Ashkelon, archeology in Israel


As said, a visit to the National Park of Ashkelon is not as exciting as could be hoped. The interesting finds are brought to museums and some excavation areas are covered in plastic.

The sight of the bulwarks is very impressive and a walk on them is possible as far as the sea. The ancient harbor is destroyed but there are some ruins of towers.

Parts of the first wall of the Canaanites are exposed near the entrance, to the right. The Crusader wall is everywhere in evidence. The road from the central parking lot leads to the 'Jerusalem Gate', built by the Crusaders. On the side of the road is a restored Turkish well.

Bronze Age

In order to expose the Canaanite wall from the Bronze Age archaeologists carefully scraped it clean of the earth and dirt that covered it. Although the oldest settlement in Ashkelon was probably older, the first wall was built 3000 years ago, when the Canaanite cities in the Levant were defended by mighty bulwarks. Research showed that the Bronze Age city was the same size as in the Middle Age city.

On top of the wall, a little more to the right of the ruined wall, one of the oldest gateways in the world was found. When it was dug out it had collapsed but it was well preserved by its covering of ground and could be reconstructed by archaeologists. The gate was wide enough to let a chariot pass (the Canaanites already rode on these). Also it was quite long, because the walls were so thick that a vault had to be built to lead from the entrance to the exit of the gate. It is also the oldest vault of this kind that has been found in the world. Next to the gateway were towers of mudbricks that were preserved until a height of almost 20 feet. The original gateway would probably have reached the same height and would have had two or more stories.

The wall was set upon a rampart, which reached a height of 17 meters and was 23 meters thick at its base. On the outside there was a 40-degree slope that made it very hard for attackers to storm the city. In a later stage the mudbricks of the first rampart were replaced by a stone base.

From the gate there was a road leading to the harbour. Along this road a very special discovery was made of a bronze calf and a terracotta model of a temple. It is probably related to the stories in the Bible about the Canaanite calf worship.

The Canaanites associated calves with the gods El and Baal. They are mentioned in the Bible frequently and their worship is criticised as often as possible. See for example the story about the worship of the golden calf in the Sinai (Exodus 32), and the writings of the prophet Hosea, who inveighs against the kissing of calf-images (Hosea 13:2).

Ashkelon, archeology in Israel

The "golden" calf in Ashkelon is a unique find, it measures 10 cm by 10 cm and weighs almost a pound. The fact that it was found near the road maybe indicates that the Canaanites paused by the shrine for a moment of worship before they entered the city.

More statuettes of calves were found in the Levant (see for example in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem), but they are smaller and less refined than the Ashkelon find.

From the Late Bronze Age, the period just before the Philistines took over, not much is known. One interesting discovery was made of the grave of a Canaanite girl. As was the practice, she was buried in a mudbrick tomb under the family home. In her grave were found beautiful pieces of imported pottery, three Egyptian scarabs, and a food-offering in a shallow bowl. At her shoulder were found two toggle pins, used for fastening a garment that had long since decayed.

Ashkelon, archeology in Israel


From the Philistine period a great mass of pottery has been found. As is shown in other sites in Israel as well, the Philistines brought their own techniques from their origin in the Aegean. Later they developed a mixed technique that used features of the local pottery.

The Philistines kept using some of their own unique ways as well, which is nicely demonstrated in Ashkelon. Many cylinders were found, which were loom weights used for weaving. The Philistine weights are undecorated but are pinched in the waist, unlike local loom weights, but they resemble loom weights found in Aegean locations.

The Philistinealso rebuilt the Bronze Age walls fortifications and erected a new mud-brick tower near the Bronze Age gate. Their skill at building defence earthworks maybe explains why the Israelites never broke their power in their cities.

The Philistines were a sophisticated people. The wine that they exported from Ashekelon was produced on the spot. This is found in the excavations of a winery in the market area near the sea. Inside were found a wine press, and many wine-jars with stoppers in the form of balls of unbaked clay. The clay was perforated to let the fermentation gasses escape. In this and other shops were found pottery sherds with goods like yn 'dm (red wine, in the Philistine language, which resembles Hebrew).

There was also an 'accounting office' where scales were found of bronze and stone. A potsherd gives a receipt for grain, paid in silver. On top of the office excavators found a small sandstone incense altar. Maybe this was something like the rooftop altars that are described by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:29). Also in the Philistine city of Ekron (Tel Miqne), altars were found in rooms devoted to olive oil production. It seems to be proof that cultic activity and commerce were connected. Some say that the name Ashkelon itself has something to do with the word 'shekel."

The winery also demonstrated an orientation towards Egypt under the Philistine inhabitants as a bronze statuette of the god Osiris was found and other Egyptian artifacts, which depicted Egyptian gods.

Babylonians and others

The Egyptian influence is said to be a reason why the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar was eager to destroy Ashkelon in 604, before Jerusalem. Maybe he wanted to neutralize the allies of powerful Egypt first. The destruction of Ashkelon is described in the Bible and also in the Babylonian Chronicle, where we read that Nebuchadnezzar "turned the city into a mound and heaps of ruins."

Besides in the wine shop where everything was found scattered on the ground, Philistine Ashkelon showed many signs of a sudden destruction. Fallen bricks, burnt wood, broken pottery, were evident in several places. The most poignant find is the skeleton of a middle-aged woman whose skull was crushed by a blunt instrument. Lying on her back, legs and arms akimbo, this woman was buried by dropped walls and the roof of the building in which she had taken refuge.

Near the southern wall lies a curious reminder of the people who settled Ashkelon after the Babylonians. The Persians had conquered Israel and had settled Ashkelon with Phoenicians from the region of Lebanon. That they had unique customs is proven by the find of a huge dog cemetery. All in all 700 dogs lie buried here, all died of natural causes. They were probably sacred animals used in cultic rites. Some theories claim that dogs were thought to have healing power; when a dog licked the wound of a sick person it healed quicker.

The Romans

The finds from the Roman times are best known, having been excavated years ago and are presented next to the parking lot. Ashkelon was a Roman city long before the rest of Israel was conquered. They subdued themselves willingly, as they were not on good terms with the Jews in Juda. The Roman remains of Ashkelon are well preserved, as they were not damaged during the Jewish wars against the Romans. They are assembled on the open rectangular field, where a Roman forum existed, and consist of columns, lintels and statues.

The standing columns that are still standing, stick halfway out of the ground. The circular deeper space at the back represents the original floor level in Roman times. Inside some statues are placed which were collected from the site. There are two statues of the Roman goddess of victory, Kore. One is standing on a globe born by Atlas. The other one represents the Egyptian goddess Isis holding the infant Horus.

Even though the goddesses wear stone dresses, their knees can be seen through them in a skillful technical effect. The circular space functioned first as a city council room, but was later turned into the orchestra pit of a theater.

There is also a Roman theater near the wall. In ancient times the seats were already taken out, which left a round pit, which led to the thought among Christians and Arabs that this was "Abraham's Well." The restored theater is used for modern performances.

Crusaders and Arabs

The discoveries from the Medieval period form the object of serious archaeological detective work. Next to the Crusader wall a stone slab was uncovered with an inscription in Arabic. The slab was found broken at the bottom of the moat that was dug next to the walls.

It was a commemorative stone of a defensive tower that was built in 1150, according to the date that is inscribed in it too. The tower was one of 53, built by the Fatimids who had conquered the city, and who wished to defend it against the approaching Crusaders.

Even with this impressive defense the Crusaders managed to overcome it three years later. This was after King Baldwin III of Jerusalem sieged Ashkelon for seven months.

On top of the smashed inscription five heraldic Crusader shields were carved. Thanks to research the design on the shields were traced to an English family, which can now confirm its ancient bearings, thanks to the find in Ashkelon, to the time of the English king Henry I (1100-1135). The knight has been identified as Sir Hugh Wake.

Further excavations showed that the knight Sir Hugh was not the Medieval graffiti-artist who archaeologists had made him out for. A bit further a heavy lintel of a doorway was found, and again it bore the heraldic device of the Wake family, which was carved eight times. From this the excavators concluded that Sir Hugh did not carve his name after he had destroyed Ashkelon; on the contrary, after he had conquered it in the beginning of the 12th Century, he set out to rebuild it. In this function he was entitled to engrave his name and weapon in the buildings.

The smashed inscription probably landed in the moat at a later stage when Ashkelon was again beleaguered by conquerors. In 1187 Saladin returned the city to Arab hands after the Battle of Hittin. But later, Richard the Lionheart landed in Israel and after he had captured Acco back Saladin feared that he would take his stronghold and harbour in the south too. In order to prevent this he decided to destroy Ashkelon.

Or, there is another possibility that it was destroyed in an even later conquest. After Richard the Lionhearted took Ashkelon, the city was rebuilt again during a last crusade, in 1241. In that case the inscription could have been made not by the original Sir Hugh, but by a descendant of his. The slab with the inscription would then have been destroyed in 1270, when the Mamluke sultan Baybars demolished Ashkelon for the last time. This Sultan also filled in the harbour because he knew he could not rival the naval power of his enemies in Europe, and so the life of the city was snuffed out.

Digging has not finished in Ashkelon. In the coming years the archaeologists will concentrate on the Iron Age and the Philistine city, and the great Bronze Age city which is lying under it. What has happened in Ashkelon's past we will know in the future.


from the March Purim 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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