British academy


Ashkelon, Seaport of the Canaanites and the Philistines

Professor Lawrence Stager, Harvard University

Wednesday 20 - Friday 22 October 2004

Wednesday 20 October 2004. Lecture 1: The Rise and Fall of the Canaanites (c. 1900-1175 B.C.)

During the first half of the second millennium B.C., Ashkelon was one of the largest and richest seaports in the Mediterranean, with commercial relations with countries as far away as Cyprus, Crete, Egypt, and Anatolia. Its massive ramparts form an arc of earthworks extending for more than a mile and a half, enclosing all but the seaward side of the city, which, in the Middle Bronze Age, spread over 150 acres (60 hectares), and held more than 12,000 inhabitants. The world’s oldest arched gateway led out of the city and down to the sea.

We shall examine the origins and spread of Canaanite culture in the light of recent archaeological discoveries in Ashkelon, relating to Canaanite military might, economic power, maritime religion, and social organisation. DNA analyses of human skeletal remains from the Middle and Late Bronze Age cemetery provide new insights into the marriage and inheritance patterns of their society.

Comparative study of the archaeological remains from Ashkelon and from Avaris (Tell el-Dab`a), capital of the Hyksos, support the low chronology and shed light on the period when Canaanites ruled Egypt for nearly a hundred years (The Hyksos or Second Intermediate Period). The tables were turned in the Late Bronze Age when the Egyptians attacked Canaanite Ashkelon (known from Egyptian inscriptions and wall reliefs) and established a military garrison there (attested by archaeology).

Egypto-Canaanite control of Ashkelon ended when the Philistines took over during the reign of Ramesses III (1182-1151 B.C.).

Thursday 21 October 2004. Lecture 2: The Arrival of the Philistines

From the perspective of Ashkelon, we examine this non-Semitic culture, new to the shores of Canaan and compare the Philistine lifeways with those of the Canaanites, the Egyptians, and the Israelites, all of whom co-existed during part of the 12th century B.C., living within a few miles of one another.

Our excavations reveal fresh evidence for Philistine domestic houses and households, their eating and drinking habits, their commercial economy, and family religion centered on the earth goddess Gaia. The origin of the Philistines and the homeland from which they came come into sharper focus through the recent, complementary excavations of the Pentapolis sites: Ashdod, Ekron, and Ashkelon. Correlation of the stratigraphy from these three cities eliminates one of the anchor points for the so-called ‘low chronology’ of the Iron Age.

Friday 22 October 2004. Lecture 3: Ashkelon on the Eve of Destruction

We examine a royal winery and a marketplace in 7th century B.C. Ashkelon, complete with administrative centre, counting house, storage magazines, and a row of shops. The seaport thrived on trade with Judah, Phoenicia, Cyprus, Ionia and the Greek islands, and Egypt. The Philistines of Ashkelon performed a delicate balancing act between the two imperial powers, Assyria and Egypt, until the rise of the Neo-Babylonian empire.

According to archaeological evidence and the testimony of the prophet Jeremiah, the Philistines leaned too heavily on Egypt. In November-December (Kislev) 604 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar totally destroyed Ashkelon and Ekron, making the former a ‘tell forever’, according to the Babylonian Chronicle. The Philistines who survived, like the Jews after them, were exiled to Babylon. For nearly 75 years Ashkelon lay a desolate ruin. It was rebuilt, not by Philistines, who never returned from Mesopotamia, but by Phoenicians whom the Persians settled there c. 525 B.C