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The Philistine Age

Archaeologists are reconsidering the origins and history of a much-maligned ancient people


Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Gath Tell AerialIn the heat of the day, a glint off the Mediterranean is just visible from the top of a mound known as Tell es-Safi that rises some 300 feet above Israel’s coastal plain. For generations, scholars believed that the stretch of Mediterranean coast west of Tell es-Safi was once the landing point of multiple invasions by the Israelites’ dreaded nemeses, the Philistines. First emerging in the southern Levant around 3,200 years ago, the Philistines were long thought to have been descendants of invading groups that scholars refer to as the “Sea Peoples.” In the twilight of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 15501200 B.C.), these groups raided Egypt and conquered the cities of the Semitic Canaanite people who lived on the coast of what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories. A final wave of Philistine invasions was thought to have reached the coast of Canaan early in the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III (r. ca. 11841153 B.C.), around 1175 B.C. The ruins of Gath, a Canaanite center that became the Philistines’ mightiest city, now lie beneath Tell es-Safi, which means “white hill” in Arabic. The mound’s white chalk cliffs, which overlook fertile farmland, inspired the Crusaders to name the castle they built there in the twelfth century A.D. Blanche Garde or White Fortress. Until the war that followed Israel’s founding in 1948, the tell was home to a small Palestinian village whose ruins are now overgrown with thorns.


Philistines MapGath was one of five cities known as the Philistine Pentapolis, which thrived during the Iron Age (ca. 1200539 B.C.). Until archaeologists began to excavate the cities of the Pentapolis, also known as Philistia, the Philistines were largely known through the work of the scribes who first began to write the books of the Hebrew Bible hundreds of years after the Sea Peoples reached the Levant. These scribes cast the Philistines as the Israelites’ uncircumcised, pagan archenemies, who fought against some of the Bible’s most prominent figures. According to the Bible, the Israelite judge Samson slew 1,000 Philistine warriors with the jawbone of an ass and pulled down the pillars of a temple to Dagon, the principal Philistine god. After the Philistines had captured the Ark of the Covenant, Saul, Israel’s first king, fell on his sword rather than be taken captive. Saul’s son-in-law and eventual heir, King David, dueled with the Philistine hero Goliath of Gath and felled the giant with a slingshot. The Bible’s pejorative depiction of the Philistines has so pervaded Western culture that, more than 3,000 years on, “philistine” remains a byword for an unsophisticated person indifferent or hostile to artistic and intellectual pursuits.


Finds from limited excavations during the early twentieth century pointed archaeologists to the Aegean as the Philistines’ original homeland. The conquerors, they imagined, were Mycenaeans, members of the Late Bronze Age culture of ancient Greece remembered in the epic poems of the Trojan War, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Since the 1990s, archaeologists have extensively excavated four of the five cities of the Philistine Pentapolis: Ashdo



d, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath. Only Gaza, which is located beneath the modern Palestinian city of the same name, remains unexcavated. These digs, particularly the long-term excavations of the ruins of Gath beneath Tell es-Safi, have helped archaeologists tell a more nuanced story about the origins of the Philistines, which may lie in a series of mass migrations rather than waves of conquest. “Understanding the Philistines as this singular, unified migratory group that came from somewhere in Greece, landed on the coast, and conquered the Canaanite cities no longer makes sense,” says Bar-Ilan University archaeologist Aren Maeir, who directs the Tell es-Safi excavations. 


Journeys of the Pyramid Builders

The story of the highly skilled workers who helped build Egypt’s Great Pyramid is emerging from a papyrus cache unearthed at the world’s oldest harbor


Friday, June 10, 2022

Egypt Giza PyramidsOn a summer afternoon around 4,600 years ago, near the end of the reign of the pharaoh Khufu, a boat crewed by some 40 workers headed downstream on the Nile toward the Giza Plateau. The vessel, whose prow was emblazoned with a uraeus, the stylized image of an upright cobra worn by pharaohs as a head ornament, was laden with large limestone blocks being transported from the Tura quarries on the eastern side of the Nile. Under the direction of their overseer, known as Inspector Merer, the team steered the boat west toward the plateau, passing through a gateway between a pair of raised mounds called the Ro-She Khufu, the Entrance to the Lake of Khufu. This lake was part of a network of artificial waterways and canals that had been dredged to allow boats to bring supplies right up to the plateau’s edge.


Egypt MapAs the boatmen approached their docking station, they could see Khufu’s Great Pyramid, called Akhet Khufu, or the Horizon of Khufu, soaring into the sky. At this point in Khufu’s reign (r. ca. 2633–2605 B.C.), the pyramid would have been essentially complete, encased in gleaming white limestone blocks of the sort the boat carried. At the edge of the water, perched on a massive limestone foundation, loomed Khufu’s valley temple, known as Ankhu Khufu, or Khufu Lives, which was connected to the pyramid by a half-mile-long causeway. When the pharaoh died, his body would be taken to the valley temple and then carried to the pyramid for burial. Nearby stood a royal palace, archives, granary, and workers’ barracks.


After offloading their cargo, the men anchored their boat in the lake alongside dozens—if not hundreds—of other boats and barges that had brought a variety of materials necessary to complete construction of the pyramid complex: granite beams from Aswan, gypsum and basalt from the Fayum, and timber from Lebanon. Also arriving by boat were workers from across Egypt and cattle from the Nile Delta to feed them. As the sun set and twilight deepened, hearth fires twinkled on land and on many of the boats. Merer and his men settled in for a night’s sleep, after which they would head back to the quarries to pick up another load of limestone blocks. They would make two or three such round trips in the next 10 days.


Egypt Giza Basalt Saw MarksThe Great Pyramid originally measured some 481 feet tall and 755 feet on a side. It was composed of an astounding 91 million cubic feet of stone—roughly the amount it would take to fill a football stadium to the top tier of seats. Although nowhere to be seen in the finished product, massive amounts of copper were essential to building the monument. Copper picks were used to quarry the stone. Copper saws were used to cut it, and experiments have shown that an inch of metal was lost from blades for every one to four inches of stone cut. While preparing the stone blocks for use in the pyramid, workers smoothed their surfaces with copper chisels the width of an index finger. The immense quantity of copper consumed by the construction project—not to mention the other pyramids and monumental buildings that preceded and followed it—led to an urgent search for sources of the metal.

Giza Maritime Infrastructure
Giza's Layout