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The Philistine Age

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

July/August 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. 1550–1200 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. 1184–1153 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. 1200–539 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: Ashdod, 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.