Excavation of Philistine Gath Finds Startling Similarities to Cypriot Cities

Metal working techniques alien to Canaan and Gath's development after Philistine arrival provide more clues as to their origin.

Aerial view of ancient Gath
Aerial view of ancient Gath: The city seems to have expanded massively after the Philistines joined the local Canaanite population. Aren Maier

New discoveries reveal that the Philistine cities of ancient Israel were laid out like Bronze Age cities in Cyprus, unlike the haphazard structure of the surrounding Canaanite towns. Also, archaeological investigation in Philistine Gath itself found metal-smelting technologies alien to Canaanite traditions, but akin to techniques found in Cyprus of thousands of years ago.

Those and other discoveries bolster the theory of an Aegean origin for the Philistines, who dwelled along the coast of what is Israel today between about 1200 to 600 BCE.

The Mediterranean basin area had been under Mycenaean Greek influence from around 1450 BCE to around 1200 BCE. But around that time, 3200 years ago, the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean basin badly weakened – and the Sea Peoples arose. Archaeological evidence indicates that at least some of them rose up from Cyprus, spreading powerfully throughout the region and settling along mainland Greece, the Mediterranean islands and the coast of today's Israel.

The Gath excavation also found the remains of what seems to be a monumental city gate, dating to the 11th century BCE. The gate would probably have been roofed and the interior space would have been divided into multiple internal rooms. It was built using large slabs of local stone piled onto stone and mud brick foundations in cyclopean format (a technique to build walls by piling up rocks, without mortar).

“The pottery indicates that this might be the earliest chambered gate in the Levant,” Aren Maeir, director of the Ackerman Family Bar-Ilan University Expedition to Gath told Haaretz, adding, "It may well be that the whole idea of chambered gates came from Philistia.”

The excavators also found two olive presses, or possibly wine presses, from the 9th century BCE, and hundreds of artifacts.

Gath is located inland, on the border between Philistia, which runs along the southern coastal plain, and the Judean foothills.  The archaeologists also found the ruins of towers and long stretches of fortification walls, which had rested unseen for more than 3000 years in the ground, but now reveal the true scale and might of fortified Gath.

Where King David went mad

Archaeological evidence indicates that the site of Gath had been settled by Canaanites as early as 5,000 years ago, in the 4th millennium BCE (Early Bronze Age). But by the time the Iron Age began around 3200 years ago, the city had changed hands and shape.

Wherever they came from, by around 1200 BCE, the Philistines – counted to be among the "Sea Peoples" - that had arrived on the southern coastal plain of Israel. During the era of Philistine control over Gath, from around 1200 to 600 BCE, the city grew beyond its Canaanite origins.

From the onset, Gath was clearly a focus of the Philistine regional power: it was the biggest city in Philistia, says Aren Maeir, possibly even in the whole region. The lower city of Gath reached a vast 40 hectares during the Philistine era, he estimates.

Stone towers on both sides of the gate guarded the entrance to the city.  A wall stretching at least 200 meters in length running by the Elah River, to deter would-be attackers, shows just how powerful the city was some 3100 to 2900 years ago.

Gath's gate is famously mentioned in the Bible (1 Samuel 21:17) as the place to where David fled from Saul. His identity suspected, David feigned insanity, and the king of Gath let him go: "When the servants of Achish the king of Gath began to say: Is not this David the king of the land? David became afraid and feigned insanity, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting his saliva run down his beard" (1 Samuel 21:10-15).

The Philistines seem to have originated in the Aegean and spread powerfully when the civilizations around the Mediterranean basin collapsed in 1177 BCE, reaching as far as Tirnys in Mycenaean Greece, and the southern coast of today's Israel.
Google Maps, elaboration by Haaretz

Cypriot town planning in Philistia

The Philistine cities of Gath, Ekron, Ashdod and Ashkelon seem to have less in common with other nearby towns in the Levant than with cities in ancient Cyprus. Certain cities in Mycenaean Greece also bear telltale marks of Philistine influence.

For one thing, after the arrival of the Sea Peoples, these cities in Philistia and Mycenaean Greece vastly expanded based on what seems to be zoning plans, based on, for instance, industrial and residential areas.

Across the Mediterranean from Israel, another city to follow that pattern was Tirnys, a Mycenaean Greek city that suddenly expanded massively in the 13th century BCE, about 100 years before Gath's rise. It too grew in the Cypriot style, Prof. Joseph Maran of the University of Heidelberg told Haaretz. This was happening at a time that other hubs of ancient Greece were being abandoned or shrinking.

Photo shows a densely built-up quarter in the northwestern lower town of Tiryns, early 12th century BCE.
Joseph Maran

Tiryns' lower town had been planned and built from scratch along the lines of the Cypriot towns of Enkomi and Kition, Maran says.

“What we have in Tiryns are clear signs of relations to Cyprus, Italy and perhaps the northern Levant. There is a certain likelihood that people from southern Greece took part in the population movements of the Sea Peoples,” Maran told Haaretz.

The bottom line is that the Philistines seem to have been one of the Sea Peoples, and wherever they originated, at least a large group of them spread from Cyprus starting around 3300-3400 years ago, settling around the Mediterranean basin. It's hard to pinpoint the Philistines' exact origins, since these “Sea Peoples” were a very mixed bunch who merged various cultural traditions. But some of their cultural origins clearly derived from the Aegean Bronze Age cultures (such as Greek Mycenaean, Minoan and Cypriot cultures): we see similarities in ceramics, technology, architecture, burial customs, and pottery remains with writing –in non-Semitic languages, all dating to 1150-1000 BCE. 

Pottery sherds with Cypro-Minoan script, which was used extensively on Cyprus, have also been found in  Tiryns and Ashkelon, as well as in Ugarit, on the Syrian coast. But there were clearly other influences on early Philistine culture, such as from Italy and probably ancient Turkey too.

The Lion Gate in the ancient Hittite city of Hattusa, Turkey, showing the typical Mycenaean style.
Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons

The Canaanite influence

Meanwhile, what we find of Philistine culture shows traces of persisting Canaanite customs too. Philipp Stockhammer from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, for one, is convinced that the Philistines originated in the Aegean and took on local customs after their arrival in the southern Levant.

Philistine feasting dishes are of Aegean type but hardly a copy of the Aegean's fine dining ware, he says. “The Philistine feasting dishes are nothing but a translation of the local Canaanite idea into the Aegean style,” Stockhammer told Haaretz, adding: "The Philistines feasted like the Canaanites."

Curiously, the famous Cypriot stirrup  jar, which had been wildly popular in ancient Israel, based on the number of them found  in tombs in Megiddo and Beit -She'an is rarely found in Philistia – or in Cyprus, though chemical analysis of the clay proves they were made in Cyprus, Stockhammer says. “Certain vessel shapes were produced in Greece, only to be exported to the East,” he says.

Ultimately, Maeir also believes the early Philistine culture was “entangled” – comprising a variety of influences, foreign and local, certainly after they had mixed with the local Canaanites over the generations. 

A stirrup jar from around  c. 1350 BC
Louvre, Wikimedia Commons

Tell-tale horned altars

The recent discovery in Philistine Gath of an unusual altar with only two horns, rather than the Judahite norm of four, may also hint at Aegean origin for the Philistines.

Two-horned motifs on buildings, and altars, were common in Minoan Crete (and one was found in Cyprus too). Louise Hitchcock of the University of Melbourne thinks the Philistines brought over the horned altar motif from Minoan representations of the horns of the sacred bull.

Also, recently a metalworking facility was discovered in Gath, where both bronze and iron was produced by methods that were not Canaanite. "We may be dealing with a different metalworking practice that may hint at a non-local tradition,” Maeir said.

The Bible itself says the Philistines came from "Caphtor" – which seems to be the region of ancient Crete. It could yet turn out that at least some of them did.