Excavations of the Ramesses Gate complex during July 2013. Courtesy of the Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project.

Previously unknown Canaanite revolt against Egypt revealed in ancient Jaffa

There is no record of the Canaanites ousting their Egyptian overlords, but 3,100-year-old remains of fiery destruction suggest they did just that.

Newly discovered layers of fiery destruction in ancient Jaffa bear witness to long-forgotten violent Canaanite resistance to Egyptian rule over the seaside city thousands of years ago, a defiance entirely missing from historical sources.

Archaeologists had previously found the extraordinary mud-brick "Ramesses Gate," the remains of a gargantuan fortress that the pharaonic New Kingdom conquerors built in Jaffa when they controlled the city (from around 1460 B.C.E. to 1125 B.C.E.). Now excavations around the fortified gate, the most massive complex of the type outside Egypt itself, have exposed more remains of the fortress that tell a forgotten story.

Bent arrowheads and a massive destruction layer of burned mud-bricks found under the collapsed tower at the Ramesses Gate attest that the Canaanites bitterly opposed Egyptian rule in Jaffa, which reached its peak during the 12th century B.C.E., say archaeologists excavating the site, which has been extensively explored over the years by the Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project (2011-2014), Tel Aviv University in the late 1990s, and by Jacob Kaplan, the municipal archaeologist of Tel Aviv-Jaffa (1955-1974).

More than 50 ceramic vessels were recovered from a 2-meter thick layer of destruction debris. Some were found underneath a 4-meter wide collapsed passageway. Others evidently fell from the towers of the gate complex into the destruction debris.

“It seem like [the Canaanites] lit the ceiling of the gate complex on fire, and it collapsed,” says Prof. Aaron Burke of the University of California, Los Angeles, one of the directors of the renewed excavations at Jaffa. "We discovered 24 one-to-two meter sections of timber and planks, including their wooden pegs, buried in each of the towers that collapsed," he told Haaretz.

Courtesy of The Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project

The blaze was so intense that the bricks facing the passageway that belonged to the 6-meter wide mud-brick towers were baked to a depth of as much as one meter.

It bears qualifying that the evidence damning the Canaanites for the conflagration is circumstantial. Though Egyptian records describe local Canaanite uprisings elsewhere, there is no record of any rebellion in Jaffa, and in theory the battle could have been with any passing invaders from the sea, for instance.  

The coming of the Egyptians

Jaffa, perched on a hill over the Mediterranean, has been settled continuously for thousands of years, though exactly how long nobody is certain. Certainly, by the Bronze Age it was a bustling port town, and today's modern city, which is contiguous with south Tel Aviv, is built on its ancient remains.

Ancient Jaffa, which the Egyptians called "Yapu," was of key strategic importance to the rulers of the Levantine coast, being perhaps the “fairest” harbor—as the Canaanite name suggests—all the way from Egypt to Mount Carmel (Haifa today). The port was a stopping point for goods and soldiers moving inland and up and down the coast, between Egypt and today's Lebanon and Syria.

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Among the finds in Jaffa are Canaanite and Egyptian storage jars, Cypriot pithoi (large clay storage vessels), scarabs, arrowheads, lead weights, around 800 beads, and kilos of carbonized seed from 13 distinct species, including chickpeas, lentils, wheat, barley, grapes, and olives.

Courtesy of the Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project

The excavators also found antlers from 36 deer below the superstructure of the collapsed gateway. “At times the burning was so hot that…material that melted onto the antlers, and ceramics completely burned to ash,” Burke says.

"Gates" in biblical times weren't mere entrances to sites. The biggest were massive complexes involving guard towers and multiple chambers. In the case of the Ramesses Gate, the location of the artifacts the archaeologists found suggest that the passageway through the gate complex was so huge it could also serve as a market, "a practice that was common in Canaanite cities,” says Burke.

Predating the Trojan Horse

Both textual sources and archaeology indicate that Egyptian rule in Jaffa began some time after the battle of Megiddo (around 1456 B.C.E.), when Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated a Canaanite coalition and effectively brought Canaan under Egyptian rule.

Papyrus Harris 500 tells the story about how Jaffa (also called Joppa) was conquered by the cunning Egyptian commander Djehuty, who served under Thutmose III. While faking surrender, Djehuty presented a gift of 200 baskets as tribute to the Canaanites - within which he smuggled his troops into the city that emerged and conquered it. (This was more than 200 years before the story of the fabled conquest of Troy by the wily Greeks using the famed Trojan Horse, ending the Trojan War, was written.)

The tale may have been embellished over the eons, but Djehuty definitely existed: He is named in ancient Egyptian records as  “commander of the armies of the north.”

Thutmose conquers Jaffa

Under Thutmose III, the Egyptians established a permanent presence in Jaffa, building a fortress and stationing a garrison to protect the natural harbor, though judging by the size of the site, the Egyptians likely had no more than 500 soldiers in the city, if that many.

On either side of the city gateway were massive rectangular mud-brick towers, more than 20 meters long, 10 meters high and 6 meters wide. The gate-tower complex is the only Egyptian gate exposed in Israel to date.

Jeremy Williams (UCLA). Courtesy of the Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project

Previous excavations in Jaffa uncovered large assemblages of Egyptian ceramics as well as evidence of bread, a staple in the Egyptian diet.

Large quantities of Cypriot and Mycenaean imported pottery that had carried foods typical of the Egyptian diet were also discovered.

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In fact, the Amarna letters (diplomatic correspondence on clay tablets between the Egyptian administration and its representatives in Canaan and Amurru during the New Kingdom era) mention that Jaffa stored grain that had been grown along the coastal plain (perhaps at Aphek), to feed Egyptian soldiers situated in the Levant.

In further excavation of the so-called Lion Temple in Jaffa (so named for the lioness skull found there), more bones from lions, hyenas, and hippopotami, as well as other animals, were discovered on the floor. Archaeologists are mixed on who exactly worshipped at the Lion Temple, some associating it with the Egyptian presence in the city and others believing, based on the ceramic assemblage found there, that the adherents were Canaanite.

The Canaanites rise up

Whoever prayed at the Lion Temple, what's sure is that Egyptian rule in Jaffa lasted from the mid-15th century B.C.E. to the late 12th century B.C.E., a period of more then 300 years. Now its excavators suspect, based on the two major destruction layers, from the late 15th century B.C.E. and the 12th century B.C.E., that the Canaanites actively engaged to expel their Nilotic overlords.

“Most of the destruction in Jaffa appears to align with transitions between pharaohs, when the new regime hadn't been tested,” Burke explains.

Some feel more information is needed. "I think we don't really know when and if there was destruction in the 15th-14th century B.C.E.," qualifies Egyptology expert Mario Martin of Tel Aviv University.

Even so, it appears that some Canaanites learned to get along with the Egyptians throughout this same period. The ceramic assemblage discovered after the first destruction of the fortress in the fortress of the late 15th century B.C.E. is almost exclusively Egyptian, indicating a predominantly Egyptian presence within the earliest fortress’s walls. However, local Canaanite ceramics appear to have gradually increased over time, suggesting that Canaanites were increasingly integrated in the operations of the fortress.

That said, Jaffa wasn't the only site of friction between the Egyptians rulers and the local Canaanites. The Amarna Letters of the late fourteenth century B.C.E. do contain reports of Canaanite rebellions in Ashkelon and Gezer too. Also, the Pharaonic court received frequent requests of arms to quench local uprisings.

The destruction of the gate in 1135 B.C.E. was so violent that it completely brought down the 22-meter wide and 10-meter high superstructure. The gate was rebuilt, but what seems to be a second wave of destruction within no more than decade (circa 1125 B.C.E.) finally brought an end to Egyptian rule in Jaffa.

"The destruction of the Ramesses gate definitely happened," Martin agrees. "The question is when exactly - at the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty or already in the reign of Ramesses III? In the latter case, the culprits might well have been the Philistines."

Although no Egyptian reports refer directly to attacks on Jaffa, for his part, Burke is confident that the destruction of the city resulted not from piracy or an invading force, but from the Canaanites finally throwing off their masters there once and for all.

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