Ships sailing near the Ashdod coast have long been guided by a lighthouse built on the city's highest hill. This is Givat Yona (Jonah's Hill ), so-named because various traditions maintain it is the site of the tomb of Jonah the Prophet, best-known for spending three days and nights in the belly of a whale.

Some 10 years ago, members of Atra Kadisha - an ultra-Orthodox organization working to protect tombs - decided to etch the tradition in stone. They placed a monument atop the prophet's tomb. "Tomb of Yona ben Amitai the Prophet," it said.

Sadly, no evidence has been uncovered to prove Jonah's stay inside a whale after he refused to deliver bad news to the people of Nineveh. However, during his lifetime - the eighth century BCE and the reign of King Jeroboam, son of Jehoash - it's now believed that people were living at Givat Yona. Clay vessels have been found at the site, estimated to be from the eighth and seventh centuries BCE.

Dr. Dmitri Egorov of the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted excavations at the site prior to development work planned by Hofit (the Ashdod tourism development company ). He uncovered remnants of massive walls over a meter wide.

"The walls of homes in that period are usually 20 centimeters," said Sa'ar Ganor, the Israel Antiquities Authority's Ashkelon district archaeologist. "The wall foundations we found on Givat Yona are typical of fortified structures from the First Temple period," he added.

The thick walls were part of a fortress built on the hill at the most important strategic point in the area. Givat Yona, which rises over 50 meters, commands the entrance to the ancient port of Ashdod and two large communities that were in the vicinity, Tel Ashdod and Tel Mor. It is possible that the fortress was manned by Assyrian soldiers, who ruled the area at the time, or it may have been manned by soldiers of King Josiah of Judah, who claimed areas near Ashdod from the Assyrians.

Jonah's traditional burial place

According to Ganor, traditions maintaining that Jonah the Prophet was buried at the site have existed since the area was conquered from the Muslims almost 1,500 years after Jonah's death.

In any case, the Arab conquerors were aware of the prevailing traditions in the area, even before their arrival. It is possible that the origin of the hill's name is a local tradition, derived from being the spot where the whale ejected Jonah onto land.

In Arabic, the hill is known as Nebi Yonas, but there are several other sites that use this name and share a similar story - for example, Mashad, near Nazareth, and Halhul, near Hebron.

The remnants of the fortress will strengthen Ashdod's claim to being the site of Jonah's tomb. Hofit is planning to build an observation point on the spot in order to attract visitors and bring them closer to Ashdod life nearly 3,000 years ago.