Canaanite Fort From Judges Epoch Found in Southern Israel

Stronghold on the border between Gath and Lachish could have been erected with Egyptians left to fend off the Philistines – and maybe even the early Israelites too, archaeologists suggest

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Canaanite fort found near Kibbutz Gal-On, from biblical period of the Judges
Canaanite fort found near Kibbutz Gal-On, from biblical period of the JudgesCredit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A Canaanite fort from the blood-soaked biblical epoch of the Judges has been found near Kibbutz Gal-On in southern Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Sunday.

The IAA archaeologists leading the dig, Sa'ar Ganor and Itamar Weissbein, date the stronghold to about 3,150 years ago. They think it was built by the Canaanites, based on its manner of construction and hundreds of pottery pieces found at the site, and partly on biblical lore about that era – the time of the Judges.

Given certain Egyptian characteristics of the construction and artifacts, it seems the ancient Egyptian overlords who controlled Canaan at the time were instrumental in building the Gal-On fort. Why? To fight the Philistines, who were waxing powerful and frightening on the Canaanite coast, Ganor postulates.

A period we don’t know much about

Very little is known, archaeology-wise, about the epoch of the biblical Judges. But if one picture arises clearly from the testament texts, it’s that it was a bloody time of “everybody fighting with everybody, Israelites and Canaanites and Philistines,” Ganor tells Haaretz. “It was a time of great political instability.” 

In fact, it was a time of changing world order – and the instability was not confined to Canaan.

For about three to four centuries, Canaan was controlled by Egypt. In about 1457 B.C.E., Egyptian forces controlled by Pharaoh Thutmose III finally crushed a coalition of Canaanite cities and controlled the land up to Syria. The triumphant Egyptians didn’t migrate to the vanquished land of Canaan en masse but left their cultural mark everywhere, and not only in the form of scarab beetle-shaped seals.

Pottery found at Gal-On Canaanite fort
Pottery found at Gal-On Canaanite fort Credit: Sa'ar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority
Finds from the Gal-On fort.
Canaanite pottery finds from the Gal-On fortCredit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

It seems the Canaanites did not succumb easily. In any case, Egypt’s reign over Canaan and the rest of its empire beyond the Nile would crumble in roughly 1200 B.C.E. – actually a time when civilizations around the entire Mediterranean Sea basin were falling like dominoes.

The reasons for the great collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea is another story. The archaeologist Eric Cline suggests there was a perfect storm of circumstances that mortally weakened these civilizations, from the Egyptians to the Minoans and more. A key aspect of the collapse in the Levant was the rise and invasion of Egypt and Canaan by “Sea Peoples” from the Aegean – which may have included the Philistines.

“The Book of Judges describes exactly this,” Ganor says: endless battle.

“Down into chaos went the Egyptians and the Babylonians,” Julia Fridman wrote in Haaretz in 2015. “The Aegean civilizations of the Minoans and the Mycenians descended into a Dark Age. Peoples who had an advanced writing system, seemed to have forgotten it. In fact, some scholars suggest that the events described in ‘The Iliad,’ such as the destruction of Troy and the Odyssey, pertain to this period.” 

So if the fort dates to about 3,150 years ago, ancient Egypt’s control over Canaan was weakening and the Canaanites didn’t build the fort to rebel against their Egyptian overlords. They built it with Egyptian help (or inspiration) to repel invading Philistines who were settling along the coast.

Possibly the fort was also supposed to be instrumental in fighting the Israelites, who apparently began to arrive during the 13th century B.C.E. and to settle in the inland areas of Hebron, the Judean Hills and Binyamin. They were an enigmatic people with a material culture distinct from the Canaanites and Philistines, Ganor says. They didn’t have kings at that point but were, according to the lore, governed by judges. Where the Israelites came from is one of the most heatedly argued aspects of our history: the Bible says ancient Egypt, but no evidence has even been found of that.

Be the Israelite origin as it may, they were gaining inroads inland; the Book of Judges richly describes their battles with the Canaanites (and many others). At the same time the Philistines were gaining inroads on the coast, where they built five powerful city-states: Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron and Gath.

Aerial shot of Gal-On fort.
Aerial shot of Gal-On fort.Credit: אמיל אלג'ם / רשות ה

And the Gal-On fort, which stood alone and looming large, 18 meters by 18 meters (almost 60 feet by 60 feet) in floor area, rising two stories and sporting towers at its corners, sat smack between the Canaanite city of Lachish and the Philistine city of Gath.

Apropos of which, in 2019 Aren Maeir of Tel Aviv University and his team found what is apparently the actual city of Gath – beneath the ruins thought to be the city of Gath. The ruins have been dated to about the 11th century B.C.E. It was an exciting moment for archaeology, though despite the monumental original architecture, no evidence of oversized warriors or anybody else was found.

Love stories

Anyway, as the ancient Egyptian empire succumbed to the malaise of the late 12th century B.C.E. – the "perfect storm" marked by a Sea Peoples invasion of Egypt itself in the year 1177 B.C.E. – the Canaanite people on the coast of the Levant were left isolated and fatally weakened.

“The border between the Canaanite and Philistine domains passed in Nahal Guvrin – exactly where this fort stands,” Ganor observes. “Therefore, the Gal-On fort was likely built to counter the Philistines to the north.”

Not for long. Apparently quite soon after its laborious erection, it was abandoned as the Philistines gained control of the lands east of the Mediterranean Sea. Some time after that, the Judahites would start coming down from the hills and spreading east, which brings us to the epoch of the kings, Saul, David and Solomon, in roughly the 10th century B.C.E. From that time, the sources describe fighting the Philistines, not the Canaanites.

But the Canaanites weren’t gone. Mention of them as a distinct people evaporates as they became integrated into the conquering peoples that we think of as the Philistines and Israelites. “The Book of Judges demonstrates that intermarriage was common,” Ganor points out. “It tells stories about marriages between Philistines and Canaanites and Israelites. Reality overpowers politics, as usual.” 

IAA archaeologist Maayan Hemed delighting in a 3,150-year-old Canaanite vessel
IAA archaeologist Maayan Hemed delighting in a 3,150-year-old Canaanite vesselCredit: Sa'ar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority
The Gal-On fort site.
What the actual excavation of the Gal-On fort site looks likeCredit: Sa'ar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority

Linguistics expert and Haaretz columnist Elon Gilad points out that the Book of Ruth supports intermarriage so clearly that some scholars believe it was written in response to increased regulation enacted by Ezra the Scribe in the late sixth century B.C.E. against marrying foreigners. Also, based on biblical lore, we all began as a mélange: “Abraham marries Keturah, who couldn’t have been a daughter of Israel as Israel, Abraham’s grandson, was yet to have been born,” Gilad says. “Judah marries Shu’a the Canaanite. Joseph marries Asenath, daughter of the Egyptian priest Potiphera. Moses marries Zipporah, daughter of the Midian priest Jethro; the kings of Judea married all sorts of foreign princesses.”

The tale of Samson and his doomed tresses takes the other extreme; he fell in love with a Philistine woman – and we all know how well that’s supposed to have worked out. Not well, nor did the story of this fort. About the time the Egyptians left Canaan, the fort was abandoned.

“We found evidence of massive destruction in Lachish and Azekah, at the same time, which we relate to the Philistines,” Ganor says. “We don’t know of any external element that did that.”

Which leads us to end on this note. There is no end to the argument over “who” the Philistines were. We are clear that the ancient Israelites, or the scribes at least, did not appreciate their charms; there is also some evidence to suggest that they were among the many-cultured “Sea Peoples” who wreaked havoc in the Mediterranean region during the 12th century B.C.E. Yet ancient Egyptian records from the time could suggest the Philistines were native to the Middle East after all – possibly captives the Egyptians imported into their own land from Syria. And maybe they left some behind en route, in Canaan, and as the Egyptian empire weakened they went rogue. And the Canaanites were not amused.

Archaeologists uncovering the massive early Iron Age walls of Gath
Archaeologists uncovering the massive early Iron Age walls of GathCredit: Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Sa

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