Opium and Spices: What the Philistines Brought to Ancient Israel

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A Philistine altar from the late Canaanite era.Credit: Leonid Padrol, courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authorit
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

“Once there were sycamores here,” mourned poet Yitzhak Yitzhaki, referring to Tel Aviv. But actually, sycamores aren't indigenous to Israel. The tree arrived in the Holy Land 3,000 years ago, apparently brought by the “Sea Peoples” – the Philistines. Along with the tree, other plants they imported include the cumin plant - and the opium-producing poppy, says a study published this week.

In other words, the sycamore is an invasive species brought by the Philistines, who also changed the geopolitics of the region, by becoming arch-rivals of the Judean kingdom.

Israel has any number of invasive species, from jellyfish to the mynah bird from India, which has displaced many local species. Another example is the blue acacia, an aggressive invader that has changed the landscape. The cause of this unwanted spread of species is usually man, sometimes deliberately - the blue acacia was brought here by the British in order to stabilize sand dune movement; or inadvertently (the conventional explanation for the spread of mynahs is that they escaped from a park in Tel Aviv, to which they were brought as ornamental birds).

The increase in transportation of goods and people across the globe has exacerbated the phenomenon. But the study at Bar-Ilan University shows that this is not a modern phenomenon, and that the migration of people in the ancient world caused dramatic changes in flora and landscape.

The study was conducted by doctoral student Sue Frumin, as part of her thesis, under the supervision of Prof. Ehud Weiss, who heads the laboratory for botanical archaeology, and Prof. Aren Maeir, both of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan. In the study, published this week in Scientific Reports, Frumin examined findings from dozens of archaeological sites from the Iron Age (around the 10th century B.C.E, the period in which the Philistines arrived), and from the preceding Bronze Age.

The scientists created a database of all botanical / archaeological findings unearthed in Israel and divided them by their civilization of origin – Canaanite, Philistine and Jewish, says Weiss.

An import business in 10th century BCE

Three species were non-existent before the arrival of the Philistines – the sycamore, the cumin plant and the poppy. These started appearing in the southern coastal plain, near Ashkelon and Gaza, in parallel with Philistine settlement in that area.

The sycamore was well-known in ancient Egypt, where it served as food and in construction. Products manufactured from sycamore wood appear in Israel during the Bronze Age, but up to the Iron Age no sycamore seeds were found. That means that the tree or its products were imported, but the tree didn’t grow here.

Invasion of Egypt

The appearance of sycamores strengthens one theory regarding the Philistines’ arrival in this area, according to which at least some of them came from the south, after traveling through Egypt. Their invasion of Egypt, as part of a vast collapse of civilizations in the Levant, is well-described in bas-reliefs that were found at the site of Medinet Habu in Upper Egypt.

A sycamore, courtesy of the Philistines.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Sycamores are also mentioned in the Bible, in 1 Kings, 10:27, describing Solomon: “And the king made cedars as plentiful as sycamore trees that are in the lowland.” Prof. Maeir proposes that the text implies that sycamores were abundant on the coastal plain, the region inhabited by the Philistines.

As for the poppy, it was domesticated in Greece and in more western reaches of the Mediterranean basin. The narcotic properties of the plant were probably discovered there as well. The theory that poppies were imported here by the Philistines supports the notion of their ties to the broader Aegean world.

“Finding poppies doesn’t provide unambiguous answers, but we now know that the Philistines didn’t come from a single island but rather from different places,” says Frumin.

Philistines in Mesopotamia?

The cumin plant poses more of a riddle for researchers, since the region it is known to have grown in was Mesopotamia. Cultural ties between Philistines and Mesopotamia are unknown at present. “This may mean that the Philistines had extensive cultural ties,” suggests Maeir.

“There is a debate over whether the Philistines that are mentioned in the Bible are the same ones we see in these archaeological sites,” says Frumin. “Studying plants can tell us something about their origins. We see that this was a different civilization – they ate differently, grew different plants and things changed after their arrival.”

Another conclusion the researchers draw from these plants is that in contrast to conventional wisdom, the Philistines were not bands of young soldiers who migrated across the sea to conquer and settle. They were migrants who left their countries with their families and possessions.

Cumin seeds: Today commonly found throughout the Levant, it was apparently brought here by the Philistines.Credit: Haaretz

“When a farmer moves from place to place he takes a sack of grains with him, since therein lies his future,” explains Weiss. “We’re trying to see what was in that sack. Undoubtedly it contained the classic items – wheat, barley, grape vines – but there were other plants as well. It wasn’t just the seeds. They brought with them different agricultural practices that altered the diversity of wild plants that grew in the field.”

This study also supports the accepted conception that the Philistines’ migration was not a single event but a continuous process. “We know that this wasn’t a ship or fleet that landed in Ashkelon or Gaza, but rather waves that arrived from different locations,” says Weiss.

“People always ask how archaeology is relevant to modern humans – this is a good example of how archeology provides us with a long view of the impact of humans,” adds Maeir.

Growing poppies. Again, this was't done here - for the purposes of making opium - before the era of the Philistines, it seems.Credit: Haaretz

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