Philistine City of Gath a Lot More Powerful Than Thought, Archaeologists Suggest

Powerful fortifications newly uncovered by Israeli archaeologists suggest the kingdoms of Saul, David may not have been quite as powerful as thought.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
An aerial view of the lower neighborhoods of the Philistine city of Gath.
An aerial view of the lower neighborhoods of the Philistine city of Gath.Credit: Griffin Aerial Imaging
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The fortifications and entrance gate to the Philistine city of Gath have been uncovered - and portray a different geopolitical picture of the biblical era, that isn't in favor of the kingdoms of David and Solomon.

Tel Zafit, a dig in the Judean hills, is a multilayered site stretching from the early Bronze Age to the Arab village that was there until 1948. One of the more interesting layers being uncovered by Bar-Ilan University archaeologists is that of the Philistine city of Gath, which is notorious for confrontations with the ancient Israelites.

Gath’s zenith was during the period of the kingdoms of David and Solomon in the 10th century B.C.E., when it was the largest of five Philistine cities.

Finally finding the wall

The archaeological team, headed by Prof. Aren Maeir, has been digging at the site for some 20 years. Many findings from this period have been uncovered, including a ritual altar, remains of buildings, an iron production facility, and thousands of pottery shards.

Still, until recently, fortifications had only been discovered in the northern part of the tel. As a result, although the city was undoubtedly big and important, it was impossible to define it as an exceptionally large metropolis.

During this year’s digging season, which ended a few weeks ago, the team started digging at a new site at the bottom of the tel, not far from where the altar was discovered.

Nearly immediately, almost at ground level, the base of a broad fortification wall was discovered. Further excavations revealed 30 meters (98 feet) of wall and evidence of a guard tower, as well as remains that may suggest the existence of a large city gate.

The ancient Philistine altar at the Tel Tzafit archaeological site.

Finding the wall in this part of the city makes it the largest known city during this period in the Land of Israel. Prof. Maeir estimates its size to be 500 dunams (124 acres), while Jerusalem during this period was 120 dunams – similar to other cities like Megiddo and Be’er Sheva.

A kingdom divided

This discovery has considerable, decisive importance in the argument that has stirred the Israeli archaeological world for two decades, on the question of the existence and character of the united kingdom.

Supporters of the maximalist school assert that the biblical description of the united Israelite kingdom under David and Solomon matches archaeological findings, and that it was a small power that controlled the country’s mountains, plains and north.

The minimalists counter that it was a small principality that controlled a limited area in the mountains, whose capital Jerusalem was nothing more than an overgrown village.

In recent years, the dig at Khirbet Kaifa (next to Tel Zafit), where a team found a fortified Judahite city from the 10th century B.C.E., backed up the maximalists. That discovery suggested that the kingdom extended at least as far as Kaifa.

The discovery of the fortifications in lower Gath and its implications regarding the size of the enemy Philistine city shed new light on the geopolitical situation in the region.

According to Maeir, the discovery of Gath as a huge, fortified city on the border of Judea during an extended period, without any signs of destruction as a result of a war with Judea, proves the Philistines controlled the Judean plain. Because Khirbet Kaifa existed for a relatively short period – about 30 years – it is likely the remnant of a failure of the Israelite kingdom to spread westward and not a sign of its power.

“The Judean kingdom is supposed to be big, important and strong,” says Maeir. “But it turns out there is a very big city on its western border. For years, I claimed Gath was a big city, but they countered that it has no lower city, and if it has one it is not fortified. After finding a huge fortification, it’s clearly the most important city of the 10th and ninth centuries.”

Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, who oversaw the Kaifa dig, does not rule out this explanation. However, he also notes “we know there were border conflicts throughout this period, but it’s a fact that Judea managed to build Kaifa as an exceptionally fortified city, with eight-ton stones – and when Kaifa fell, they built Beit Shemesh.”

Gath’s gate is mentioned in 2 Samuel 1:20, when David escaped from King Saul to the King of Gath, Achish. The Philistine city was destroyed by Hazael, King of Aram Damascus, who besieged and destroyed the site in around 830 B.C.E.

Maeir says the destruction of Gath was a dramatic event that changed the regional balance of power, enabling the rise of an independent Judean kingdom in the eighth century B.C.E.

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