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Archeologists Rewriting Definition of a Philistine

Antiquity: Dig near Jerusalem yields evidence of a sophisticated culture, rather than the crude society portrayed in the Old Testament.

March 13, 1997|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 11 years, Seymour Gitin had been digging at Tel Minque, 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem, in the hope that the remains he was uncovering were the city of Ekron, one of the five capitals of the Philistine confederation mentioned in the Old Testament.

All the evidence suggested that Tel Minque was indeed Ekron--a site that is now changing the image of one of history's most vilified societies. But archeological sites have a way of confounding the expectations of their discoverers, and a certain amount of doubt lingered in Gitin's mind.

Then, last July, a field supervisor turned over a small stone block in a 7th century BC temple and discovered the first writing unearthed at Tel Minque--an inscription stating that the temple was built by the king of Ekron. In effect, it said: "Welcome to Ekron."

"My first thoughts were of the unbelievably good fortune to have confirmed Ekron's identity," said Gitin, director of the Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.

Gitin's findings at Ekron "haven't just opened a door" into understanding the Philistines, said archeologist Ziony Zevit of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where Gitin recently talked about his findings. "It has opened French doors. . . . What he is learning is applicable up and down the whole coast of Israel."

And what Gitin and Trude Dothan of Hebrew University in Jerusalem have learned, among other things, is that "the Philistines were not philistines," he said. Rather than the rude, crude people portrayed in the Old Testament, they appear to have been a sophisticated, energetic society.

Although excoriated in the Bible by their Israelite enemies, the Philistines in Ekron built one of the most important industrial cities of the 7th century BC. They contributed mightily to the far-flung Assyrian Empire before the Babylonian army destroyed Ekron in 603 BC.

They had a rich culture and were "intellectually fascinating," Gitin said. "Perhaps we should try to get the word 'philistine' out of Webster's, or at least change the meaning."

Although the name Ekron probably means little to most people today, it was well-known to the Israelites. The Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant to Ekron after capturing it. The Israelites pursued the Philistines "to the gates of Ekron" after David slew Goliath. The god of Ekron, according to the Bible, was Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies.

The Philistines who founded Ekron, Gitin noted, were "an immigrant group," one of the so-called Sea Peoples who fled the Aegean Sea about 1200 BC after some catastrophe, perhaps the Trojan War.

The site of Ekron is an "archeologist's delight," Gitin said, because no one ever rebuilt there after Ekron was destroyed. The team's excavations, which so far have uncovered only about 4% of the site, have enabled them to chart the city's full 600 years of existence.

The Philistines captured a Canaanite city, reducing it to rubble before building their own city on top.

The new occupiers put up a mud-brick wall around their city and began building homes with pebbled hearths more appropriate for the colder winters of the Aegean shore than for the Middle East. Close by the wall, they built a line of kilns for firing pottery.

In the 10th century BC, Ekron suffered a severe military defeat, most likely at the hands of King David and the Israelites, and shrank in size back to about 10 acres. The other Sea Peoples disappeared about this same time, blending into the population around them. Only the Philistines retained their cultural identity.

But they remained quiescent until they were taken into the Assyrian Empire at the end of the 8th century BC. The Assyrians were the world's first superpower, creating a world economy, according to Gitin, based on three crucial factors: a simplified alphabet, an efficient bureaucracy and the use of a silver-based currency rather than barter.

Under Assyrian domination, Ekron expanded enormously, becoming a thriving industrial city that reached an area of 85 acres. Gitin and his colleagues have so far excavated 115 olive oil presses on the outskirts of the city, an unusually large number. Gitin estimates that olive oil production could have reached 290,000 gallons per year, equivalent to fully 20% of Israel's current production.

The team also found evidence of a large textile industry and signs of extensive foreign trade. Among other things, they found bottles and goblets from Assyria, ceramics from Greece and Carthage and religious objects from Israel and Phoenicia. They also located large quantities of silver and silver jewelry.

It was during this period that the Ekronites erected the temple where Gitin found the inscription. The entire text has not yet been released, but it reads that Achish, the king of Ekron, built a temple.

After 70 years of prosperity, the end came quickly. The Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar overthrew Assyria and sent their army westward to subdue the empire. Along the way, they destroyed Ekron, which might have been abandoned in the face of the enemy.

"The Babylonians burned down a perfectly usable industrial city," perhaps because they didn't know how to run it or didn't appreciate its value, Gitin said.

The Philistines apparently became assimilated among nearby peoples, for they disappeared completely. "Once their city was destroyed, they had no core culture to maintain themselves," Gitin said.

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