Historical Philistines: Record of Them and Where They Lived

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Philistine ship of war
The Philistines were a seafaring people that settled on the Palestine coast in the 12th century B.C. They brought early Greek culture to Holy Land and are thought to have originated from Aegean region. They were one of about a half dozen or more Sea People that arrived in the eastern Mediterranean in the 12th century B.C. They were expert metalsmiths and similar to Phoenicians in some ways. While there are a number of theories abound as to where the Philistine came from — and how they arrived — no one really knows for sure.

The Philistines were the great enemies of the post-Moses Hebrews. They arrived in Canaan perhaps from Crete and lived along the Mediterranean coast in cities like Ekron (20 miles southwest of Jerusalem). Delilah was a Philistine who discovered the secret of Samson's strength and betrayed him. The Philistines killed the Hebrew King Saul. Goliath, the giant slain by David, was also a Philistine.

The word Palestine was coined by the Romans and derived from Philistia, or "land of the Philistines." “There are no documents in the Philistine language, which was probably replaced by Canaanite, Aramaic, and, later, Greek. Little is known of the Philistine religion; the Philistine gods mentioned in biblical and other sources such as Dagan, Ashteroth (Astarte), and Beelzebub, have Semitic names and were probably borrowed from the conquered Canaanites.

Until their defeat by David, the Philistine cities were ruled by seranim, “lords,” who acted in council for the common good of the nation. After their defeat, the seranim were replaced by kings. At sites occupied by the Philistines at an early period, a distinctive type of pottery, a variety of the 13th-century Mycenaean styles, has been found. Philistine temples and shrines displaying a variety of Aegean design elements have been excavated in Ashdod, Ekron, and Tel Qasile.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Bible and Biblical History: ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Bible History Online bible-history.com Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu

Arrival of the Philistines in Palestine

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: The Philistines settled on the southern coast of Palestine in the 12th century B.C. about the time of the arrival of the Israelites. According to biblical tradition (Deuteronomy 2:23; Jeremiah 47:4), the Philistines came from Caphtor (possibly Crete, although there is no archaeological evidence of a Philistine occupation of the island). The first records of the Philistines are inscriptions and reliefs in the mortuary temple of Ramses III at Madinat Habu, where they appear under the name prst, as one of the Sea Peoples that invaded Egypt about 1190 bce after ravaging Anatolia, Cyprus, and Syria.

Kingdoms of the Levant in 830 BC with the Philistine states

After being repulsed by the Egyptians, they settled—possibly with Egypt’s permission—on the coastal plain of Palestine from Joppa (modern Tel Aviv–Yafo) southward to Gaza. The area contained the five cities (the Pentapolis) of the Philistine confederacy (Gaza, Ashkelon [Ascalon], Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron) and was known as Philistia, or the Land of the Philistines. It was from this designation that the whole of the country was later called Palestine by the Greeks. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica]

Ilan Ben Zion wrote in Archaeology Magazine: For centuries before the arrival of the Philistines, Egypt dominated the Semitic peoples of Canaan. Canaanite city-states, including Gath, were ruled by client kings loyal to the pharaoh, and key ports such as Ashkelon housed large Egyptian garrisons. Among archives of fourteenth-century B.C. correspondence found at the Egyptian capital of Amarna are at least 11 letters from two of the king’s vassals in Gath. “I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my sun, seven times and seven times,” Shuwardata, the Canaanite ruler of Gath, writes in a missive imploring the Egyptian pharaoh to send reinforcements to quell a local insurrection.[Source: Ilan Ben Zion, Archaeology Magazine, July-August 2022]

Like the Israelites living in the inland hill country to the east of Gath, the Philistines first appear in the historical record during the upheaval of the end of the Late Bronze Age, around 1200 B.C., when a period of stability in the eastern Mediterranean marked by long-distance trade and diplomacy came to a dramatic end. The Hittite Empire that had ruled Anatolia since about 1750 B.C. collapsed. The Egyptian grip over Canaan began a long decline, after which some Canaanite cities were destroyed. Scholars debate what precipitated this Late Bronze Age collapse. Maeir says there likely wasn’t a single root cause, but that a combination of environmental and social factors were to blame. Analysis of pollen and sediments from Bronze Age sites in Greece and Israel shows that the eastern Mediterranean experienced a period of severe aridity starting around 1250 B.C. Protracted periods of drought and famine likely fanned social unrest and may have triggered mass migrations and invasions that undermined the political stability of the Late Bronze Age.

Philistines, Phoenicians and Sea Peoples

Some archeologist and historians believe a mysterious group known as the Sea People migrated to Lebanon around 1200 B.C. and mixed with local Canaanites to create the Phoenicians. Other archeologists believe the Philistines were originally a Sea People group.

Ilan Ben Zion wrote in Archaeology Magazine: In the twilight of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550 — 1200 B.C.), Sea People raided Egypt and conquered the cities of the Semitic Canaanite people who lived on the coast of what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories. A final wave of Philistine invasions was thought to have reached the coast of Canaan early in the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III (r. ca. 1184 — 1153 B.C.), around 1175 B.C. [Source: Ilan Ben Zion, Archaeology Magazine, July-August 2022]

20120502-Philistines_pentapolis 2.jpg
Philistines Pentapolis in present-day southwestern Israel and the Gaza Strip:
Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tell Miqne (Ekron), Gaza and Gath
Among the names describing the Sea Peoples inscribed at Medinet Habu is Peleset, the mortutary temple of Ramesses III, which nineteenth-century scholars first linked to the biblical Philistines. Biblical texts offered early researchers further clues about who the Philistines were. Their leaders are referred to by the title seren, which scholars once believed may be related to the Greek term tyrannos, or ruler. According to the Bible, the Philistines arrived from the island of Caphtor, which may be the Greek island of Crete.

On the link between the Sea People and Phoenicians, Maria Eugenia Aubet, a leading Phoenician expert at Pempeu Fabra University in Barcelona, told National Geographic: “I think they became friends, Phoenician material culture shows so many elements from the Sea Peoples. The Phoenicians learned from them how to build harbors, moorings, docks, and piers. The Sea Peoples, like the Phoenicians, were excellent navigators — and how they knew the routes west to the rich sources of metals." DNA evidence seems to indicate the impact of the Sea People, if they existed, were a cultural and technological group, not a blood group. The geneticist Wells told National Geographic, “The Sea People apparently had bo significant genetic impact on populations in the Levant."

Philistines History and Archaeology

Philistines were referred to by the Egyptians as the People from the Sea. They were defeated by the armies of Ramses II in the 12th century B.C. and later hired out as mercenaries. Around 1100 B.C. they took over Gaza. They called it Philistia (from which the modern name Palestine is derived), and made it one of their civilization's most important cities. The historical record on them between 1,000 and 600 B.C. is sketchy. In 603 B.C. they, like the Hebrews, were conquered by the Assyrians. After that there is no reference to them in the historical record.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “The first nonbiblical reference to the Philistines after their settling on the Palestinian coast is in the annals of the Assyrian king Adad-nirari III (810–782), who boasted of having collected tribute from Philistia. By the early part of the 7th century, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ekron, Ashdod, and probably Gath were vassals of the Assyrian rulers; during the second half of that century, the cities became Egyptian vassals. With the conquests of the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar II (605–562) in Syria and Palestine, the Philistine cities became part of the Neo-Babylonian empire. In later times they came under the control of Persia, Greece, and Rome.” [Source:Encyclopædia Britannica]

On the discovery of a puppy in pot, Paula Wapnish, an animal bone specialist at the University of Alabama, told National Geographic, “We think that somebody killed it and placed it in a pit in the ground." Team member Brian Hesse added, “The pot has char marks. I think someone was probably cooking the puppy for food but never came back for it." Stager thinks the puppy was buried in a pot that was already charred to bring good fortune for the building it was buried under.

The artifacts that archaeologists have turned in Ashkelon from the Philistine period shows that Philistines were a very advanced people. While the Israelite were making crude, unadorned pottery, the Philistines were decorating their ceramics with designs similar to those produced in Mycenaean Greece, the civilization that defeated Troy in Homeric legend.

Stager believes the Philistines were Greeks. He bases his arguments on: 1) similarities between the Samson and Delilah story and the myths of Hercules and a Greek myth with a figure that loses it power when its hair is cut; 2) evidence that Goliath wore Mycenaean-style battle gear; and 3) animal bones remains that indicate the Philistines ate a lot pigs, a common practice among the Greeks but not among the Canaanites.

Philistine Cities of Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath

n the late 1980s, archaeologists discovered the remains of Ekron, a 60-acre walled city with around 6,000 residents before it was destroyed in 603 B.C. Instead of being a civilization of pleasure-seeking ignoramuses, archaeologists found that the Philistines were an industrious, innovative Iron Age civilization that grew rich from selling olives and dying cloth, and developed sophisticated metal tools and olive crushing machines. [Source: National Geographic]

The Philistines occupied Ashkelon from 1175 B.C. to 604 B.C. , when the city was sacked by the neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. They dominated four other major cities in the region around the same time. Among the interesting things that archaeologists have dug up in Ashkelon from the Philistine period are a large winery with a storehouse and a burial ground for dogs. A thick layer of charred wood and debris marks the sacking of the city by the Babylonians. In one building the skeleton of a woman — whose skull had been smashed by a blunt instrument — was found. Nebuchadnezzar is said to have destroyed Ashkelon to send a warning to cities in the region of what would await them if they sided with the Egyptians.

Ekron inscription

In the tenth and ninth centuries B.C., and probably even earlier, Gath was likely the largest city in Philistia, a pentapolis — five-city confederation — in the southern Levant. According to archaeology magazine: A team of archaeologists led by Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University has just uncovered one source of Gath’s strength — the monumental stone gate and a section of the wall that served as both entrance to and protection for the city. As home to the Philistines, including, according to the Old Testament, the giant warrior Goliath, Gath was the strongest and most dominant city in the region for nearly two centuries. Along with Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gaza, it was also a formidable foe of the early Judahite kingdom (also called the “United Kingdom” of David and Solomon) and, says Maeir, “played a central role in the geopolitical scene during these periods.” [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell, Archaeology magazine, November-December 2015]

Ekron Inscription

The Ekron Inscription is the oldest text to be identified as "Philistine". It is a royal dedication inscription found in the ruins of a temple during the 1996 excavations of Ekron (Tel Miqne) Israel. Dated to the 7th century B.C. and written in Philistine script in what is thought to be a Phoenician language, it consists of 72 letters and 5 lines of writing on a limestone block, measuring 38 centimeters high and 61 centimeters wide, and weighing about 100 kilograms (220 lbs.). It was found in Temple Complex 650, Room U at Ekron by Seymour Gitin and Trude Dothan and is now housed in the Israel Museum [Source: Hanson's website, kchanson.com ***]

The Ekron Inscription reads: This temple was built by 'Akish, son of Padi, son of Yasid, son of Ada, son of Ya'ir, ruler of Ekron, for Ptgyh, his (divine) lady. May she bless him, and guard him, and prolong his days, and bless his land. [Translated by Gitin, Demsky, Naveh (1997:9)] ***

The Ekron Inscription is identified as "Philistine" based on Ekron's identification as a Philistine city in the Bible (see Joshua 13:3 and 1 Samuel 6:17). However, it is written in a Canaanite dialect similar to Phoenician and Old Byblian, something that its discoverers referred to it as "something of an enigma". The inscription mentions Ekron, thus confirming the identification of the site, as well as five of its rulers, including Ikausu (Achish), son of Padi, who built the sanctuary. Padi and Ikausu are known as kings of Ekron from the late 8th- and 7th-century Neo-Assyrian Royal Annals. [4] King Padi is mentioned in connection to events from the years 701 and 699 BC, King Ikausu in relation to 673 and 667 BC, placing the date of the inscription firmly in the first half of the 7th century BC, and most likely in the second quarter of that century. [Source: Wikipedia]

Philistines Introduced Cumin and Opium to Israel During the Iron Age

A study released in August 2015, describing the bio-archaeological remains of the Philistine culture in Israel during the Iron Age (1200 - 550 B.C.), indicated that the 600 year presence of Philistine culture in Palestine left behind cumin, opium and sycamore. [Source: Bar-Ilan University, sciencedaily.com, August 28, 2015 ==]

opium dripping from poppies

The study published in the August 25th issue of Scientific Reports by a team led by archaeologists from Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology (Suembikya (Sue) Frumin, Prof. Ehud Weiss and Prof. Aren Maeir) and the Hebrew University (Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz), compiled a database of plant remains extracted from Bronze and Iron Ages sites in the southern Levant and compared plant remains at both Philistine and non-Philistine sites.

According to Science Daily: “The species they brought are all cultivars that had not been seen in Israel previously. This includes edible parts of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) which originates in western Europe; the sycamore tree (Ficus sycomorus), whose fruits are known to be cultivated in the eastern Mediterranean, especially Egypt, and whose presence in Israel as a locally grown tree is first attested to in the Iron Age (1200 - 550 B.C.) by the presence of its fruit; and finally, cumin (Cuminum cyminum), a spice originating in the Eastern Mediterranean. Sue Frumin, a PhD student at Prof. Ehud Weiss’s archaeobotanical lab, Bar-Ilan University, explains that “the edible parts of these species — opium poppy, sycamore, and cumin — were not identified in the archaeobotanical record of Israel prior to the Iron Age, when the Philistine culture first appeared in the region. None of these plants grows wild in Israel today, but instead grows only as cultivated plants.” =

“In addition to the translocation of exotic plants from other regions, the Philistines were the first community to exploit over 70 species of synanthropic plants (species which benefit from living in the vicinity of man) that were locally available in Israel, such as Purslane, Wild Radish, Saltwort, Henbane and Vigna. These plant species were not found in archaeological sites pre-dating the Iron Age, or in Iron Age (1200 - 550 B.C.) archaeological sites recognized as belonging to non-Philistine cultures — Canaanite, Israelite, Judahite, and Phoenician. The “agricultural revolution” that accompanied the Philistine culture reflects a different agrarian regime and dietary preferences to that of their contemporaries. ==

“The fact that the three exotic plants introduced by the Philistines originate from different regions accords well with the diverse geographic origin of these people. The Philistines — one of the so called Sea Peoples, and mentioned in the Bible and other ancient sources — were a multi-ethnic community with origins in the Aegean, Turkey, Cyprus and other regions in the Eastern Mediterranean who settled on the southern coastal plain of Israel in the early Iron Age (1200 - 550 B.C.) (12th century BCE), and integrated with Canaanite and other local populations, finally to disappear at the end of the Iron Age (1200 - 550 B.C.) (ca. 600 BCE). ==

“The results of this research indicate that the ca. 600 year presence of the Philistine culture in Israel had a major and long-term impact on local floral biodiversity. The Philistines left as a biological heritage a variety of plants still cultivated in Israel, including, among others, sycamore, cumin, coriander, bay tree and opium poppy. The Philistines also left their mark on the local fauna. In a previous study also published in Scientific Reports in which two of the present authors (Maeir and Kolska Horwitz) participated, DNA extracted from ancient pig bones from Philistine and non-Philistine sites in Israel demonstrated that European pigs were introduced by the Philistines into Israel and slowly swamped the local pig populations through inter-breeding. As a consequence, modern wild boar in Israel today bears a European haplotype rather than a local, Near Eastern one.” ==

Fall of the Philistines

from the Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod

Ilan Ben Zion wrote in Archaeology Magazine: According to the Bible, once-mighty Gath fell in the ninth century B.C. to King Hazael of the Aramaeans, a Semitic people who dominated what is now Syria. Maeir and his team have found siege works encircling Tell es-Safi that date to this time and suggest that the people of Gath faced a protracted conflict. Though the Philistines abandoned Gath, their distinct culture lasted in some form in the other cities of the Pentapolis for almost 300 years. The discovery of a seventh-century B.C. royal inscription at Ekron written in Canaanite but including the Philistine name Achish is clear evidence that the Philistine presence endured well after the fall of Gath. [Source: Ilan Ben Zion, Archaeology Magazine, July-August 2022]

Then, in 604 B.C., the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605 — 562 B.C.) laid the remaining Philistine cities to waste and sent the Philistines into exile in Mesopotamia, along with the conquered Judeans. Sixth-century B.C. cuneiform tablets have been unearthed near Babylon in modern-day Iraq that describe people as “men of Gaza” or “men of Ashkelon.” This suggests that Philistines may have lived near the city and, perhaps, preserved their identity to some extent for a century or more. But their descendants never returned to Philistia and they assimilated into Babylon’s local population, leaving it to archaeologists to reclaim their story from their Egyptian and Israelite enemies.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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