Published: January 2001
Ancient Ashkelon
By Rick Gore
The ruins of a Byzantine church mark just one era of ancient Ashkelon's nearly 5,000-year history. The site of the once-walled city is now part of an Israeli national park, surrounded by the modern city of Ashkelon.

"They've found a new 'banana' in grid 50." Tracy Alsberg, a young archaeologist from the University of Chicago, is passing on the morning scuttlebutt from the dig at the ancient city of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

I have taken a break from the sweltering July heat and humidity to browse through 14 years of excavation records at her team's field office in a nearby hotel, but the new banana sends us back into the sun.

"Banana is our code word for human skeleton," explains Alsberg as we head over to grid 50, one of three active dig sites at Ashkelon this field season. In Israel, she explains, some Orthodox Jewish groups believe that human remains should not be disinterred. The previous season, members of one of those groups staged a protest after hearing that archaeologists were excavating skeletons from tombs of well-to-do Canaanites, pre-Israelite settlers of ancient Palestine. So this season team members speak in code.

Today Ashkelon is a forgotten name outside of Israel, and even there people know it mainly as a beachside city whose national park fills with bathers and picnickers on weekends. But as far back as 3500 b.c. Ashkelon was a major seaport.

Strategically located on the trade routes from Turkey and Syria to Egypt, it witnessed the rise and fall of numerous cultures besides the Canaanite, including Philistine, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader. The biblical Goliath probably walked its streets, as did Richard the Lion-Hearted, Alexander the Great, Herod, and Samson before he met Delilah. It was destroyed in 604 b.c. by the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar and again, for the final time, in a.d. 1270 by the Mamluks, the Islamic dynasty that ruled Egypt at the time.

Buried for centuries beneath its accumulated rubble, covering about 150 acres, Ashkelon has recently been emerging from obscurity. Since 1985 a team of archaeologists led by Lawrence Stager of Harvard University has found a trove of artifacts that reveal details about everything from the burial customs to the sexual practices of the people who lived there.

Alsberg and I meet Stager at grid 50, which fronts the beach. He is a large and cheerful man, and nothing can put fire in his eyes faster than word of a new find. Despite temperatures pushing 100˚F, he charges down the path that over the years his team has excavated through Islamic, Byzantine, and Roman occupations. We descend through layers that contain the foundations of storehouses built between 500 and 350 b.c., during Ashkelon's Persian–Phoenician period, to hold the town's abundant imports and exports. Then we pass a group digging out a building from the 13th century b.c., the closing era of Canaanite Ashkelon.

The Canaanites, a people who probably originated in eastern Syria, had begun migrating down the Mediterranean coast about seven centuries earlier. "They came by the boatload," says Stager. "They had master craftsmen and a clear idea of what they wanted to build—big fortified cities."

The Canaanites made Ashkelon a major center of trade, exporting wine and olive oil throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Stager's team recently found evidence of the cosmopolitan nature of Canaanite Ashkelon— part of a 13th-century tablet used to teach scribes languages. The tablet had one column of Canaanite words, which would have matched up with two or three adjacent columns containing equivalent words in different languages. Based on complete tablets found in Syria, linguists suspect that one column would have been a Semitic language called Akkadian, another an unrelated tongue, possibly Hurrian or Hittite.

Discovery seems continuous at this site. A student volunteer excitedly greets Stager with an Egyptian amulet of the baboon god. An older volunteer brings him a pottery sherd with a branching symbol painted on it. With one glance he identifies the symbol: "It's a Late Bronze Age tree of life."

When we reach the bottom of the grid, we enter the City of the Dead—a cluster of Canaanite burial chambers. So far the team has found 16 chambers, and Stager believes that there may be dozens more. Each was connected to the surface by a shaft.

"Families would bring their corpses down here," says Stager, "and put them in the middle of the chamber until the flesh rotted off. That could take several months. Then they'd place the bones in recesses and corners. Over time those families would have had quite a few ancestors buried here."

In a chamber about ten feet (three meters) in diameter three members of the team huddle over the skeleton they found this morning—a child about two years old. The youngest Canaanite skeleton uncovered at that point, it has been nicknamed "Baby."

Baby gives the team a new piece of information about Canaanite culture. It was buried with Egyptian scarabs, or magical charms, around its neck, indicating that children were given full status in Canaanite culture. In subsequent finds, children even younger were similarly buried.

Later that day I see Baby again. Netta Lev-Tov, a physical anthropology student, is cleaning and measuring the bones under a sunshade near the hotel where the team stays. Besides Baby, Lev-Tov is working with the remains of three adult males that the team has whimsically named Franky, Johnny, and Mr. Man.

"These were robust men," she says. "They were muscular and had very manly jaws. These people ate dust every day. Sand got in their food and wore their teeth down quickly."

The teeth intrigue specialists like Lev-Tov for another reason. DNA from dental interiors may one day enable scientists to determine how closely these buried people were related to each other as well as to other Mediterranean populations, both ancient and modern.

The canaanites fascinate Stager, partly because so little is known about them. They and the Philistines are largely what drew him to this forgotten site. In 1985 he got an opportunity most archaeologists only dream about. Leon Levy, a wealthy U.S. businessman and connoisseur of ancient art, was impressed by his record and offered to finance the excavation of any site Stager chose. He settled on Ashkelon.

Although archaeologists knew Ashkelon's location from its crumbling medieval walls, few had dug in the tell. In 1815 a wealthy Englishwoman, Lady Hester Stanhope, found part of a Roman-era basilica while searching for a treasure marked on a medieval monk's map. In the early 1920s John Garstang, a British archaeologist, tried to find the layers containing Philistine buildings. Although his team discovered Philistine artifacts at the bottom of two trenches they dug, they abandoned the project. There were simply too many layers from later cultures to dig through.

Ashkelon posed no less of a challenge to Stager, but with ample funds he began digging, and found the Canaanites much more quickly than he had expected.

"This is where we first started to realize the magnitude of this place," says Stager, as we stand alongside an ancient moat a few hundred feet in from the beach. We are looking up at a 50-foot-high (15 meters) sloping earthen rampart covered by row after row of fieldstones. As imposing as this barricade is, it is merely the base of a great wall with towers built by the Canaanites in 1850 b.c., a century after they reached Ashkelon. That towered wall probably rose another hundred feet and formed an arc 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometer) long around the city. It protected some 15,000 inhabitants—quite large for an ancient city. By comparison, Babylon at this time might have had a population of 30,000.

The rampart was an extraordinary 150 feet (46 meters) thick—a defensive necessity, says Stager. "Armies besieging a city used to dig tunnels under its rampart either to sneak into the city or to undermine the structure, causing part of the wall to collapse."

Stager's team discovered the rampart by luck in 1987. The operator of a nearby resort had illegally sent a bulldozer to the site to dig sand for making concrete. The bulldozer scrapings exposed mud bricks and some pottery that the ancients had thrown into the base of the rampart. Working with picks and wheelbarrows over the next 12 excavation seasons, which last about two months each summer, team members exposed a 900-foot-long (274 meters) stretch of the rampart as well as a moat that lay before it. They also uncovered the oldest known arched gateway in the world. More than 8 feet wide (two meters), 12 feet (four meters) high, and lined with mud brick, it was built as part of the great towered wall in 1850 b.c.

In its prime this gateway would have bustled with activity. Oxcarts and donkeys laden with produce from the countryside or goods from ships in the harbor would have labored up a sloping road to pass through the portals. Sailors and merchants speaking a babel of tongues entered with goods from Egypt, Crete, Turkey, and Syria. Ashkelonian goods would likewise have flowed out of the gateway.

Near the bottom of the steep slope leading to the gateway, many voyagers stopped at a sanctuary discovered in 1990. As the excavators dug through the crumbled debris, they came across a silver-coated bronze figurine of a bull calf—a symbol of Baal, the Canaanite storm god. Four inches tall and dating from 1600 b.c., the calf lay within its own shrine, a beehive-shaped pottery vessel (page 68). Apparently travelers paused at the sanctuary either to beg the storm god's protection for their journey or to give thanks for safe arrival.

Now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, this little calf, with one horn missing and only patches of its silver plating remaining, evokes the idolatrous calf worship by Israelites that so outraged Moses in the Bible. Though the Israelites did not emerge until several centuries after the Ashkelon figurine was made, they were probably derived from the same cultural stock as the Canaanites. The calf perhaps symbolized the common past the two groups shared, a past that the Israelites rejected as they developed their own identity.

As Canaanite Ashkelon prospered, its army grew strong. Historians have long known that around 1650 b.c. a mysterious group of warriors called the Hyksos invaded the Nile Delta and ruled it for a century. No one knew where the Hyksos, which means "foreign rulers" in ancient Egyptian, came from. Recent excavations at Avaris, the Hyksos capital in Egypt, have produced artifacts identical to those found in Ashkelon, leading Stager to propose that the Hyksos were actually Canaanites and that many came from around Ashkelon.

Even before the Hyksos conquered the delta, the Egyptians were having trouble with the Canaanites. Pharaohs of the 12th dynasty (1938-1755 b.c.) cursed three kings of Ashkelon in so-called execration texts. Scribes would write the names of the kings on ceramic bowls or human figurines, and the pharaoh would smash them to magically destroy their power.

We have an idea what the Canaanites looked like from artwork painted on an Egyptian wall around 1900 b.c. that depicts Canaanite dignitaries visiting the pharaoh. They had Semitic facial features and dark hair, which the women wore in long tresses and the men styled in mushroom-shaped bundles on top of their heads. The men had trimmed beards. Both sexes wore bright red and yellow clothes—long dresses for the women and kilts for the men.

Around 1550 b.c. the Egyptians expelled the Hyksos and for more than 300 years dominated Canaan, the land from present-day Lebanon to the Sinai. Beginning in the late 13th century, numerous groups of invaders threw the entire eastern Mediterranean into turmoil. Around 1175 one group, the Philistines, conquered Ashkelon and established at least four other major cities in the region, which became known as Philistia—echoed still in the name Palestine.

Because their pottery and other artifacts resemble those of the Mycenaean Greeks, the warriors who sacked Troy in the Homeric legends, Stager believes that the Philistines were in fact immigrant Greeks. The Philistine hero Goliath, says Stager, wore Mycenaean-style battle gear. The biblical Samson, he adds, behaved like the legendary Greek superhuman Heracles. And Samson's loss of strength after the Philistine woman Delilah cut his hair parallels an earlier Greek myth.

Analysis of animal bones found in Philistine Ashkelon indicates that the newcomers ate a lot of pigs, an unusual practice in Canaanite times but very common among early Greeks.

"I think pork became taboo among the Israelites," says Stager, "in part because that helped set them off from their archenemies—those uncircumcised Philistines."

The Bible is the only lengthy written source on the Philistines, and since the Israelites waged war with their neighbors for two centuries, the name Philistine became a synonym for unsophisticated and boorish people. But the excavations at Ashkelon and other Philistine sites have turned up evidence that they were actually quite cosmopolitan, fond of artful pottery, and distillers of fine wine.

Still, much remains to be learned, and the Philistines are now the primary focus at Ashkelon, mainly because the team is digging in the levels that date close to the time they arrived. Stager hopes soon to find a layer of destruction—charred wood and ruins—that would signal the burning of the Canaanite city when the Philistines invaded. Stager takes me to grid 38, which at about an acre in size is the largest site on the dig. Here the team is closest to the earliest Philistines.

"These are all Philistine streets," says Stager as we walk through a complex of foundations of mud-brick buildings from the 12th century b.c. In earlier seasons at this grid the team excavated a commercial building from the seventh century b.c. that measured 90 feet (27 meters) by 36 feet (11 meters). Stager suspects that it was a winery with storehouses.

This season has brought more clues to Philistine traditions—a pot with the bones of a puppy inside. Buried beneath the foundations of a building, the find intrigues a team of animal-bone specialists headed by Paula Wapnish of the University of Alabama. "We think that somebody killed it, put it in the pot, and placed it into a pit in the ground," explains a team member, Brian Hesse. "The pot has char marks. I think someone was probably cooking the puppy for food but never came back for it."

Or, counters Stager, the puppy was buried in an already charred pot as an offering to bring good fortune to the building.

Shortly before we arrived at grid 38, excavators had turned up another Philistine burial. In the corner of one room Lev-Tov sits carefully brushing dirt from the skeleton of a human infant that had been buried in a pit. The tiny brown bones and skull barely emerge from the earth that has so long encased them.

The excavators are trying to determine whether the child was intentionally buried inside the house, perhaps for good fortune like the puppy in the pot. Or it could have been buried in a courtyard that was later built over.

There is little doubt, however, about what one Philistine layer at Ashkelon represents—the total destruction of the city in 604 b.c. by the armies of Nebuchadrezzar, the Babylonian king. Standing on the floor of an older Philistine house in grid 50, Stager points at a shoulder-high layer of charred wood and debris in the excavation trench. On the floor of a nearby building the team found the skeleton of a woman in her 30s whose skull had been crushed by a blunt instrument.

"She was probably killed by a Babylonian soldier," says Stager.

Nebuchadrezzar apparently burned Ashkelon to frighten other cities that might ally with his rival, Egypt. His soldiers took many of the surviving residents back to Babylon. About 75 years later the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, who encouraged Phoenician allies from Tyre, a city in what today is Lebanon, to rebuild Ashkelon. Ironically those coastal people were descended from the Canaanites.

The Phoenicians were great traders and a powerhouse in the Mediterranean. Their era brought renewed prosperity to Ashkelon and left an unexpected legacy for archaeologists—a large cemetery filled with a thousand dogs.

"The dogs apparently died naturally," says Hesse. "They show no trauma or cut marks from being butchered. They were carefully laid on their sides in a shallow pit with their tails wrapped around their hind legs."

The dogs were buried in the first half of the fifth century b.c., and Stager believes that they reflect a short-lived dog cult. "Dogs were associated with healing in many cultures because they lick their sores and wounds," he says.

Ashkelon residents also began using coins during this era and eventually had one of the most active mints in Palestine, issuing coins almost continuously from the fourth century b.c. to the 12th century a.d. Stager's team has uncovered several hoards, now at the Israel Museum. There curator Haim Gitler displays a hoard of 31 tiny silver coins known as obols that date from around 400 b.c. Although from the region, they feature the head of Athena, the Greek goddess.

"Someone stashed them away, then died or disappeared," says Gitler. Since most of the coins are identical, Gitler suspects that they came from the local mint.

The prosperity of the Phoenician era and the subsequent brief rule of Alexander the Great ended abruptly about 295 b.c., when Egypt's ruler Ptolemy I destroyed the city. But Ashkelon bounced back and gained fame not only as a commercial emporium but also as an intellectual center. One Ashkelonian, a man named Antiochus, went to Athens to head up the philosophical academy there, where he tried to reconcile the theories of Aristotle, Plato, and later philosophers known as the Stoics, who stressed the importance of both fate and reason in determining human lives. Dorotheus of Ashkelon wrote a dictionary of Attic Greek, the dialect spoken in Athens. Other Ashkelonians were noted in a variety of inscriptions found in the eastern Mediterranean.

Ashkelon continued to flourish under Roman rule, which started in 37 b.c. The Romans put a heavy stamp on Ashkelon, building villas, theaters, and large basilicas. Some scholars say that King Herod the Great was born in the city, and therefore it benefited from his enthusiasm for public building projects. According to Josephus, a Jewish historian, Herod constructed baths, ornate fountains, grand colonnades, and a palace intended for the emperor Augustus.

During Roman times Ashkelon expanded as an international emporium. It profited from agricultural exports, notably wine, olive oil, wheat, henna, dates, and onions. The small green onion known as a scallion took its name from the city's Roman name, Ascalon.

Prosperity brought grand villas with large terraces and gardens overlooking the sea. In one of those villas Stager's team unearthed the sherds of some 150 ceramic oil lamps, many with sexual motifs. Couplings depicted on the lamps seem right out of Sodom and Gomorrah, but Roman sexual mores in pagan Ashkelon were far looser than those of neighboring Jewish and Christian communities. Stager suspects that the lamps belonged to a collector.

In the fourth century a.d. a bathhouse was built over the villa containing the lamps. Stager's team uncovered part of the plastered rim of one tub that read "Enter, enjoy, and . . . ." The bathhouse might well have been a brothel in Ashkelon's red-light district.

Excavation of an ancient sewer under the bathhouse revealed one of Stager's most unsettling discoveries—the fragile bones of more than a hundred infants. The newborns had been thrown into the gutter, along with animal bones, pottery sherds, and a few coins.

"We know that infanticide was widely practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans," says Pat Smith, a physical anthropologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who studied the bones. "It was regarded as the parents' right if they didn't want a child. Usually they killed girls. Boys were considered more valuable—as heirs or for support in old age. Girls were sometimes viewed as burdens, especially if they needed a dowry to marry."

Two of Smith's colleagues, Marina Faerman and Gila Kahila Bar-Gal, determined the sex of the infants using DNA-based techniques. Many skeletons were incomplete, but the two scientists did salvage 43 left femurs, or thigh bones. Nineteen yielded DNA that could be analyzed. Of those, 14, or 74 percent, were male. Puzzled by this apparently high percentage of boy babies killed, the researchers speculate that these infants were the unwanted offspring of courtesans serving the bathhouse. The proprietor or courtesans might well have reared some children to pursue the same profession; the excess would have been killed and discarded. Although both sexes worked as prostitutes in the Roman world, the researchers believe that there was probably more demand for women.

In a.d. 324, when the emperor Constantine officially recognized Christianity, a new morality spread to Palestine. Monasteries flourished near Ashkelon and throughout the region. Christian pilgrims began flocking to the Holy Land from Europe, disembarking at Ashkelon en route to Jerusalem. Ashkelon enjoyed a new boom based on the tourist economy and increased international demand for its fine wines. Amphorae from the city's Byzantine era have been found as far away as London.

But newcomers were about to change the face of Ashkelon once again. The armies of Islam began storming the Byzantine world in the seventh century, and in a.d. 640 the city surrendered to Muslim rule.

The transition shows clearly in a dig site called grid 23, where late one morning sweating excavators are uncovering an Islamic villa. "Last week we found the leg of a Roman statue that got smashed during the Islamic period," says Ross Voss, supervisor of this grid. "We also discovered three bowls with crosses stamped on them, so maybe this was a church or bishop's residence before the Muslims arrived."

The team is excited today because they have just lifted the flagstone floor laid down by the Muslims and uncovered the decorative black, white, and ocher tiles of a Byzantine mosaic. "The mosaic was trashed before the Muslims covered it," says Stager. Clearly the Islamic newcomers planned to make Ashkelon over, and they did it with style, as indicated by gold filigree jewelry and large villas appointed with statues and mosaic floors.

For more than 500 years Ashkelon shone under Islamic rule. Then, in the late 11th century, the Crusaders began their incursions into the Holy Land. During the 12th century Muslims of the Fatimid dynasty refortified Ashkelon's walls, using old Roman columns to reinforce the masonry, and building or reconstructing more than 50 mighty watchtowers.

One afternoon Tracy Alsberg takes me to the site where one of those towers once rose. We cross a dry moat and gaze up at the slanting wall of carefully cut sandstone. She pulls back sandbags that protect an engraved stone embedded in the wall. Its decorative Arabic characters spell "al-mulk li-llah—Dominion is Allah's." The stone was probably placed in the wall during the rebuilding.

More significant is an engraved marble slab five feet (1.5 meters) long found smashed to pieces in the moat. The inscription on the slab describes the building of the tower and gives the date of its completion—March 2, 1150. The slab, now reassembled and on display in the Israel Museum, testifies to the devastation Ashkelon suffered during the Crusades.

Both Crusaders and Muslims regarded Ashkelon as vital to control of the eastern Mediterranean, and over the next 120 years the city often changed hands. In 1153 the Crusaders took the city for the first time after seven months of siege. They held it for 34 years before being driven out in 1187 by the Islamic commander Saladin. Four years later a new wave of Crusaders, led by Richard the Lion-Hearted, was advancing toward the city. With great sorrow Saladin decided to destroy the city himself. He feared Crusader naval power and wanted to deprive his enemies of a citadel they could use to launch marches toward Jerusalem or into Egypt.

"I would rather be bereaved of all my children than destroy a single stone of it," Saladin said, according to a contemporary writer.

Nevertheless, on September 12, 1191, he ordered his troops to begin tearing down the wall and towers. "Ashkelon was a town likable to the heart," reported the same writer. "The people were deeply saddened and wailed strongly because of the town's destruction, and because of their having to leave their homeland."

Saladin then ordered the city to be set on fire. By September 21 destruction was complete, and Saladin left Ashkelon.

Evidence of that destruction remains along Ashkelon's beach. Waves splash over large slabs of stone and Roman columns that Saladin's army pulled from the city's walls and used to block the harbor.

Despite Saladin's efforts, Richard the Lion-Hearted occupied the abandoned city in 1192, briefly restoring it as a fortress. Trying to erase the Islamic past, one Crusader later gouged his heraldic shields into the stones of the ancient city, including the marble slab that had been so elegantly inscribed to commemorate the building of the new watchtower in 1150. Moshe Sharon, an epigrapher at Hebrew University, has actually identified the desecrater—Sir Hugh Wake, an English-man from Lincolnshire, who probably died at Ashkelon in 1241. Egypt's Mamluk rulers destroyed the city a final time in 1270. By then the Crusades were over, and the region had lost its strategic importance.

But Ashkelon is rising anew. A modern skyline of high-rises now soars behind the ruins. In the past decade throngs of newcomers, mostly Jewish immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia, have relocated to a reborn city.

"Today nearly 100,000 people live here," says Tracy Alsberg as we walk one evening along a new beachside promenade. Rock music blares, and crowds of boisterous young immigrants mingle with other Israelis in bars and cafés. There seem to be almost as many signs in Russian as in Hebrew.

Suddenly I realize that I have not been visiting a dead city at all. Ashkelon's tradition as a melting pot and emporium persists. These newcomers are creating their own unique culture at the dawn of this millennium as surely as the Philistines, Phoenicians, and Muslims did in past ages. The story of Ashkelon is still being written.