When cruise ships dock at Ashdod, and passengers disembark for a look at Israel’s fifth largest city, their first stop is often Yona’s Hill (Givat Yona). For it is on Givat Yona, today the site of a delightful overlook, that the prophet Jonah was buried well over two thousand years ago.
True, tradition places his burial site both in Jaffa and the Galilee. But it is only in Ashdod that a tomb many hundreds of years old, and inscribed with the words “Yunis the Prophet is buried here,” was discovered. (Unfortunately, in the early 1960’s a group of Jerusalemites destroyed the tomb. They replaced it with a plaque that reads: Yona (Jonah) son of Amitai, Prophet, which is now the shady overlook’s main feature).
Yona’s hill is only one of several exciting sites in an increasingly tourist-friendly Ashdod. In addition, the city boasts dozens of striking sculptures along her roads and promenades.
At 53 meters above sea level, Givat Yona is the highest hill in the whole coastal strip. It stands right above the Lachish River where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea, with a view of the Jewish National Fund’s Park Lachish-Ashdod. From here, on a clear day, you can see the ridges of the Judean Hills, the plains, and, of course, the coastline.
According to archeologist Saar Ganor, district director for the Israel Antiquities Authority and our guide to Ashdod, Givat Yona has always been considered a strategic site. That’s because the Via Maris – the ancient Way of the Sea – passed right below, following the line of the sand dunes. Basically today’s Highway 4, the Via Maris took merchants south to Gaza and from there to Egypt, north into Megiddo and Tzur (in today’s Lebanon), and east through Israel to Syria and Mesopotamia.
The fact that the coastline doesn’t have a single natural bay posed a serious problem for traders. So captains would anchor their ships as close to land as they could, and send little boats filled with merchandise to shore.
During the Mandate era, British soldiers living in tents camped out on the shores below. Their mission was clear: they were told to prevent Jews — refugees and Holocaust survivors — from landing in Palestine.
Ashdod was populated by Canaanites even before the Philistines arrived on the scene, but not much is known of their history. The Philistines occupied an area near today’s Ad Halom Junction to the southeast of the “port”, today known as Tel Ashdod. The Israelites settling the Land were unable to conquer Ashdod – or any of the other Philistine cities.
Strife between the two civilizations, which bordered one another, was constant, and Ashdod is mentioned over a dozen times in the Bible. One reference talks about the giants who lived in Ashdod (“only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod, did some remain” (Joshua 11:22). Another speaks of the crucial fact that after conquering the Holy Ark in battle, the Philistines brought it to Ashdod.
Remains of a small fortress were uncovered on Yona’s Hill during development of the overlook. The fortress dates back to the 8th or 9th century BCE. That would be just about the time that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and then “vomited” onto dry land.
The Struma Monument Plaza along the road features an eight-meter tall bronze sculpture commemorating the disaster that befell two World War II vessels carrying Romanian Jewish refugees: the Struma and the Mefkura.
A shaky Struma was torpedoed by a Soviet ship and sank in the Black sea on February 24, 1942; the schooner Mefkura suffered the same fate two and a half years later.
Over 1,000 refugees from Romania were killed, while only six survived.
A beautifully preserved citadel (called the Metzuda) is located on the beach. Vast patches of green and brown between the citadel and the road conceal masses of sand dunes. These dunes covered Ashdod Yam (Ashdod of the Sea), which existed at the same time as Tel Ashdod. Indeed, there were many ties between the Philistines’ seaside town and the inland city, with Ashdod Yam hosting a port of trade. There were even times when Ashdod Yam became the bigger and more important of the two Philistine settlements.
But it was during the Roman and Byzantine eras that Ashdod Yam really came into its own. Indeed, until the Muslim conquest of Israel in 638, Ashdod Yam was filled with churches and splendid colonnaded streets.
Called Kal’at El-Mina (port castle), the citadel reaches a height of eight meters and covers two and a half dunams. It was constructed by none other than Caliph Abed el Malek – who erected Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock in 691. Because it was covered over with sand for centuries and thus beautifully preserved, you barely have to use your imagination when you explore its interior.
Kal’at El-Mina was only one of a series of fortresses in the Muslim defensive coastal line, for the Muslims were not known for their seamanship. Smoke signals and beacons were used for communication among the citadels, and when they warned that enemy ships were approaching, soldiers from the cities joined those on the shore in defending the port.
Of all their enemies, the Byzantines – intent on winning back their empire – were the worst. Many a Muslim was taken prisoner in battle. Redemption took place at sea, with the citadels signaling that the process was taking place off shore, in the water, at ports in Ashkelon, Gaza, Jaffa, Apollonia (Arsuf) and Ashdod.
There are eight towers in the fortress, half of them round, the rest square. Rooms surround the central courtyard: some experts believe that people slept in the rooms you see on one side, and animals on the other.
In the 11th and 12th century, Crusaders conquered Ashdod. They took over the citadel until the Mameluke conquest in the 13th century. Afterwards, Ashdod Yam was abandoned – and covered in sand. These days, aside from visitors exploring the citadel, the site is regularly used by brides and grooms for their pre-ceremony photos.
Brightly colored drawings line the promenade below the next attraction – family tombs. Discovered a few years ago after Ganor noticed something sticking up out of the ground, the family graves were excavated and preserved in situ. Last year, after much preparation, they were opened for public viewing.
Because it is impossible to build burial caves along our southern coast, in early times poor people were laid to rest in the sand; if you were better off, you built a family mausoleum in the dunes. Here are two family tombs; the one closer to the sea dates back to the Roman era and features three vaulted graves and a rolling stone, while the second is Byzantine.
A major Ashdod attraction is the Museum of Philistine Culture. Originally built as a community center, the museum had its start 20 years ago, when city fathers decided to display an exhibit on the history of Ashdod. But obviously, you can’t put thousands of years of history into one small building. So it became a museum about Ashdod’s most influential population: the Philistines.
Last year, with the help of archeologist/curator Galit Litani, the museum was revitalized. Litani’s emphasis was on the people who lived in Ashdod and less with the historical events that took place.
Litani sees exhibits as performances, where you take findings – facts from the field – and turn them into a story for an audience. The Philistine story begins at the end of 13th century BCE, when chaos reigned in the Middle East.
Displays are lively, exciting and often hands-on. My favorite –and I don’t want to spoil the surprise – has to do with Samson.
Don’t leave Ashdod without taking advantage of one of the city’s seven beaches (despite the scary signs telling you what to do in case of a tsunami). Each has been awarded the “blue flag” granted to communities that have met strict environmental criteria, including on water bathing quality and proper sewage treatment. Facilities and parking are free.
The museum, the graves and the promenades are wheelchair accessible.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.