From the collections

An inscription sheds light on the Israelites’ old foes

A stone from a 2,700-year-old temple lets the Philistines tell their own story, for a change

The Ekron inscription suggests the Philistines still remembered their roots in the Aegean centuries after they sailed east. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)
The Ekron inscription suggests the Philistines still remembered their roots in the Aegean centuries after they sailed east. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)

An ongoing series looking at history through one of the 87,000 artifacts in the archaeology collections at Israel’s national museum

The Philistines are remembered less for who they were than for who they fought, and they had the enduring misfortune of having their history written by their enemies.

Their best-known representative was Goliath, the giant warrior from the Book of Samuel who met his end in a duel against the shepherd David, and it was one of their temples that the biblical hero Samson famously brought down on himself and his captors.

But excavations in recent decades have helped scholars move beyond the depiction of the Philistines in the Bible and form a clearer picture of who they really were. Among the key finds is one inscription found at a site not far from present-day Gedera, an inland town in central Israel, and now displayed in the archaeology galleries of the Israel Museum.

By 1996, when the inscription was found, a dig team had been at work at the site for 13 years. That summer, archaeologist Seymour Gitin was working on the ruins of a large building. “I had been getting tired of this,” Gitin, director of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, told a New York Times reporter that year. “Nothing ever showed up.”

Then Gitin turned over a dirty stone. On it were five lines of Phoenician script. He let out, according to the newspaper’s account, “an unscholarly exclamation.” It was one of the most important finds in biblical archaeology in decades.

The stone, carved by a Philistine craftsman 2,700 years ago, identifies the city as Ekron and commemorates the construction of a temple by the local ruler Achish, son of Padi. According to the inscription, Achish dedicated the temple to “his lady” — a goddess whose name was spelled with the consonants PTGYH, perhaps pronounced “Patgaya.”

“May she bless him and protect him and prolong his days and bless his land,” reads the text.

The name of the goddess is especially interesting because it is of Greek origin, a hint to the origins of the Philistines themselves. They arrived by sea from the Aegean around 1200 B.C.E. at a time of upheaval in the ancient world — the Trojan War, for example, is thought to have occurred around this time. The name suggests that ties to their roots endured even five centuries later. Other finds have shown that they still ate grass pea lentils, an Aegean staple, and some of their art recalls that of ancient Greece.

The Philistines settled on what is now the coastline of southern Israel and the Gaza Strip. Another people arrived overland at around the same time — the Israelites, who settled in the hill country to the east. Whatever the historical veracity of the stories of David and Samson, they appear to reflect the genuinely fraught dealings between the two peoples in the frontier zone between them.

The Philistines disappeared from history after 604 B.C.E, when Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed their cities. They live on in Bible stories, in an English word denoting someone uncultured — quite unfairly, archaeology has made clear — and in one of the names still in use for the land of Israel: Palestine.

Folllow Matti Friedman on Twitter.


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