It all began with the adventurous niece of British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Her name was Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope and in 1810 she traveled to the Middle East and fell madly in love with Lebanon. While she was living amidst the Lebanese Druze, she got hold of a book (or map) describing a treasure deep inside Tel Ashkelon, a manmade hill further south along the coast.
After getting permission from the ruling Turks to excavate the tel, she headed a 150-man expedition that dug for two weeks. Discovery of a large marble statue of a Roman emperor excited Lady Hester, who believed she would find the treasure within. And she instructed her workers – one of whom managed to sketch the statue right after its discovery – to break it apart. But it was empty. Discouraged, she returned to Lebanon.
Over the years the Turks performed half-hearted excavations here and there, covering them up after each attempt as they were required to do by Ottoman law. And so the site remained, until the British conquered Palestine. For two years they excavated the tel, coming up with some fascinating finds.
Finally, in 1985, archeologist Lawrence Stager arrived from Harvard, and with the blessing of the Israel Antiquities Authority has been digging Tel Ashkelon ever since. Among the site’s most exciting discoveries are a forum, fabulous statues, massive fortifications, and one of the only two bronze-era gates found in Israel. Today, Ashkelon’s ancient gate – the oldest in the country – is the only one that visitors can walk right through.
The first National Park in Israel was established in Ashkelon. Named for Yigael Yadin, the first Israeli to insist on physical preservation of our heritage, this is a unique and remarkable site. But the antiquities in Ashkelon reach well beyond the borders of the official venue. Indeed, any visit to Ashkelon should include, besides the park itself, several exciting attractions located well inside the modern city. Summer visitors take note: an excellent beach is accessible from the park. (From the first of April, Ashkelon National Park is open from 8:00-20:00 – and you can stay until 22:00.)
Ashkelon’s wonders were revealed to us by Ashkelon District archeologist Sa’ar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority on a half-day jaunt. Our tour began below and atop the tel, with its massive fortifications and the ancient gate. From there, we viewed the park’s other attractions, then moved into contemporary neighborhoods to visit burial sites and a variety of fascinating antiquities. We also took a side trip to the newly developed marina – open 7 days a week – and its just-completed 5-kilometer long wheelchair accessible promenade.
Neolithic man settled in Ashkelon about 10,000 years ago. During its long history, and until destroyed by the Mamelukes in the 13th century, Ashkelon was ruled by Canaanites, Philistines, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Hasmoneans (Maccabees) Romans, Persians, Moslems and Crusaders.
What made Ashkelon so worthy of conquest was its excellent port.. Part of the Via Maris (the Way of the Sea), and linking Syria and Egypt, it was in the perfect spot for conducting both overland and maritime trade. Rulers over the millennia understood its importance as a commercial center and during the Hasmonean, Roman and Byzantine eras left it alone to thrive.
Ashkelon exported world-famous wine, as well as the Ashkelon Onion (probably the shallot). No wonder, then, that the name comes from the word shekel, a monetary term mentioned as far back as the Bible. And, although Jews resided there during the Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras, Ashkelon became a Jewish city for the first time only in modern times.
Visitors to the tel explore the Canaanite city of Ashkelon, which was 148 acres (600 dunams) in size, shaped like a half circle and practically touching the Sea. Start with an enormous embankment and the glacis typical of Canaanite fortifications. Archeologists discovered a temple at the foot of the wall, which featured a little “house” for a calf that was covered in pure silver and probably worshipped at the entrance to the city. View the site where it was discovered, then climb up and walk through the ancient gate. It was made out of mud brick that has been wonderfully well preserved.
Afterwards, walk or drive to the park’s other highlights, most of them from the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods. Stroll through the forum (or basilica), a huge gathering place lined with marble pillars atop on ornamental bases. Adjacent to the forum, the Odeon was shaped in a semi-circle and probably held either city council meetings or musical events – or both. A theater has not been uncovered on the tel, but archeologists have found clay tickets to performances.
Magnificent finds from the forum and the Odeon are concentrated in a single area of the park. Most are made of marble, imported from areas like Carrera, Italy, and Asia Minor. Look for Nike, the goddess of victory, and for a sarcophagus boasting the heads of two calves and a 3rd-century Roman amphora that Ganor himself uncovered during excavations.
Along the road that circles the park stands the only Greek Orthodox Church in Ashkelon. Dating back to the Byzantine era, it was originally graced with six pillars made of granite from Aswan. Moslems turned it into a mosque; the Crusaders turned it back into a smaller church with only four pillars and painted frescoes on the walls. In its heyday it was full of decorations and boasted an iconostasis (wall of icons) typical of an Orthodox house of worship.
Other must-see sights in Ashkelon include the Tomb of Mameluke Sheik Awad, located at the northern end of a wonderful, colorful and accessible promenade above the sea, and a mosaic floor inscribed with the date (498) and featuring an amphora and floral decorations. The floor belonged in a Byzantine church, today it is found next to the road, out in the open, across from the Holiday Inn Hotel on Yekutiel Adam Street.
Inside one of the city’s loveliest neighborhoods, on Zvi Segal Street, stand the beautiful remains of another Byzantine church. It was erected in basilica style, and its pillars and capitals have been well preserved.
Last but definitely not least, the Sarcophagus Courtyard in the Afridar neighborhood on Bar Kochba Street features both a large grassy area where children can run around, and the most decorative sarcophagi ever discovered in Israel. Dating back to the Roman era, made of imported marble, they depict the battle of troy, lions fighting with bulls, the kidnap of Persephone (who became goddess queen of the underworld) and two lions guarding a funeral urn. (Open Sunday-Thursday 8:30-15:30; Fridays 8:30-13:30 Closed on Saturday.)
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.
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