In an article from 2008, the New York Times reported an unusually interesting archeological discovery: The burial of 10 donkeys at a 3,000-year-old funerary complex south of Cairo.
“When you consider the fact that donkeys were revered in the ancient world, it isn’t really that surprising,” notes Dr. Aren Maeir, director of excavations at Tel Tzafit, which many hold to be the Philistine city of Gath from the Bible.
In fact, Maeir adds, the remains of donkeys brought to the land of Israel from Egypt were also found at the Tel Tzafit excavations. The beasts of burden can be as lovable as dogs, and the donkey bones at Tel Tzafit were discovered reverently buried under houses dating back thousands of years.
Philistines presumably sailed to the Land of Israel in the 13th century BCE and mingled with the natives. Along with their own specific type of pottery, the Philistines had eating habits that differed from those of the locals with whom they shared their settlements. For instance, the Philistines apparently enjoyed ham and pork, for they imported pigs into the Land of Israel. They also cooked with plants whose nutritional merits had not yet been discovered by the country’s other inhabitants.
Five cities inhabited mainly by Philistines are mentioned in the Bible: Ashkelon, Gaza, and Ashdod on the coast; Ekron and Gath in the inlands. Of them all, Gath is the most famous, as it was home to Goliath — the giant who was felled by the slingshot of a young David in the Valley of Elah. Also, of course, because David moved to Gath when fleeing the wrath of King Saul.
However, while the name Gath appears in dozens of biblical passages, it suddenly disappears from the book’s pages. That’s because Gath was wiped out by King Hazael of Damascus in the 8th century BCE (2 Kings 12:17).
In its heyday, however, Gath was the biggest city in the Land of Israel. It is also one of the largest archeological sites in the country. Excavations directed by Maeir at Tel Tzafit had been taking place for nearly 25 years when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the digs were halted.
Today Tel Tzafit, between Ashkelon and Beersheba, is a national park, with a circular trail lined with natural vegetation and a variety of wildflowers, animals and birds.
While both the ascent and the descent are rocky and can be difficult even with hiking poles, it is worth the effort if you can manage the walk. From the top of the hill there is a rare and breathtaking view of Israel from Ramallah in the north to Gaza in the south, east to the Central Hills, past Hebron in the southeast, and all the way west to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea.
This astounding view explains the strategic importance each of the above cities had for this spot, since its occupiers commanded major parts of the coastal plain, the Judean foothills, and the important crossroads north to south and east to west.
Besides, the land here is rich and fertile, with plenty of water partially supplied by the Elah River. Life in Gath was good, as Goliath’s hometown was a large and prosperous city, a major trade hub that produced oil and wine along with woven textiles.
Although there were people living here during the Chalcolithic period, about 6,000 years ago, Gath was first mentioned in written sources during the late Bronze Age (the 14th century BCE). At that time city-states were ruled by the Egyptian Pharaoh, who received letters of complaint each time there was a squabble or dispute between them. Among them were missives from Gath.
Following the downfall of Philistine Gath, Judeans moved in, remaining there until the city was taken by Hazael at the end of the 8th century BCE and by the Babylonians in 604 BCE. And although eventually Romans and Byzantines settled on the hill, Gath only returned to something of its former glory after the Crusaders conquered the Land of Israel in 1099. The Christian forces built a fortress on the peak, above slopes studded with stark white cliffs, and named it Blanche Garde (White Citadel). After Saladin conquered the Land of Israel from the Crusaders, an Arab village sprang up around the destroyed fortress. The village was named Tel es-Safi – Pure Hill.
With the loss of its ancient name, determining the exact location of biblical Gath became a difficult task for Israeli archeologists. Qiryat Gat, near Ashkelon, was founded near a site assumed to be ancient Gath, yet today, says Maeir, there is no dispute about its location on Tel Tzafit.
When Hazael decided to take Gath, he besieged the city. And to make certain that none of its inhabitants would escape, he constructed a massive trench, the oldest of its kind in the world. Tel Tzafit was isolated on the north by the river, so the siege trench was built on its other three sides. To make it even more difficult to flee, and to protect his troops, he used the more than14 million liters (roughly 50,000 cubic feet) of soil and limestone dug out by his soldiers to build up the outer banks. Towers were added along the moat. The fate of Gath was sealed.
Among the vegetation that lines the trails are nettles (called sirpad in Hebrew). While their poison is useful in the preparation of soothing ointments that help with arthritis and other maladies, touching them can result in itchy, red, swollen skin.
Other plants, and the many flowers on the slopes, are more friendly. The most unusual is the Land of Israel (also called the Palestinian) arum, with a large, velvety purple flower.
Milk thistles are a brilliant purple, while pheasant’s eye is bright red and looks a lot like a buttercup.
A lone tree near the beginning of the trail is the Christ-thorn jujube — shezaf matzui in Hebrew. In Arab lore, the jujube tree has magic powers and plays house to ghosts; according to Christian tradition, the thorny crown that Roman soldiers forced onto Jesus’s head was made out of the jujube’s thorny branches. Nutritionists have something to say about the jujube as well: It turns out that the tree’s delicious fruit (called domim in Hebrew) contains 20 times more Vitamin C than an orange.
Often, a flock of sheep grazes below the hill, surrounded by white egrets that hitchhike on the animals’ shoulders.
The flock probably belongs to the el-Azi family, the lone inhabitants who remained in the region of Tel es-Safi after the other villagers fled in the face of the Israeli military during the War of Independence in 1948. The family’s grandfather had been of immense help to the pioneers of nearby Kibbutz Menachem when they were setting up their community in 1939. After the war, the family was granted land and grazing rights to the area.
Thanks to Prof. Aren Maeir, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University for his guidance and assistance with this article. Those wishing to join the excavations this summer from July 4-30 can contact him at email@example.com.
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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