Examining Tell es-Safi Gath in the Iron Age
The ancient city of Gath (modern Tell es-Safi in southern Israel) is perhaps best known as a capital of the Philistine pentapolis during much of the Iron Age (c. 1200–586 BCE). However, over a quarter century of excavation at the site has revealed an incredibly dynamic city that would meet its eventual end after a series of successive conquests in the ninth and eighth centuries BCE. As discussed in an article by archaeologist Jeffrey Chadwick in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies, the site gradually transformed from a massive center for Philistine life to a Judahite border town and finally to an abandoned mound.
Long before the Philistines came onto the stage, the site of Gath was an important and powerful Canaanite city, with an imposing city wall dating back to the Early Bronze Age III (c. 2700–2300 BCE). However, it was Gath of the Philistines that was known to the biblical writers, for with the encroachment of the Sea Peoples into the southern Levant in the Iron Age I (c. 1200–1000 BCE), the city became a key component in the network of Philistine city-states. Philistine Gath is mentioned multiple times in the Hebrew Bible, such as in the story of David seeking refuge at Gath (1 Samuel 21).
Under the Philistines, Gath quickly became the largest city in the entire southern Levant. The city extended across more than 125 acres and included both the thousand-year-old city wall around the top of the tell as well as an impressive Iron Age wall that surrounded the lower city. Chadwick, a professor at Brigham Young University and longtime field director at Tell es-Safi, told Bible History Daily, “the most unexpected thing I think we have found was how large and sophisticated Gath’s fortifications and water system were already in Iron Age I.” However, the sheer size of Gath did not make it impenetrable, and in c. 830 BCE, the city fell to the Aramean army of Hazael of Damascus, whose campaign is mentioned in 2 Kings 12:17.
Through 25 years of excavation at Gath, the team—directed by Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University—has discovered an incredible amount of evidence of this biblical battle and the period leading up to it. Remarkably, the team was even able to identify a section of the city wall where they believe the Arameans finally broke through. As described by Chadwick, the team discovered several other remarkable features that appear to have been built in anticipation of the attack. These include an extra layer of bricks built against the wall, the intentional narrowing of the city gates, at least one additional tower, as well as a series of houses running adjacent to the wall that were intentionally filled with earth. The filled-in houses effectively made the city wall more than 20 feet thick. According to Chadwick, “The filling of these rooms was an act of considerable desperation, and it betrays the intense drama of the situation and the fear of the Philistines in the face of the Aramean attackers.”Nonetheless, the walls soon fell and the Philistine era of Gath was brought to an end, after which the city lay in ruins for decades. This is summed up in the words of the prophet Amos who, writing around 760 BCE, used it as an example of desolation. “Go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms?” (Amos 6:2).
Following the end of Philistine rule at Gath, the city sat uninhabited for several decades. During this time, in the early eighth century, Gath—as well as numerous other sites in the southern Levant—was devastated by a large earthquake, likely the very same one mentioned in the Book of Amos (1:1). The site continued to be a ghost town until the mid to late eighth century, when it was incorporated into the slowly expanding Kingdom of Judah. As seen in the archaeological record, the Judahite city was considerably smaller than the Philistine capital, although it was still quite large at around 60 acres. Several domestic structures were uncovered from this period, including standard “Israelite” four-room houses.
At the latest, Gath was incorporated into the Kingdom of Judah during the reign of Hezekiah or his father Ahaz. Hezekiah is known from both biblical and Assyrian sources as having waged an expansionist war against the Philistine city-states in his attempt to force them into joining his rebellion against the Assyrian Empire. Chadwick, however, makes another suggestion. According to 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah’s great-grandfather, King Uzziah, “went out and made war against the Philistines and broke down the wall of Gath” (26:6). Yet, Uzziah’s reign would only begin around 792 BCE, several decades after the destruction of Gath by Hazael of Damascus.
Thus, it would have been impossible for Uzziah to have broken down the wall of Gath as an act of conquest against the Philistine city, which by that time was uninhabited. Instead, Chadwick suggests that the “breaking of the wall” is a reference to the king’s rebuilding of Gath, not its destruction. This theory is, in part, based on the discovery of several sections of the Philistine city wall where the stones of the wall were used to build the later Judahite buildings. A similar situation was found regarding the Philistine-era glacis. Given that two periods of Judahite habitation were found at Gath, it is certainly possible that this phase began in the mid-eighth century under Uzziah, although other archaeologists are less confident about this interpretation.
Regardless of when Judahite occupation began, it did not last long. Around 712 BCE, Sargon II carried out a large-scale campaign to the southern Levant. During this campaign, he laid siege to and destroyed much of the city. According to his own inscription, Sargon took away the inhabitants of Gath as captives. The site was quickly resettled, though only a decade later, Sargon’s son, Sennacherib, finished what his father had started. Waging war against Hezekiah, Sennacherib captured large sections of the Kingdom of Judah in 701 BCE. The Assyrian army destroyed many of Judah’s cities and towns, including Gath, Azekah, Lachish, and others.
“Gath’s remarkable combination of location, size, and physical geography made it not only a natural site to inhabit but gave it a prominence above any other site for miles around,” said Chadwick in communication with Bible History Daily. “The tell’s 300-foot-tall height above the surrounding valley afforded superior defensibility, it’s water supply in the Elah stream aquifer was prolific and dependable, and the vast amount of arable land all around the tell, particularly in wide and fertile Elah Valley’s alluvial soil, meant that food and fuel resources were always abundant. Gath had a perfect combination of factors that drew settlement for centuries and centuries.” Yet, not even these natural benefits could stop the onslaught of time, as Gath went from being a Canaanite city to a Philistine capital to a Judahite border town, and finally a ruined mound.
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