Where Did the Philistines Come From?

Horned altar from Tell es-Safi hints at the origins of the Philistines

Where Did the Philistines Come From?

This nearly 4-foot-tall, two-horned altar from the site of Tell es-Safi (Gath of the Philistines) suggests the origins of the Philistines are to be sought in the Aegean world. Photo: Courtesy Aren Maeir/The Tell Es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.

The excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, the site of Gath of the Philistines mentioned in the Bible (e.g., 1 Samuel 6:17), have produced many fascinating finds,* and the summer of 2011 was no exception.

While uncovering an impressive destruction level dating to the second half of the ninth century B.C.E., when Gath was the largest of the five cities of the Philistines and perhaps the largest city in the Land of Israel during the Iron Age, excavators found an exceptionally well preserved horned altar reminiscent of the Israelite horned altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:1–2; 1 Kings 1:50).

Had it not been for a stroke of luck, the horned altar may never have been discovered. Like most archaeological digs, the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavation leaves unexcavated “balks” between the excavation squares, thereby allowing easier access to the squares as well as providing a profile view of the excavated layers. In the winter of 2010/2011, however, strong rainstorms caused some of the balks to collapse.

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When the team came back to the field in July 2011, one of their first priorities was to clean up and straighten the collapsed balks. As they cleaned one of the balks in Area D (in the lower city), they came upon an unusually shaped stone object just 10 inches below the surface. Work was immediately stopped as they probed further, and, lo and behold, one of the horns of the altar appeared. Once they realized what they had discovered, the team began the slow, delicate process of excavating the entire horned altar.

The horned altar stands nearly 3.5 feet high and measures just over 1.5 feet on each side. These dimensions more or less match the dimensions given in the Bible (Exodus 30:2) for the Israelite incense altar of the Tabernacle (though this altar shows no signs of having been used to burn incense). Moreover, the decorative features of the altar, including its horns and the groove and raised band of the base, are similar to Israelite altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:2), as well as other Iron Age altars that have been found throughout the southern Levant.

But why does this altar have only two horns, when we know from the Bible and excavated examples that the altars of both the Israelites and, later, the Philistines, typically had four horns?**

The fact that the Tell es-Safi/Gath horned altar has only two horns may have to do with the cultural origins of the Philistines. As Louise Hitchcock, senior staff member of the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavations, has suggested, the very motif of the horned altar in the Levant may have been influenced by earlier Minoan “horns of consecration,” symbolic representations of the horns of the sacred bull in Minoan culture. In fact, there is an altar from the Late Bronze Age site of Myrtous Pigadhes in Cyprus that also has only two horns. The unique horned altar from Tell es-Safi/Gath, the earliest stone altar ever found from the land of the Philistines, may be another indication of the Aegean influences on early Philistine culture and quite possibly a hint to their origins.


Based on Aren M. Maeir, “Prize Find: Horned Altar from Tell es-Safi Hints at the Origins of the Philistines,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012. Originally published in Bible History Daily on January 19, 2012.



* See Aren M. Maeir, “Did Captured Ark Afflict Philistines with E.D.?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2008; Aren M. Maeir and Carl S. Ehrlich, “Excavating Philistine Gath: Have We Found Goliath’s Hometown?” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2001.

** See Yoel Elitzur and Doron Nir-Zevi, “Four-Horned Altar Discovered in Judean Hills,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2004, and “Horned Altar for Animal Sacrifice Unearthed at Beer-Sheva,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March 1975.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Iron Age Gate and Fortifications Uncovered at Philistine Gath

Philistine Cemetery Unearthed at Ashkelon

The Philistine Marketplace at Ashkelon

Remembering Trude Dothan by Seymour Gitin

Adornment in the Southern Levant

The “Philistines” to the North

Which Altar Was the Right One in Ancient Israelite Religion?


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  • cynthia says

    I suggest you all research further before making judgements .The commonly seen pics are from the front or side, to emphasize the 2 horns. Photos and videos from the excavation site make it clear that the altar was square at the top, with a small space behind it next to a wall of a building. The side view does show some broken surface, but apparently the view from the back or top makes it clear there were only 2 horns.

  • Jon says

    I have to agree with Frances — it certainly appears to be missing an entire side due to severe damage. I have to believe that has been suggested already. My interest would lie in the question — what evidence would lead archaeologists to reject the idea of an ‘incomplete four horned altar’ and instead propose a ‘mostly complete two horned altar’?

  • HFC says

    They weren’t all giants. They employed Goliath as their champion, descendant of Rapha. Rapha sired 4 sons who were giants. The entrance to Gath has been determined to be one of, if not, the largest in the region.

    Would be cool if they find a 10lb spearhead or something like it.

  • FRANCES says

    I can’t believe this conversation is happening!! Simple visual examination of the altar indicates that the right side of it was smashed; nor does it give you or anybody else any indication of the ultimate length of the thing – for all you know it could have been 30 feet long! with raised projecitons every two feet.

    If you dare to enter into the attempt to “reconstruct” the past, determine if you have a good grasp on the present first. Ah, broken altar, not 4 “horns”, 2 “things” sticking up!

  • Stefan says

    There was no hornedhorned instrument serving in cult of the bull în the Minoan civilizațion. The și called horned ornaments of the palace of knossos are actually the ancient symbol of mountains bordering the world. Between those mountains the sun wassupposed to gloriously rise every day. Have a look at Nanno Marinatos’ books on Minoan Crete.

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