The Philistines: Urban Invaders or Emergent Immigrants?

New study examines the rise of the Philistine city-states

Philistine captives at Medinet Habu

Drawing of Philistine captives, as depicted on the wall reliefs of the Medinet Habu Temple in Egypt. Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a photograph by Insinger., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Philistines have long been a mysterious force in the history of the ancient Levant, with few records detailing their early years in the lands of the Bible. The organized, urban nature of Philistine sites in later periods has led some scholars to suggest that they entered the land as invaders, bringing with them a highly developed urban culture. A recent study published in the journal Levant, however, pushes back against this theory. The study, which examined archaeological finds from several Philistines cities, concluded that Philistine urbanization occurred gradually and only took place after they entered the southern Levant and were integrated with the local Canaanite community.

The study used both traditional archaeological methods as well as remote sensing to examine strata from various Philistine cities, including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Miqne (biblical Ekron), Tell Qasile, and Tell es-Safi (biblical Gath). Through this analysis, the team concluded that, despite the high level of urban planning evidenced at Philistine sites, such organization appeared gradually over time and according to different principles. For example, while each site had rectilinear spaces, main streets running at cardinal directions, and ordered structures and fortifications, they also exhibited considerable variability in their individual features, such as street width and building size. Such variability indicates that multiple factors helped shape these cities and that there was only a moderate degree of shared urban planning between them.

aerial view of Philistine Tell es-Safi

Aerial view of part of the excavations at the Philistine site of Tell es-Safi (biblical Gath). Photo by Aren Maier.

Little is known about the origins of the Philistines, who first appeared in the region during the transition between the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages (c. 13th–12th centuries B.C.E.) as part of the famous Sea Peoples. In the Hebrew Bible, they are described as a powerful coalition of urbanized city-states that threaten the upstart Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This new study, however, suggests their urban character was a relatively late development. Instead, it likely took generations for the immigrant Philistines to achieve the status and organization they became known for in later periods.

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Read more in Bible History Daily:

Illuminating the Philistines’ Origins

Examining the Philistines Up Close

Where Did the Philistines Come From?

Members, read more in the BAS Library:

What We Know About the Philistines

How Did the Philistines Enter Canaan? A Rejoinder 

Exploring Philistine Origins on the Island of Cyprus: Recent excavations provide background to the Bible 

How Did the Philistines Get to Canaan? One: by Sea: A Hundred Penteconters Could Have Carried 5,000 People Per Trip 

How Did the Philistines Get to Canaan? Two: by Land: The Trek Through Anatolia Followed a Well-Trod Route 

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