Were the Philistines really philistines?

Philistine captives on a relief at Medinet Habu, Thebes, Egypt. Werner Forman Archive/Heritage-Images

The Philistines were an ancient people who settled on the south coast of Palestine in the 12th century BC. There are no documents in the Philistine language and very little is known about them. Our primary source of information about the Philistines is the Hebrew Bible, which portrays them as an enemy and gives a one-sided account of the conflict between them and the Israelites.

Palestine during the time of David and Solomon. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Philistines are first mentioned in inscriptions and reliefs at the mortuary Temple of Ramses III (1186–1155 BC) at Medinet Habu in Thebes, Egypt. There they are called prst or Peleset and described as one of the Sea Peoples who invaded Egypt about 1190 BC and were defeated by Ramesses III. In the reliefs the Philistine soldiers are depicted as being quite tall and clean-shaven. They wore breastplates and short kilts, fought with straight swords and spears, and carried small shields. They also used chariots drawn by two horses.

After their defeat by the Egyptians, they settled – possibly with Egypt’s permission – on the coastal plain between Joppa (modern Tel Aviv) and Gaza. They were based in five city-states: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. The area was known as Philistia, or the Land of the Philistines, which was later called Palestine by the Greeks.

The Old Testament Bible portrays them as one of Israel’s most dangerous enemies, possessing superior arms and military organizational ability. The Philistine giant Goliath of Gath was reputedly slain by the young David (1 Samuel 17)  while the Israelite Samson is reported in the Book of Judges (chapters 13–16) to have slain an entire army of Philistines with “the jawbone of an ass”.

Philistine captives on a relief at Medinet Habu, Thebes, Egypt. Werner Forman Archive/Heritage-Images

Archaeological evidence provided by architecture, burial arrangements, ceramics, and pottery fragments inscribed with non-Semitic writing, indicates that the Philistines were not native to Canaan. The Bible mentions that they originated from Caphtor, which archaeologists now believe was either Crete or Cyprus. In 2019 a study was carried out on skeletons from more than 150 burials dating from the 11th to 8th century BC, found in a Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon. The study found that most of their DNA came from the local gene pool, but with traces of a Southern-European ancestry. The DNA shows similarities to that of ancient Cretans, but it is impossible to specify the exact place of origin.

Most of the 150 dead were buried in oval-shaped graves, some were interred in ashlar chamber tombs, while there were 4 who were cremated. These burial arrangements were very common to the Aegean cultures, but not to the one culture indigenous to Canaan.

Early Philistine pottery also shows similarities to that of the Aegean Mycenaean culture with decoration in shades of brown and black. This later developed into the more distinctive Philistine pottery of the Iron Age with black and red decorations. Pottery has been found at 26 Iron Age sites in the western part of the Jezreel Valley, dating from the 12th to 10th centuries BC. However, the quantity is quite small and may be the result of trade or may indicate that the Philistines were a minority group, possibly employed as mercenaries for the Egyptians in the 12th century BC.

Philistine pottery, Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture, Ashdod, Israel

A 240 m2 (2,600 sq ft) building discovered at Ekron has broad walls, designed to support a second story, and a wide, elaborate entrance. This leads to a large hall which is partly covered with a roof supported on a row of columns. In the floor of the hall is a circular hearth paved with pebbles, which is typical in Mycenaean hall buildings; other unusual features are paved benches and podiums. Among artefacts found here were three small bronze wheels with eight spokes.

Today the word ‘philistine’ is used to describe someone who cares nothing about culture, art, music or literature. This derivation is based directly on the pejorative descriptions used by Biblical authors to disparage their enemies. Recent research has helped to disprove these assumptions, for instance by revealing evidence of perfume placed near dead bodies so that the deceased could smell it in the afterlife.

Cities excavated in the area demonstrate careful town planning, including industrial zones. The olive industry of Ekron alone included about 200 olive oil installations and the city’s production is estimated at more than 1,000 tons – 30 percent of Israel’s present-day production. There may also have been a large industry in fermented drink, judging by finds of breweries, wineries and shops selling beer and wine, as well as pottery beer mugs and wine vessels.

With the conquests of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 BC) in Syria and Palestine, the Philistine cities became part of the Neo-Babylonian empire. In later times they came under the control of Persia, Greece, and Rome.


The Bible:       Various books in the Old Testament

Wikipedia:      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philistines      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goliath


Encyclopedia Brittanica         https://www.britannica.com/topic/Philistine-people

Text     Alun Harvey


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