In Biblical times (and probably before that, too) Ashdod was a stronghold of the people known as the Philistines, who were constantly getting into fights with the Hebrews residing in the Land of Canaan. Everyone remembers the story of David and Goliath, and of course Goliath was a Philistine warrior, probably the result of some kind of genetic mutation that had caused him to grow to gigantic proportions.
Samson was another Biblical figure who had dealings with the Philistines. He was drawn to their womenfolk, had three Philistine wives, and was fatally attracted to Delilah. The Philistines got the better of him, with Delilah’s connivance, but the recovery of his phenomenal strength enabled him to bring their temple crashing down, causing the death of many of their number as well as his own, after they had blinded and enslaved him.
Today Ashdod is a thriving modern city on Israel’s Mediterranean seaboard, with some 200,000 inhabitants and a thriving port (currently suffering from an ongoing labour dispute arising from the government’s plan to enable the construction of another port, to be managed by private enterprise). The town has its own cultural centre, an abundance of parks and open spaces, and impressive environmental sculptures at almost every corner.
Ashdod also has a Museum of Philistine Culture. The name sounds like a contradiction in terms, as the word ‘philistine’ has come to mean someone who is totally without culture, but it seems that the original Philistines certainly did have a culture, and many artifacts deriving from the time when they were in control of the area have come to light in the sandy soil in and around Ashdod.
A visit to the museum reveals a wealth of sophisticated pottery and figurines which tell us a great deal about the life and culture of that ancient civilization. It is surmised, on the basis of these artifacts, that the Philistines originated from the area of the Aegean. They were also known as the Sea Peoples, though what impelled them to leave their homes and travel eastwards is not known. It may have been defeat in battle, famine, floods or a natural disaster of another kind.
On their voyage east the Sea Peoples brought some of their pottery with them, and these bear a strong similarity to those found in the Aegean region, giving credence to the view regarding their origin. Their religion involved the worship of male and female gods such as Dagon and Baal Zebuv, who are mentioned in the Bible, as well as the Greek goddess Pitgayah, together with Baal and Ashera, who were Canaanite gods. Thanks to our ability to understand hieroglyphics (first deciphered by Champollion), archaeologists have been able to gain considerable information about the Philistines, as they are mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts.
Eventually, the Philistines were defeated and exiled to Babylon, together with the Jews, in the late 7th century BCE, after flourishing as an independent culture for over 600 years. Unlike the Jews, however, they assimilated into Babylonian society, accepting their culture and religious practices, leading to their disappearance as a separate nation.
The museum in Ashdod has recently been renovated, and alongside its many display cases with their ‘official’ labels are cute little cartoons depicting the Philistine way of life in a humorous way. There are also interactive exhibits, including one which enables the visitor to bring down the temple of Dagon in Gaza – virtually, of course – with appropriate visual and sound effects. That’s great fun, for kids and adults alike!
Today all that remains of what was once a thriving society, with trade links to the rest of the ancient world, is what can be found on display in Ashdod’s Museum of Philistine Culture.