Photo credit: Ori – wikicommons
“And the champion came out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath; his height was six cubits and a span (1 Samuel 17:4)“
Today we will visit a magnificent biblical site that few people have ever seen (although it is one of the largest). Besides the stunning landscapes and archaeology, one of the most famous men in history was born here, the giant Goliath. With that in mind, let’s climb that hill together!
The city was first settled around 4500 years ago by the Canaanites and represents one of the earliest examples of town planning ever found (including fortification).
Over the following millennia, the city grew significantly and flourished as a city-state that had its own king. Note that when people read about the “land of Canaan” in the Bible, they think of a large kingdom encompassing most of modern Israel, but Canaan was actually made up of city-states with their own kings, who were often at war with each other. . Around 3,500 years ago, Egypt (under Pharaoh Thutmose III) invaded and overran the land, allowing the kings of the city-states to remain in power as long as they were loyal to the Egyptian crown. The various kings of the city-states often wrote to their Egyptian overlords, accusing their rivals of “conspiring” or being “disloyal” to Egypt. These series of letters (known as the El-Amarna letters) were discovered by an Egyptian peasant in 1887. One of the cities mentioned several times is Gath (11 of the letters found were from their rulers).
However, it was the Philistines who made this site famous. Originating from the Aegean region, these sailors left the Greek peninsula (c. 1200 BCE) during the Greek Dark Ages, a depression that lasted 800 years. They settled in Crete, where civilization had not yet collapsed (see Amos 9:7). Soon after, natural disasters (specifically volcanoes) destroyed the civilization of the island, forcing them to leave. Around the same time, the Egyptian army collapsed due to the biblical exodus from Egypt (when Pharaoh’s army drowned), leaving a void in Israel. The Jewish people entered through the Jordan opposite Jericho. They took control of almost the entire mountainous region, while simultaneously the Philistines entered by sea, taking control of the entire southern coastal area.
Gath became one of the five main Philistine cities (see Joshua 13:3 and 1 Samuel 6:17) along with Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron.
Under the Philistines, the city grew exponentially, becoming one of the largest cities in the whole east (at one point, for a short time, it might even have been the largest). An exceptionally gigantic gate (and a fortress with massive stones) was recently unearthed in the time of David. It was through this same gate that the future king entered the city fleeing from his father-in-law, King Saul, and had to feign madness so that the ruler of Gath would not harm him (see 1 Samuel 21 :13 ).
Based on its size, one can conclude that a giant must have built it (years later, when Aristotle saw a similar structure, he commented that only a giant could have built it). Indeed, after Joshua conquered Israel, many giants continued to live in Gath (see Joshua 11:22). The best-known giant was the infamous Goliath, the most famous behemoth in the world. Its height was 6 cubits and a wingspan, which today equals just under 13 feet (see 1 Samuel 17:4). Such a formidable gate with such a mighty giant would have intimidated anyone who approached it! Later excavations at Gath uncovered an inscription with his name on it. In the end, David would kill Goliath in the greatest upset in history (even today in sports a match between the better team and the underdog is called “David vs. Goliath”). To learn more about this fascinating battle, click here.
Another claim to fame of the ancient city was the fact that the Holy Ark of the Covenant spent time here after the Philistines stole it. Since G‑d did not want the Philistines to possess it, the city was stricken with a pestilence, forcing them to send the Ark back (see 1 Samuel 5:8-10).
In the time of King Joash, King Hazael of Aram-Damascus captured the city (see 2 Kings:12:18) and built a siege ditch. Eventually, King Uzziah of Judah took the city back from them (see 2 Chronicles 26). An earthquake (believed to be 8.2 on the Richter scale) then destroyed the city (see Amos 1:1 and Zechariah 14:5. Read more about this incredible event here ).
In the time of King Hezekiah, the Assyrian Empire invaded Judah but Gd performed a miracle and the Assyrians were defeated (see 2 Chronicles 32 and 2 Kings:19. To learn more about this miraculous event, click here). However, Gath was destroyed in the process.
For centuries, the hill was abandoned until the Persians built a small town there (nothing comparable to the metropolis that existed here in biblical times). During the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic period there was small scale and limited activity in Gath.
In 1142 CE, the Crusaders built a fortified castle on top of the hill. It was one of a series of fortresses, built to protect the roads leading to Jerusalem from the Muslim-controlled city of Ashkelon.
The castle was called Blanche Garde because of the white chalk which constitutes the natural base of the site.
The castle was captured and destroyed by the legendary Muslim leader Saladin and remained largely abandoned until the Ottoman Turkish period (c. 1517-1917 CE), when a small Arab village was built on the crusader ruins ( using the stones that Crusader knights had quarried centuries earlier). In 1948, the inhabitants of the village, openly hostile to the creation of a Jewish state, left the city when asked to do so by the Arab Supreme Council, in order to quickly eliminate the Jews (the inhabitants were told that it would take about 6 weeks ) after which they could return. Israel captured the city that summer and for security reasons they had to level the city. However, one of the families (El-Azi) was very helpful to the IDF and as a result they were given land in the surrounding area to build their village and grazing rights at this site (visitors to the site often see their descendants graze their cattle near the hill).
With a fascinating history, biblical ruins, stunning scenery, pastoral calm and (often) seasonal flowers, this site offers something for everyone. On your next trip to Israel, I highly recommend a visit here, so you can walk through the same front door as King David and other biblical heroes!
Please visit the author’s site about tourist guides in Israel: https://guidedtoursofisrael.com
(All images used are either free or licensed appropriately from the author)