History Files

Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Gath (Canaan)

In the mid-third millennium BC, city states began to appear in Syria as people benefited from interaction with Sumer and from improvements in irrigation. Within five hundred years, around 2000 BC, the same process was happening farther south and west, in the Levant, along the Mediterranean coast. Semitic-speaking Canaanite tribes occupied much of the area, creating a patchwork of city states of their own. The Phoenicians (more Canaanites) also occupied parts of this region, eventually founding their own mighty seaborne trading empire.

A section of this region formed what would be known as Palestine. It too witnessed the flourishing of various city states which were based around already ancient cities. Some of these had been founded as settlements by the early farming communities as long ago as 9000 BC or so, and by the third millennium BC they resembled the small, walled cities of the Old Testament. The gene pool here was typically Levantine, so these people were regional natives. The Palestinians whose name was applied to the region by later generations arrived around 1200 BC in the form of the Philistines.

The city of Gath, arguably but not certainly located at the modern archaeological site of Tell es-Safi (Tel Zafit) in the central-western Gaza Strip, was one of the five royal cities of the later Philistines, the pentapolis. It was the home of the famous Philistine champion, Goliath, but it seemingly fell out of use within the next six hundred years or so, by the 600s BC.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran (1992), from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Palestine, Joshua J Mark (available via the Ancient History Encyclopaedia website), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from the NOVA/PBS documentary series, The Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 18 November 2008, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and from External Links: Time Maps, and Ancient DNA sheds light on the origins of the Biblical Philistines (Archaeology News Network), and The Land of Gerar, Y Aharoni (Israel Exploration Journal 6, No 1, 1956, pp 26-32, available via JSTOR), and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

c.2000 - 1800 BC

In this period Amorites infiltrate Canaan, capturing some cities by force and creating others. Once they settle in, the area gradually becomes prosperous again. The principle Canaanite cities or small states at this time include Ammon, Amrit, Arvad, Beroth, Edom, Gebal, Gerar, Hazor, Shalem, Sidon, and Tyre. Gath, however, takes much longer to appear in any form of historical record.

Tel es-Safi
Archaeological excavations at Tell es-Safi (Tel Zafit), the most likely site of ancient Gath, show Iron I fortifications in the eastern lower city

fl c.1360s BC

Šuwardata / Šuardatu / Shuwardata

King of Gath.

c.1360s BC

Šuwardata is thought to be the king of Gath at this time, although an alternative reading of the Amarna letters places him as a guardian or mayor of Qiltu (possibly Keilah - a town in later Judah - or Qi'iltu). He writes one of the Amana letters in which he states that only he and Abdi-Heba of Urušalim (Shalem?) have been fighting the habiru, albeit with aid from Surata of Akko and Endaruta of Akšapa.

c.1200 BC

General instability grips the Mediterranean coast and a dark age follows which does not fully fade until the tenth century BC. In Palestine, the urban culture which had previously characterised the region is gradually replaced by one of villages, showing a decline in living standards and a collapse (or at least a noticeable lessening) in the more civilised elements of life.

New settlers arrive in the region while most of the territory is under Egyptian control: the Philistines. Other cities, such as Damas in the near north, are also settled by new arrivals, the Aramaean tribes, and these cities eventually flourish.

Tel Gezer
The modern archaeological site of Tel Gezer was once the Canaanite city of Gezer, a member of the pentapolis which regulated trade into Egypt

The arrivals in the south are the Philistines, as confirmed by archaeological evidence which also confirms that the city of Gezer is destroyed and abandoned for a generation. The new arrivals quickly intermix with the locals and their DNA becomes purely that of the Levant within about two centuries. Egyptian influence appears to fade or be thrown off during the early decades of the twelfth century.

A resurgent Gezer becomes one of the five cities of the Philistine pentapolis. These regulate access into Egypt and thereby control trade between north and south, no doubt a very lucrative interest. The other four cities are Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath. Each enjoys great autonomy and is ruled by a seranim, the head of a council.

c.1186 - 1168 BC

The Philistines move inland from the coast and briefly conquer and occupy areas of Canaan, including the settlements of the Israelites. Archaeological evidence for a mass settling of people at this time has yet to be found, suggesting that the Philistines are formed of small, mobile groups who take a while to establish themselves and assume control of the region.

Relief from Medinet Habu
Shown here is a relief from Medinet Habu which details Philistines with their distinctive feathered headdresses, making them an unusual sight on the battlefield

fl c.1120 BC


Ruler of Gath? Possibly a priest king. Killed by Samson.

fl c.1110 BC

Achish / Abimelech?

Son. Ruler of Gath. Possibly a priest king.

c.1110 BC

The life of Samson of the Israelites seems to revolve around Philistine women who betray him. His second infatuation is with Delilah, who then betrays him. He meets his death leading the Israelites in freeing themselves from the control of the Philistines. During his destruction of the temple of Dagon at Gaza which results in his own death, he also kills Achish, ruler of Gath.

c.1050 BC

Phoenician expansion southwards along the coast is halted by the Philistines. They are clearly powerful enough at this stage to be able to resist one of the region's most quickly growing trading empires.

Book of the Dead for the Chantress of Amun Nauny
The papyrus 'Book of the Dead' formed part of the burial for Nauny, a chantress of Amun, around 1050 BC, who died in her seventies as Egypt was suffering a low point due to the recent onslaught of droughts and attacks

975 BC

According to the Old Testament, the Philistines are subdued by David of Israel after he defeats their champion, Goliath, a resident or son of the city of Gath (at this time possibly the greatest and most powerful of the Philistine city states). There is so far no archaeological evidence for any Israelite influence in the area and, indeed, the available evidence points to the Philistines ruling the area until at least the ninth or eighth century.

The inference is that the Philistines at least retain a level of autonomy even if they are beaten by the Israelites, and even more that the Old Testament's claim of subduing them could merely be a boastful way of claiming a minor victory in a tribal skirmish.

However, the defeat does see the replacement of the seranim with kings who rule virtually independently of the councils. The establishment of a stronger leadership in the face of one or more losses in the tribal skirmishes, perhaps?

Kirbet Qeiyafa
Kirbet Qeiyafa has lain virtually undisturbed for three millennia and provides evidence of a fortress city in Davidian Israel


Son? Ruler of Gath or the name of a village?

fl c.960s BC


Son. Ruler of Gath.

c.960s? BC

A ruler of Gath named Achish, who is probably the grandson of Achish, is mentioned in connection with two servants of Shimei (or Shemei) who flee to him. Shimei himself goes to Gath in pursuit of them, in breach of Solomon's orders, and is subsequently put to death by Solomon.

Achish is said to be the son of Maacah, but this could instead mean that he is from a place called Maacah. There exists a small Aramaean kingdom of this name in northern Jordan, around the town of Abel Beth Maacah.

This and Geshur are situated between Gilead and Mount Hermon, bordering the kingdom of Og in Bashan in the Old Testament. That Maacah becomes an Israelite city following its conquest by King David, possibly as late as the 960s BC, around the time at which Achish is king in Gath.

Tell Halaf
The modern site of Tell Halaf was, during its later existence, known as Guzana, also becoming the capital of the Aramaean kingdom of Bit-Bahiani, despite Assyrian attempts to prevent Aramaeans from settling in Mesopotamia and southern Syria

905 BC

Nadab, king of Samaria, is killed by Philistines who have been able to regroup into larger political structures following the division of Israel into Samaria and Judah.

884 - 824 BC

Assyria during this period begins to encroach on the region, conquering some cities. Under Hazael, Damas expands its own borders by annexing all the Hebrew possessions east of the Jordan, ravaging Judah, and rendering Israel impotent.

From inscriptions by Shalmaneser III of Assyria it appears that Hazael also withstands an attack by the Assyrian army and keeps Damas, Syria, and Philistia independent (although he does seize the city of Gath).

However, his actions against his neighbours unleashes a long series of conflicts with Jerusalem. Gath is subsequently besieged and then destroyed, towards the end of the century, and it never recovers.

Map of Canaan and Syria c.850 BC
When the Neo-Assyrian empire threatened the various city states of southern Syria and Canaan around 853 BC, they united to protect their joint territory - successfully it seems, at least for a time (click or tap on map to view full sized)

734 BC

The city states of Philistia, Ekron, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gezer become vassals of Assyria. Raphia, the southernmost, seems to remain independent. Hununu of Gezer flees to Egypt, possibly after having submitted to Assyria (as shown on a frieze). Philistia is reduced to its original territory - a coastal strip of land situated roughly in the same place as the modern Gaza Strip which is part of Israel and Palestine.

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