Goliath’s True Hometown Found? Lost 3,000-year-old Philistine City Emerges Beneath Gath
Massive fortifications hidden beneath previously excavated settlement in southern Israel may have inspired biblical traditions about Goliath and other hulks
Archaeologists excavating the ancient Philistine city of Gath have uncovered massive 3,000-year-old fortifications of a size unprecedented for their time and place. The discovery could help explain why the Bible names this town as a home to giants, the researchers say.
The monumental ruins emerged in recent months beneath the remains of a later and already well-explored layer of the Philistine settlement, indicating that researchers have stumbled upon an older city that was partially or completely built over by subsequent generations.
If Goliath did once exist, his hometown would apparently have been this earlier city, not the one under archaeological investigation for decades.
The discovery suggests that Gath was at the peak of its power much earlier than previously thought, putting its heyday around the time when the city features heavily in the biblical narrative as a fierce rival of the early Israelites as well as the hometown of Goliath and other outsized biblical warriors.
“I’ve been digging here for 23 years, and this place still manages to surprise me,” says Aren Maeir, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University who leads the expedition in Gath. “All along we had this older, giant city that was hiding just a meter under the city we were digging.”
Located in southern Israel, the site is known today as Tell es-Safi. As the name suggests, it is a tell – a mound largely made up of the stratified ruins of multiple settlements left over by millennia of human habitation.
Finds at Tell es-Safi range from remains dated to the 5th millennium B.C.E. to a medieval Crusader castle and a modern Arab village destroyed in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Most scholars accept the identification of this site as the biblical Gath, in large part because of its location and the major Philistine-era remains found there.
Gath is mentioned in the Bible more times than any of the five major Philistine cities (the other four being Ekron, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza). Gath is said to have hosted the Ark of the Covenant for a brief time after the Philistines captured it from the Israelites (1 Samuel 5:8) and it is where David sought refuge twice from king Saul, eventually becoming a mercenary for the city’s ruler, Achish (1 Samuel 21 and 1 Samuel 27).
A hidden city emerges
Archaeologists have been digging Philistine Gath for decades, uncovering temples, mud brick houses and massive oil presses that paint the picture of a bustling city sprawling over 500 dunams (50 hectares) with a population of around 5,000-10,000.
“This was the largest Philistine city and probably one of the largest in the Iron Age Levant,” Maeir says. “Larger cities were only found outside the Levant, such as in Egypt and Mesopotamia.”
Those Philistine remains were dated to a period called the Iron Age IIA, roughly from the end of the 10th century B.C.E. to the late ninth century B.C.E., when the city was destroyed in a conflagration, probably in the conquest of the area by the Aramean king Hazael around 830 B.C.E. – an event recorded in the Bible (2 Kings 12:17). Gath never recovered from that blow: it was later rebuilt as a small Judahite settlement but was destroyed again by the Assyrians at the end of the eighth century B.C.E.
Until now, researchers thought that Philistine Gath flourished mainly during that fairly brief window between the late 10th century B.C.E. and Hazael’s arrival, even though that period is a bit later than most of the biblical stories in which the city features. (If we trust the biblical chronology, Saul and David, who so frequently had dealings with the Gittites, would have lived in the late 11th-early 10th centuries B.C.E.)