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The History of the Philistines

The History of the Philistines

The Philistines were probably one of the most interesting and misunderstood peoples of the ancient world. When many hear the word philistine, especially in western culture, it generally has a negative connotation and, at least in the past, was used to describe someone who was uncultured or barbaric in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. They were seen as one of the Israelites main antagonists. However, modern archaeology is uncovering a rather different view and showing that far from being barbaric, the Philistines were a culturally sophisticated people that maintained a unique identity in southwestern Canaan for over half a millennium. In this short program, we’re going to take a quick look at Philistine history.

Before we talk specifically about the Philistines, we first need to take a look at those who have come to be known as the Sea Peoples. This is because most historians believe that the ancestors of the Philistines belong to one of the groups that made up the Sea Peoples known as the Peleset. The early history and precise geographical origin of the various groups that made up the Sea Peoples is unclear. There are many hypotheses out there that historians continue to debate. However, there are some things that they do tend to agree on.

Around the 13th century BC, the great Mycenaean civilization of Greece and the greater Aegean collapsed. It’s not known exactly why it’s possible that it could have been due to climate change or drought, a natural calamity such as a volcano or some other unforeseen circumstance. What archaeology does seem to confirm is that, after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization, mass migrations from the Aegean took place.

The History of the Philistines

As stated earlier, the people that we call the Philistines are believed by most historians to have been the descendants of one of the groups of Sea Peoples known as the Peleset. We first really hear of the Peleset in ancient Egyptian inscriptions and texts, the two most notable being those at the mortuary temple of pharaoh, Ramesses III, as well as in the so-called Papyrus Harris, which covers the reign of the same pharaoh as well as a bit of his son Ramesses IV.

A Note on the Inscription on a Mortuary Temple in Medinet Habu, Egypt

Let’s first take a look at an inscription along the walls of Rameses III’s mortuary temple at the site known as Medinet Habu. Part of this inscription reads: “The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands all at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray, no land could stand before their arms. From Hati, Kodi, Karkemish, Arzawa, and Alashya on being cut off one by one, a camp was set up in one place in Amuru. They desolated its people and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tejeka, Shekalesh, Danuna, and Washesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting.”

This event or attack by the Sea Peoples is believed to have occurred around 1177 BC and mentions the Peleset as one of the conspirators, along with other groups identified as the Tijeka, Shekalesh, Lanuna, and Ramez. Ramses claims that he defeated them all in one battle on land and another at sea, closer to Egypt, known as the Battle of the Delta. Along with the text are also reliefs depicting the Peleset. They were distinguished in appearance by the wearing of feathered headdresses and would appear to be some type of kilt. They’re basically divided up into three groups as infantry, charioteers, and non-combatants. The infantry and chariot units appear similar to those of the Egyptians at the time. The non-combatants, though, at least in my opinion, are a bit more interesting. They’re mostly depicted as men, women, and children riding in two-wheeled carts being pulled by oxen. This seems to indicate that the Peleset in 1177 BC were not simply out to raid and plunder, but were on a campaign whose intention was to relocate and settle in new lands. You really have to give credit to the Egyptian artisans who created these depictions as they’re filled with other details that give us clues as to where the Peleset may have come from.

The History of the Philistines

For example, though their ships look quite similar to Egyptian vessels with their furled sails and single mast, the prow and stern were decorated with bird’s heads very similar to those found on ships from the Aegean from that time period. Let’s examine the second important Egyptian source that mentions the Peleset, the Papyrus Harris.

Papyrus Harris: A History of Egypt from the Battle of the Delta

At around 1500 lines of text, the Papyrus Harris is actually the longest papyrus document ever to have been discovered in Egypt. It essentially covers the entire reign of Pharaoh Ramses III and is named after Anthony Charles Harris, a famous collector of papyrus documents. It’s a very important source because it tells what happened in the aftermath of the Battle of the Delta. Part of it reads: “I extended all the frontiers of Egypt and overthrew those who had attacked them from their lands. I slew the Denian in their islands, while the Tejeka and Peleset were made ashes. The Sheridan and the Washes were made non-existent, captured altogether and brought in captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore. I settled them in strongholds bound in my name. Their military classes were as numerous as hundred thousands. I assigned portions for them all with clothing and provisions from the treasuries and granaries every year.”

Ramesses eventually settled many of these people in southwestern Canaan, probably giving them land in return for vassalage and the task of protecting Egypt’s border with Asia. The Peli said were specifically given the cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza. Eventually, they would go on to occupy Ekron and Gath, and together these five cities or what historians call the Philistine pentapolis, and this at least according to Egyptian texts, is how the Pelicet aka the Philistines settled in the land that would eventually bear their name Philistia.

Another source that provides some information on the Philistines is the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. In the book of Amos, chapter 9, verse 7, it said that they came from Caphtor, which most today identify as being the Greek island of Crete.

The Philistine Period: A Brief History of the Ancient Philistine Cities

By around the end of the 11th century BC, the Philistines were beginning to lose much of their uniqueness as they adapted to and absorbed much of the culture of their new land, despite their increased integration into their new environment, archaeology has uncovered the violent destruction of several Philistine cities around the beginning of the 10th century BC. It’s probable that this was due to the Egyptian campaign’s of Pharaoh Siamun, but historians haven’t ruled out Canaanite or other groups being involved. Biblical historians claim that it may have even been the kingdom of Israel under David or Solomon, but again this can’t be confirmed by archaeology and no specific texts outside of the Hebrew Bible have been found from the time describing a conflict between the two. Eventually, these cities were rebuilt and Philistia began to prosper even more than before.

The History of the Philistines

The Philistine society initially had a strong urban orientation, but in time its economy relied more heavily on agriculture. This may have been why the popular Mesopotamian and later Canaanite god Dagon, who was a patron of farmers and the harvest, became so popular amongst the Philistines. Two other Semitic or Canaanite deities that had large followings amongst the Philistines were Ashtaroth and Beelzebub.

The real decline of Philistia began in the 9th century BC, with the growing influence of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in Canaan and the Levant. Beginning as early as the reign of the Assyrian king Adad-nirari III, around 800 BC, the Philistines were paying substantial amounts of tribute in the form of gold, silver, grain and slaves. Like many of their neighbors, the Philistines revolted against their foreign masters. Often this of course led to Assyrian reprisals, which were always extremely destructive. One notable example recorded both in the Bible’s book of Isaiah as well as a Syrian text is the conquest and destruction of the Philistine city of Ashdod by Assyria’s Sargon II. His son and successor Sennacherib continued Philistia’s subjugation by conquering Ekron and other Philistine cities, along with the destruction caused by these campaigns, Philistia was further depopulated, as many of its citizens were deported to other parts of the Assyrian empire. This process was further intensified after the fall of Assyria when the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II took over the region. Though in later years many of these cities were rebuilt and reoccupied, by then they had more or less lost their distinctly Philistine character, especially after Alexander the Great’s conquest of the region when their inhabitants became increasingly Hellenized.

So I hope that this short article gives you a better idea of who the Philistines were as well as some interesting facts about their history.

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