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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Philistines and Egyptians

From Egyptian texts and wall reliefs at Medinet Habu, a reconstruction of the battle between Rameses III and the Sea Peoples and its aftermath has been developed that has attained nearly canonical status. According to this reconstruction, the Sea Peoples came to the Levant by land and by sea. The reliefs show whole families trekking overland in ox-drawn carts, and warriors in horse-drawn chariots fighting with the Egyptians in a land battle on the northern borders of Canaan. A flotilla of their ships even penetrated the Nile Delta before Rameses III repelled them. After his victory, Rameses III engaged troops of the defeated Sea Peoples as mercenaries for his garrisons in Canaan and Nubia, and reasserted Egyptian sovereignty over southern Canaan. Egypt once again controlled the vital military and commercial highway successively known as the Ways of Horus, the Way of the Land of the Philistines (Exod. 13.17 ), and the Way of the Sea (Isa. 9.1 ).

Some Egyptologists have rightly challenged this reconstruction. The wall reliefs of Rameses III show only one scene of departure before the land battle and only one scene of victory celebration after the sea battle. The Sea Peoples threatened the Egyptians at the mouth of the Nile, not in far-off northern Canaan. If the Philistines had settled in southern Canaan before 1175 BCE, when the battle for the Nile Delta took place, both the chariotry and the oxcarts could have come from their settlements there; they would not need to be interpreted as transport for a long overland trek of Sea Peoples through Anatolia into the Levant. As we have seen, they migrated by sea.

The hypothesis that Rameses III reestablished Egyptian control over Canaan and used Philistine mercenaries in his garrisons there was apparently bolstered by the evidence of the clay anthropoid coffins found at such Egyptian strongholds as Beth-shan, Tell el-Farah (S), and Lachish. At Tell el-Farah (S), the discovery of large bench tombs with anthropoid clay sarcophagi, Egyptian artifacts, and Philistine bichrome pottery led the excavator, Sir Flinders Petrie, to conclude that these were the sepulchers of the “five lords of the Philistines.” Other scholars proposed Cypriot and Aegean prototypes for the style of the bench tombs themselves. One of the anthropoid clay coffins from Beth-shan had a feathered headdress, which was compared with the headgear of the Philistines, Denyen, and Sikils shown on the Medinet Habu reliefs. But in the 1970s excavations at the cemetery of Deir el-Balah, southwest of Gaza, uncovered dozens more of these clay coffins dating to the Late Bronze Age, a century or two before the Sea Peoples arrived in Canaan.

The ideal for Egyptians living abroad was to be buried back in Egypt. However, with the expansion of the New Kingdom empire, more Egyptian troops were stationed abroad, in both Canaan and Nubia, and it became impractical to return every Egyptian corpse to the homeland. But Egyptians who died outside Egypt could at least be buried abroad in suitable containers, such as anthropoid clay coffins.

Further support for interpreting the anthropoid clay coffins as Egyptian comes from a sarcophagus excavated at Lachish, in a tomb dating to the time of Rameses III. On this coffin is a depiction of the Egyptian deities Isis and Nephthys, along with an inscription that some have labeled Egyptian pseudohieroglyphs or Philistine gibberish. But some Egyptologists have interpreted the text as a perfectly good Egyptian funerary inscription: “Thou givest water [a traditional mortuary offering] (of the) West [the region of the dead] to the majesty (of) thy […].”

Thus the most parsimonious hypothesis is that the anthropoid sarcophagi found in Canaan in the Late Bronze and the Iron I periods belonged to Egyptians stationed there, and should not be connected with the Sea Peoples and their burial customs. When so interpreted, these coffins are important evidence for delineating cultural (and hence political) boundaries between Canaanite territory still under Egyptian control and Philistia.

During stage 1 the Philistines occupied a large region in southern Canaan, taking it from the Canaanites and their overlords, the Egyptians. The boundaries of this territory can be plotted by using settlements whose ceramic repertoire has more than 25 percent Myc IIIC pottery. This rectangular coastal strip was about 20 kilometers (12 miles) wide and 50 kilometers (31 miles) long and had an area of 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles), and the Philistines located their five major cities at key positions along its perimeter. Unlike the Egyptians, the Philistines did not govern their territory by installing military garrisons within Canaanite population centers. Rather, they completely destroyed those centers, and then built their own new cities on the ruins of the old. This wholesale takeover must have resulted in the death or displacement of much of the Late Bronze Age population.

Along the northern coast of their territory, the Philistines destroyed by fire the large Egyptian fortress at Tel Mor and the neighboring city of Ashdod. Over the ruins of Ashdod they built a new city, while the Egyptians rebuilt the fortress at Tel Mor, although on a smaller scale. Farther inland, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the east, was the small Canaanite city of Ekron (Tel Miqne), about 4 hectares (10 acres) in area. The Philistines burned it too, and over its ruins raised a city five times larger than its predecessor, with massive mud-brick fortifications and organized on a grand scale. In the layer of occupation were found large quantities of Myc IIIC pottery. Northeast of Ekron was Gezer, a major Canaanite city from which some of the Amarna letters had been sent. At the end of the Late Bronze Age it too was destroyed by fire, either by the Philistines or by Pharaoh Merneptah in his campaign of 1209. In any case, Gezer, with no evidence of Myc IIIC, was rebuilt as an Egypto-Canaanite counterforce to Ekron during the reign of Rameses III. A faience vase bearing cartouches with that pharaoh's name is associated with this level of occupation, but there is no Myc IIIC pottery. A small percentage of Philistine bichrome pottery appears later, during stage 2.

The Late Bronze Age city of Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean coast between Ashdod and Gaza, was also destroyed, either by Merneptah or (more probably) by the Philistines. Egyptian policy was to garrison and control, not eradicate, the Canaanite population. There the Philistines built their main seaport, which during stage 1 must have extended along the coast for almost a kilometer (over half a mile) and occupied an area of 50 to 60 hectares (125–150 acres). Later, in the early Iron II period, the preexisting arc of earthen ramparts was fortified at the northern crest by two large mud-brick towers linked by a mud-brick curtain wall. Opposite this Philistine strong-hold, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the east, Rameses III established another Egyptian control center at Lachish. Hardly a trace of Philistine bichrome pottery has been found there, but archaeologists have uncovered an Egyptian-inspired temple, hieratic bowl inscriptions recording taxes paid to the Egyptians, a large bronze gate-fitting inscribed with the name of Rameses III, and two anthropoid coffins, all attesting to the presence of an Egyptian garrison.

Philistia's eastern boundary during stage 1 was a 50-kilometer (31-mile) line from Ekron in the north to Tell Haror in the south, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) inland from Gaza. At Haror, the Philistines devastated the Late Bronze Age city, and both Egyptian and Myc IIIB pottery were found in the destruction debris. Above the ruins rose a new Philistine settlement, with Myc IIIC pottery as at the pentapolis sites.

Just across the border from Haror was another Egyptian center, Tell esh-Shariah. A large Egyptian administrative building or governor's residency, several hieratic bowl inscriptions, and Egyptian pottery all attest to Rameses III's containment policy. During stage 2, the Egyptians abandoned Shariah and it became a Philistine city, probably to be identified with biblical Ziklag. According to 1 Samuel 27.1–7 , Ziklag was subject to Achish, the ruler of Gath, who gave this country town to his loyal retainer David and his personal army of six hundred men. Gath itself, Achish's capital and Goliath's hometown, is usually located at Tell es-Safi. But this site's proximity to Ekron, its distance from Ziklag, and the paucity of Myc IIIC pottery there make this an unlikely identification. Gath should be strategically located in the southeast corner of Philistia during stage 1, not far from its dependency Ziklag during stage 2; if so, the most plausible candidate for Gath is Tel Haror, which has both Philistine monochrome and bichrome pottery. Regardless of the identifications, it seems clear that Haror was inside and Shariah outside Philistine territory during stage 1, but both were within the Philistine domain during stage 2.

In the southwest corner of Philistia lay Gaza, a major outpost and caravan city of the Egyptians, presumably taken over by the Philistines during stage 1. Excavations at Gaza have been limited, and they have revealed little or nothing of the character of the Egyptian and Philistine cities. During stage 1 Philistia probably did not extend south of the Wadi Gaza (Nahal Besor). To protect his northern frontier, Rameses III built a formidable fortress and residency at Tell el-Farah (S), which remained under Egyptian control throughout much of the Ramesside era, well into stage 2, as the sequence of tombs with anthropoid clay coffins, Egyptian artifacts, and Philistine bichrome pottery attests.

The contrast is thus sharply delineated between the territory controlled by the Egyptians under Rameses III and that of the Philistine pentapolis, the latter characterized by the presence of Myc IIIC pottery and by the absence of Egyptian monuments, buildings, and artifacts. A new and formidable foreign power, the Philistines had carved out an independent territory right up to the Egyptian frontier. All Rameses could do was to attempt to contain them, a policy that continued until his death in 1153.

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