Photo Essay: Tell es-Safi
Aren Maeir, Bar-Ilan University
Gath of the Philistines is well known from the Bible as one of the five major cities of the Philistines ("Philistine Pentapolis"), appearing often particularly in the books of Samuel. The important role of the city in the text led scholars to search for its location from a very early stage of modern research in the Holy Land. Although the site of Tell es-Safi had been suggested as Gath's location as early as the mid-1800s, this identification was highly contested for many decades, and only since the mid-1970s—following Anson Rainey's analysis of the relevant biblical and other texts, and especially since the late 1990s with the commencement of the renewed excavations—has the identification of Tell es-Safi as biblical Philistine Gath (and Canaanite Gath, known from the el-Amarna texts as well) been widely accepted.
Tell es-Safi/Gath is a large site (maximum size ca. 50 ha. [125 acres]), located on the border between the southern coastal plain (Philistia) and the Judean foothills (the Shephelah), on the southern bank of the Elah River, approximately halfway between Jerusalem and Ashkelon. Archaeological evidence from the site indicates that it was settled almost continuously from late prehistoric to modern times, with particularly impressive remains from the Early Bronze Age (4th–3rd mill. BCE), the Late Bronze Age (16th–13th cent. BCE) and the Iron Age I-IIB (ca. 1200–701 BCE). After the Iron Age, while the site was settled, it was not as intensively so until the Crusader period (ca. 12th cent. CE), when a castle (Blanche Garde) was built on its summit. Thereafter a village was built on the site, and continued to exist until 1948 (the village of Tell es-Safi was abandoned during the Arab-Israeli War).
Although the site was briefly excavated in 1899 by Bliss and Macalister, extensive study of the site did not commence until 1997. Since then, a large multinational project, directed by A. Maeir of Bar-Ilan University (Ramat-Gan, Israel), has been working there. Many impressive remains have been uncovered from the full range of periods represented at the site.