While surveying the Elah Valley in 2007, archaeologist Saar Ganor looked around and saw something strange protruding from the ground. On further examination, he wondered if it could be part of an ancient city. His guess was right, and the resulting excavations carried out by Yosef Garfunkel of the Hebrew University and Ganor, Ashkelon District archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, revealed what appeared to be a Judean city.
Located on the southern border of Judah, and with two notable gates, the site — now known as the Qeiyafa Fortress — was very possibly the Shaaraim (“Two Gates”) mentioned in the Bible, dating back to the 10th century BCE when David reigned as king.
For years afterward, Ganor hoped he might one day come across another settlement from the time of David. And in 2013, striding along a hill while involved in a major survey of the 1,000 acres between Kiryat Gat and Beit Guvrin, a piece of clay caught his eye. Excited, he showed it to Garfunkel. To their delight, it belonged to the exact same era as Qeiyafa. An added bonus: the hill, when excavated, also revealed findings from a Philistine town mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
Ganor and Garfunkel dug out the hill in 2015, together with representatives of Sydney’s Macquarie University. Because of the hemispherical difference in seasons, the excavations took place in the Israeli winter. They ended, at least temporarily, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Bible says in the book of Samuel I that when David heard that King Saul wanted him dead, he fled to the Philistine city of Gath (I Samuel 21:10). He asked Achish, King of Gath, to assign a place for him, his band of men, and their entire families to live. “So on that day Achish gave him Ziklag, and it has belonged to the kings of Judah ever since,” reads the verse, a few chapters later.
Different experts have identified over a dozen possible locations for the city of Ziklag. Still, Ganor and Garfunkel are convinced that the newly excavated site, a hill 200 meters (656 feet) above sea level, is the biblical Ziklag due to its location within the borders of ancient Gath. The two have found a plethora of archeological evidence from the 12th century Philistine town running all the way up to the 10th century (BCE) — the time of David. It also fits the biblical tale beautifully, for in that story, the tribe of Amalek “attacked Ziklag and burned it.”
David was absent at the time. When he returned, he found Ziklag destroyed by fire — and excavations at the site uncovered remains of a devastating fire.
Ganor was kind enough to provide a tour of the biblical site. Standing with him at the top of Ziklag where the Philistines built their homes, it is abundantly clear why they chose this particular place.
Way down below, the Lachish Valley is awash in fertile fields and, in season, graced with blooming almond trees. Also clearly in view is a road from Ashkelon to Hebron and Jerusalem, eerily similar to the byway that the ancients would have traveled. And while it isn’t visible from up here, an excellent source of water is easily accessible.
How did they get here, and why did they come? Something strange happened in the 12th century BCE to cause massive migrations, explained Ganor, and these included the movement of the Philistines to Canaan. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Bible, there are almost no written sources from the 12th century to the 10th. Thus it is not known whether droughts, tsunamis, plagues or some other catastrophe explains the downfall of all the major empires in the ancient East and the movement of different peoples into and out of Canaan. But movement there was.
At about the same time that the Philistines migrated to Canaan, so did a group of nomads believed to have been the entity called Israel that was mentioned in the Merneptah Stele. Written after an Egyptian conquest of Canaan in 1208 BCE, it states: “Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed.” Nevertheless, Canaanites and Philistines continued to populate villages throughout the land, and Israel continued to thrive.
The name Ziklag, repeated over a dozen times in the Bible, is neither Hebrew nor Canaanite. Rather, it is Indo-European — the language of the Philistines at that time. And since the Philistines preserved the Canaanite names of the cities where they settled (like Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza), Ziklag was probably uncharted territory when they put down their roots. They built to last, using enormous rocks weighing up to two tons. And when they moved on, other Canaanites under the rule of the Philistines came along and constructed their homes right on top of the original settlement.
Ziklag almost certainly bordered Judah, making it the logical refuge for a fugitive like David at the end of the 11th century BCE. No one knows, of course, whether Ziklag was a ghost town when Achish offered it to David, or if there were Philistines residing there. David would have been thrilled with the site, with its major water source and abundantly fertile fields.
After Ziklag’s destruction, David remained at the site for two days — until messengers arrived to tell him that King Saul had been slain in battle with the Philistines. Then, according to the Bible, following a suitable period of mourning (and the composition of some marvelous poetry) David left Ziklag and headed to Hebron for his coronation. That’s why Ganor claims that it is on Ziklag that David’s kingdom was born.
Despite half a meter (1.6 feet) of destruction caused by fire, excavations turned up many exciting finds. Or perhaps it was because of the devastation that so many relics survived, buried under the rubble. So did the bricks used in construction, for they were made of dried mud and straw and were transformed into stone by the fire. Ganor instructed us to touch some of these burned bricks, to help us see how strong the flames had been.
Excavations carried out on the top of the hill, at the edge of the site, uncovered a series of four houses from the 11th century, some with stone floors. They were built one next to the other with their outer walls creating a sort of belt. Settlers cut straw and wheat by using sickles made of flint, with teeth cut out of one side of the blade, and connected to pieces of wood. Over a thousand pieces of blades from sickles were discovered in a pile during excavations. It would appear that residents of Ziklag were either very rich or worked for a wealthy employer. Apparently they descended the hill in summer, harvested the wheat, and returned their tools and the produce to whoever owned the property.
Down the hill where the 10th century remains are located, archeologists found 70 different ceramic items from the time of David. Some were discovered intact, and those that were broken were completely restored.
While Philistine-era ceramics feature spiral and bird decorations, bell-shaped bowls, and jugs with typically horizontal handles, Judean artifacts generally lack decoration — and the 10th century relics at Ziklag were no exception.
Also uncovered in this portion of the hill were a multitude of pips and other organic remains inside jars set within a storage area. When examined for carbon-14 in the dig’s portable laboratory, the pips and other material were found to date back to the time of David. So we know what kind of diet David and his people enjoyed: they ate legumes and dishes made with wheat. Like those of us living in the Middle East today, 10th century Israelites also cooked with oil, and enjoyed a jug of wine.
Ganor told us that there are significant differences between Ziklag and Qeiyafa/Shaaraim, both Judean towns but situated 20 kilometers apart. Qeiyafa, he said, is the oldest example we have of city planning. It looks as if an architect examined the site and built two gates and a casemate wall — that is, a double wall split into chambers. Each extended family was, apparently, given a parcel of land to build a house adjacent to the wall. City plans like this, explained Ganor, are specific to the kingdom of Judea.
Ziklag was an unfortified town spread out all over the hill, with very big buildings in the center and smaller ones on the periphery. Here, there doesn’t seem to be any clear design. Both, however, utilize the most precious commodity in this area of the country: fertile land.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.