Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ancient Ashkelon

The last time I went to Ashkelon with my kids, we visited the Ashkelon National Park that includes its original walled city and loads of ancient ruins.
On this trip, we explored Ashkelon’s ancient history in three different places – the city’s museum in mid-town, the Ashkelon Academic College and at a lecture for Ashkelonim (residents) at the Yad L’Banim center.
The museum, a once-Arab Chan (wayfarers station), included photos of the old Crusader Wall, as well as Roman Era jewelry, clips (at left), doo-dads.
Archaeological findings stood right in the lobby of the Ashkelon Academic College administration building. The exhibit said that the “origin of the name ‘Ashkelon’ is probably the Hebrew monetary word, ‘shekel’.” This alluded to the city’s standing as a commercial port city. It flourished during the time of the Canaanites around1800 BCE and was captured by the Philistines three centuries later. It must have been a famous successful city, because when King David eulogized King Saul and Jonathan, he mentioned the “streets of Ashkelon” (Samuel 2, 1:20).
It fought the Assyrians, was captured and destroyed totally by Nebuchadnezzar in 604 BCE. Under Persian rule, it was a city of Tyre. It had its ups and downs (captures and independence) and it was a city state that produced its own money (at left -a very big deal). Much later during the Byzantine period, it was a major stop on the Christian pilgrims’ route to Jerusalem. Then it was on and off captured by the Muslims, alternating with the Crusaders.
Well, it was a port/trading city, of course everyone wanted it. It was a very big exporter of oil, wine, textiles, and onions. In fact, as we learned from Ashkelon Academic College Professor Avi Sasson, onions were a symbol of Ashkelon. And one of the reasons the rulers built big walls around the city, was to protect their onion crop from the sand of the ocean.
Professor Sasson also noted that King Herod, who built Bet HaMikdash, Me’arat HaMachpela and the city of Caesaria, also built an ampitheater and other buildings in Ashkelon. Where are these structures today? Well, it seems, the professor said, that since there were no building materials available at the time in this area, that other cities took the stones from Ashkelon to build their own places, like Yaffo.
One weird Ashkelon fact: Professor Sasson said that a cemetery for 1000 dogs was found in Ashkelon, while digging for a new building. He said that while there are many theories for this weird cemetery, he believes that since Ashkelon was a place of business, and shepherding dogs were part of that commerce, the dogs were honored and buried in a respectable way. (BTW, the building was indeed erected, and some of the dogs’ bones were relocated to Ashkelon’s National Park.)
One very disappointing fact: Professor Sasson said that while Ashkelon is celebrated as the place that Delilah chopped off Samson’s hair, that never occurred there at all. There was a cry in the room, and an indignant elderly gentleman stood up, “We are Ashkelonim and we know that the legend of Samson occurred here.” The professor said, “You can tell your grandchildren stories of Samson and bravery, if you wish. But be true to yourselves. Samson never came to Ashkelon.” Aghhhhhhh! Silence, shocked silence.

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