DISCUSSION

Ascalon, Gaza, Negev and Sinai

103. Ascalon - (Askalon)


One of the five Philistine city-states and a seaport in the southern coastal plain of Erez Israel situated 12 mi. (19 km.) north of Gaza and 10 mi. (16 km.) south of Ashdod. The etymology of the name Ashkelon is probably Western Semitic and may be derived from the root (shkl; "to weigh"), indicating a commercial or financial center. Ashkelon is first mentioned in the Egyptian Execration Texts of the 11th dynasty (c. 20th-19th centuries) as Asqanu. It also appears in several Tell el-Amarna letters (EA, 287, 320-2, 370). Although it seems to have remained loyal to Egypt on the whole (EA, 320, 322), Abdihiba, the ruler of Jerusalem, complained to Pharaoh that the people of Ashkelon helped the Habiru, Egypt's enemy (EA, 287,14-16). About 1280 B.C.E., Ashkelon revolted against Ramses II, who put down the rebellion; the conquest is depicted on the Karnak temple. It was again captured by Pharaoh Merneptah approximately 1220 B.C.E., as indicated in his "Israel Stele." Ashkelon is also mentioned in an ivory tablet from Megiddo. Toward the middle of the 12th century B.C.E. it was taken by the Philistines and was thereafter one of their Pentapolis (Josh. 13,3; I Sam. 6,17; II Sam. 1,20). According to Judges 1,18, the tribe of Judah conquered Ashkelon together with Gaza and Ekron (cf., however, Judg. 1,18 in the Septuagint, which states that Ashkelon, Gaza, and Ekron were not taken). Ashkelon is mentioned in connection with several details of the Samson stories (Judg. 14,19). During the period of the monarchy, it continued to be one of the main Philistine cities and ports (II Sam. 1,20), and Amos predicted its punishment (Amos 1,8). It was brought under Assyrian suzerainty by Tiglath-Pileser III in 734 B.C.E. Sidqia, king of Ashkelon, was one of the participants in Hezekiah's rebellion against Assyria. In Sennacherib's account of his campaign in 701 B.C.E., he describes the capture of some of Sidqia's cities in the vicinity of Jaffa, Ashkelon's submission, and the deportation of its king (Sennacherib Prism, 1,50ff.). Tribute received from Ashkelon is mentioned in the inscriptions of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. With the collapse of Assyrian rule, Ashkelon fell into the hands of Psammetichus and Necho of Egypt. The city was subdued and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 47,5-7). In an Aramaic letter found in Egypt, which belongs to this period, a certain Adon, probably the king of Ashkelon, pleads for help, stating that the Babylonian king has reached Aphek. In the Persian period, Ashkelon was under the control of Tyre (according to Pseudo-Scylax, fourth century B.C.E.). With the division of Alexander's empire, Ashkelon was included in the Ptolemies' domain. A Jewish community flourished in the city under their rule. Ashkelon subsequently fell into the hands of Antiochus III and became an important center of Greek civilization in Hellenistic times. With the decline of the Seleucid kingdom, it regained its independence in 104 B.C.E., from which time it reckoned the beginning of its own era. Ashkelon maintained its independence throughout the reigns of the Hasmonean rulers John Hyrcanus and Alexander Yannai. In the Roman period it was considered a "free and allied city." Although not included in the territory ruled by Herod, he nevertheless built market places and public baths there and adorned the town with gardensóperhaps because it was his birthplace. During the war against the Romans (66 C.E), the Ashkelonites clashed with the Jews and defeated them. In the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud, Jews lived in Ashkelon, as the remains of a synagogue from that period show. Talmudic sources mention its orchards and its fair (TJ, Shev. 6,1, 36c; Sif. Deut. 51). The orchards were incorporated within the boundaries of the Holy Land (set by the returnees from Babylonia) but not the city proper, and the latter was therefore exempted from the tithes and sabbatical year regulations (TJ, Shev. 6,1, 36c). In the early years of the Byzantine period, Ashkelon was the seat of a school of Hellenistic philosophy and was strongly opposed to Christianity. The population adhered to the worship of its fish-goddess Derceto (Atargatis), whose image consisted of the head and trunk of a woman and the tail of a fish and whose temple contained pools for sacred fish (Diodorus, 2,4; Pausanias, 1,14, 16). [Michael Avi-Yonah] Medieval Period Apparently a Jewish community existed in Ashkelon during the reign of the Abbasids. Under the Fatimids, Jews are mentioned in letters found in the Cairo Genizah as kehal Ashkelon ("the Ashkelon congregation") and kahal kadosh ("holy congregation"). In the first period of Crusader rule over Palestine, a yet unconquered Ashkelon sheltered a large number of refugees, including many Jews. The Jewish community became a sanctuary for those escaping from Jerusalem, and dealt with such matters as ransoming captives and buying ritual objects from looted synagogues in Jerusalem. At the same time, members of the community were in constant touch with Jewish centers abroad. For example in 1110, letters were sent to the head of the "Gaon Jacob Yeshivah," which was exiled from the country. After the Crusader conquest in 1153, part of the Jewish population remained in Ashkelon. Benjamin of Tudela describes it as "a large and beautiful town, which contains two hundred Jews, and apart from them, several dozen Karaites and about three hundred Samaritans." In 1187 Saladin conquered it and in 1191 he destroyed its fortifications, (which were rebuilt later by Richard the Lion Heart). The town's Christian inhabitants, with the exception of one hundred merchants, were evacuated, and replaced by Muslims, and its Jewish population went to settle in Jerusalem. Judah Al-Harizi mentions that among the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem was "an excellent congregation from Ashkelon." In 1192 it was destroyed again and in 1240 built anew. In 1247 it passed to the rule of the Ayyub sultans and in 1270 Sultan Baybars destroyed it again. Information also exists on the settlement of Samaritans in Ashkelon in the 13th century. Under Ottoman rule, Ashkelon was a small settlement, inhabited mainly by merchants and commercial agents who used its port. There was no Jewish community in Ashkelon throughout the Ottoman rule.

Natan Efrati, Encyclopaedia Judaica, ad v. "Ashkelon"

Herbert Donner (The Mosaic Map of Madaba, Kampen 1992, 64-65)
Ancient Ashkelon, one of the Philistine city territories, is identical with 'Asqalan (coord. 106-118). The preserved section of the representation shows that part of Byzantine Ashkelon which was surrounded in the Middle Ages by the big semicircular Crusaders' rampart. Parts of the wall are visible, with one tower on the left. Two other towers flank the eastern gate built in two storeys, the upper one showing a window. A broad square lies in front of the inner side of the eastern gate, from which two colonnaded streets run from east to west, similar to the situation inside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem (section D, nr. 1). Between them is seen what has been interpreted as a rectangular pool, but is rather a house shown from above, with two windows. The left east-western street crosses another one going from north to south: at the intersection we see a yellowish dome, erected upon two columns - probably not a triumphal arch as is usually assumed, but a so-called Tetrapylon (of which only two columns are seen). The colonnaded street from north to south does not seem to extend beyond the right east-western street. A continuation, however, must have existed, perhaps beginning a little more to the west. West of the north-south street, between both eastwest streets, a church is partly visible. Three profane buildings are shown in the northeastern part of the city. If we compare this representation to the town plan of ancient Ashkelon, we note a remarkable agreement. The eastern gate is the Jerusalem Gate (Bab al Quds) of the medieval city. The run of the streets corresponds approximately to that of medieval Ashkelon and to the present ways and paths on the Tall: from Jerusalem Gate to Sea Gate (Porta maris of the Crusaders), from Yafa Gate to Gaza Gate. The separation of two east-west streets, indeed, begins just after the square near the so-called Buleuterion (senate building) in the very centre of the city. The strange building in between these streets, mentioned above, is certainly not the Buleuterion, because this building was transformed into a theatre in the 5th century A.D. The church cannot be identified. Roman-Byzantine Ashkelon was famous for its beautiful wells (see Origenes, Contra Celsum IV:44). One of them has been described by the Piacenza pilgrim around 570 (ch. 33): 'Entering Ascalon we came to the very large Well of Peace, built like a theatre, in which one goes down by steps to the water.' Probably this well and perhaps other ones too were shown in the lost parts of the representation.

Bellarmino Bagatti (Ancient Christian Villages of Judaea and Negev, Jerusalem - in the press)

Ascalon, Maiuma (Maioumas) of Ascalon

Since the medieval period Ascalon or Ascalona has been located at the port which, after the Israeli occupation in 1948, became a national park. At the same time a new quarter called Barnea developed to the north. When roads and houses were being built, ancient buildings, including two churches, emerged from the sands. This led us to suppose that in Roman and Byzantine times Ascalon extended north and the present park, site of the primitive city, became Maiuma of Ascalon in the sixth century.
A study published in Liber Annuus (Bagatti, LA 24 [1974], pp. 227-264) seeks to present the history of the city under the Christian aspect; the reader is referred to it for fuller details.
The Martyrs. In 308 various Egyptian Christians and three Ascalonians were martyred at Ascalon: Ares was burned; Promos (or Probus) and Elias were decapitated. This is the first evidence of Christianity in the city but it allows us to catch a glimpse of an earlier period. The martyrs' memory was celebrated on December 14; however, in the village of Metopa, their festival took place on June 11. Other martyrs were killed during the short-lived pagan reaction under Julian the Apostate in 362. These belonged to the clergy and the monkhood. Their bodies were filled with grain and then thrown to the pigs, as Theodoret of Cyrus relates (Historia Ecclesiastica III, 7). Their feast was celebrated on March 23.
The Bishops. In 325 one Sabinus, who is the first known bishop, took part in the Council of Nicaea. Bishop Longinus is mentioned by St. Epiphanius (Haer. 20,1 or 69, 4): he was the successor of Sabinus. Auxentius attended the Council of Constantinople in 381 and in 415 Bishop Jobinus was present at the Council of Lydda. Palladius described him as "pious and learned" (Historia Lausiaca, ch.143; PG 34, 1244-1246). Leontius was at the second Council of Ephesus in 449 and at Chalcedon in 451; the support he gave in this occasion to the archbishop of Jerusalem, Juvenal, gained him the hate of the Monophysites. Bishop Athanasius is known from an inscription unearthed at Barnea, dated A.D. 497. Antonius, son of the priest Marcian, succeeded him: because of their father's merits, two of Marcian's sons were ordained by Patriarch Elias-John was destined to the clergy of the Anastasis (church of the Holy Sepulcher) and Anthony to the episcopal see of Ascalon (Cyril of Scythopolis, Life of Sabas, ch. 37). Bishop Dionysius followed; he was present at the Council of Jerusalem in 536. He had been "priest and guardian of sacred vessels" of the local community. In his time a curious incident took place. Some Christians were travelling in the desert with a Jew, and were in danger of dying of thirst. The Jew, feeling his life was ending, asked for baptism; but because there was no water, the Christians baptized him with sand. He immediately recovered, and when the company came into Ascalon, a question arose about the validity of his baptism. Some felt that it was valid; but Dionysius sent the convert to the Jordan to receive baptism of water (John Moschus, Pratum , ch.176).
After the Persian conquest in 614, a certain Narses, who is praised by St. Sophronius, was bishop. A bishop is also known in the Abbasid period: in 939 the Moslems set fire to the church of the Virgin called "the Green", and the bishop did not succeed afterward in rebuilding it. In those days a native of Ascalon called Christodulus, son of Bahram, was Patriarch of Jerusalem.


Remains of a Byzantine church at Ascalon-Barnea

The Byzantine Buildings. In 570 the Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza was in Ascalon and noted: "Then we entered Ascalon. There is the Well of Peace ... made like a theater, in which one goes down by steps to the water. Three martyred brothers from Egypt repose there; each of them has a name of his own, but the people call them 'The Egyptians.' One mile away is the city of Saraphia and nearby is Maiuma of Ascalon."
The presumption is that the martyrs were venerated in a church. Two Byzantine sacred buildings were unearthed in Barnea. One is a three-nave church with a chapel attached to the south side and some unexcavated rooms to the north. As for its chronology, nothing can be determined since the excavators worked at a level below the floor: this had disappeared but was probably made of flagstones, judging by the numerous fragments of marble slabs found in the dig. Many glass tesserae were also scattered about, indicating that the walls were faced with mosaics. Crosses are carved on the columns, probably made by worshippers; the capitals, made of marble like the columns, are decorated with acanthus leaves.
Of the other building only the pavements of two rooms remain. Three mosaic inscriptions are preserved. The easternmost one reads: "In the year 602, in the month of Artemisius and the eighth indiction, under the most God-loving and saintly bishop Anastasius, the entire complex of the diakonikon was built from the foundations and mosaicked." Reckoning by the era of Ascalon, we can fix the year 498/9 for the erection of this building. The second inscription, in the same room, quotes Ps 22, 1: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want," probably an allusion to the function of the diakonikon which existed to provide economic relief to the Christians. The third inscription, in theother room, quotes Ps 93, 5: "Holiness befits your house, O Lord, for length of days. In the year 597, month... it was made and mosaicked." The year corresponds to 493, earlier than the date of the other inscription; the later date can be considered to refer to a renovation of the room. The decoration of the mosaic is geometric, with the exception of a vine trellis issuing from an amphora (Tzaferis, IEJ 17 [1967], pp. 125-26).
Remains of Byzantine churches (capitals, chancel-screen pillars, etc.) are now gathered in an outdoor museum. They obviously come from different sacred places, as appears from their varying sizes and styles. Such pieces can be classified as architectural elements of the Byzantine period.
The Itinerary of the Monk Epiphanius of the late seventh century (Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims, p. 119) speaks of a shrine dedicated to the two martyrs, Cosmas and Damian. They are the famous "moneyless" healers who enjoyed great veneration in the Christian world. The Calendar of the Palestinian Church (Garitte, p. 461 ) lists their feast on different days and places, among them the village of Beit Sahur near Bethlehem.
A lead seal with the figure of St. George presened in the Museum of the White Fathers in Jerusalem (Revue Numismatique [1914], p. 447), originally from Ascalon, has been dated to the eighth century.
A native of Ascalon is the famous John Rufus, or John of Beith-Rufin, "an Arab from the south of Palestine" (Nau, PO 8, p.6), disciple of Peter the Iberian whom he succeeded as bishop of Maiuma. About the year 512, he wrote the Plerophories in Greek, a confutation of the Council of Chalcedon through the use of anecdotes and visions. The work is preserved in Syriac (PO 8, pp.11-161). The Life of Peter the Iberian (ed. R. Raabe, Leipzig 1895) is also ascribed to him
These works, as well as other sources from this time, refer to monasteries in Ascalon and Maiuma which belonged to both the Orthodox and the Monophysites (see Vailhé, ROC 4 [1899], pp.517, 537, nos.10, 52; 5 [1900], pp. 44-46, no.99). Among the former there is cited a xenodochium or pilgrims' hospice dedicated to the Virgin and run by the priest Eusebius in the sixth century. The Monophysites had a monastery outside the city, headed by the monk Cyril. Pelagius of Edessa also lived here; he was regarded as a prophet of perfect life. Other Monophysites were remembered: a pious woman called Miqa, who lived an ascetical life until she was 100, one Elias of Ascalon, tribune in Jerusalem, who was cured of deafness by Peter the Iberian, and, also connected with the same Peter, Harun, a grain merchant from Ptolemais, who founded a monastery near Ascalon where several Eutychians were buried.
No tombstones have been found at Ascalon, as they were in other places; but near the former village of Jora, toward the north, a burial vault was discovered, whose plastered walls were decorated with painted crosses and Greek letters which are a bit enigmatic (see LA 22 [1972], pp.229-31).
Maiuma of Ascalon. A certain Stephen of Maiuma of Ascalon subscribed the acts of the synod of Jerusalem in 518; hence it is believed that Ascalon had at this time two administrations - one in the mother city and another in the harbor (Maiuma) that had served the city for centuries - and this division had resulted in giving the port a bishop of its own. Hence the diocese was divided in two. This state of things ended with the Arab occupation, if not sooner. Bishop Stephen was a contemporary of Anthony's who was with him at the council. It is clear that what had been done at Gaza was repeated at Ascalon. There is no better place for the site of Maiuma than the present National Park of Ascalon, which yielded evidence of occupation in the earliest times and was developed also in the Crusader period; here the ships could come in.
Ascalon in the Crusader Period. The Crusaders took the city in 1113, lost it in 1187, recaptured it in ll91, and lost it again in 1270. In this period they built the great walls, partly preserved to this day; moreover, they erected two large churches - one to the north of which some pieces of wall remain, and one to the south, now completely destroyed. One was dedicated to St. John (Revue de l' Orient Latin 7 [1899], p.143); the other, to the Virgin. In the latter, Count Furbin copied a Latin inscription at the beginning of the 19th century: "Stella matutina, Advocata navigantibus, ora pro nobis"; that is, "(O Mary) Morning Star, Protectress of Sailors, pray for us." The church was near the port and could inspire an invocation of Mary before undertaking a sea voyage, then full of dangers. Reference is also made to a church of St. Paul (Röhricht, ZDPV 10 [1887], pp. 239, 310). Clermont-Ganneau reported the epitaph, in Leonine verses, of a certain Hugh of Quiliugo, a Breton Templar who died in the siege of the city (De Sandoli, Corpus, pp. 256-57). A Latin bishop also resided in Ascalon in the Crusader period; the first was Absalon, once a canon of the Holy Sepulcher.
Once Crusader control ended, there is no further mention of a Christian community. H. Thiersch (ZDPV 37 [1914], p. 73, Pl. XVI, 3) published as coming from Ascalon a marble plaque which bears the emblem of a griffin and the double-barred cross. He believes the marble adorned a Crusader building; but since it is dated 1314, it must come from somewhere else, perhaps from Cyprus.

For more sources and bibliography see:
Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea - Palaestina (Jerusalem 1994) s.v. "Ascalon", 68.

Map Section 9 Place Sources

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