ASHKELON (Heb. אַשְׁקְלוֹן; Askelon, Ascalon).
One of the five Philistine city-states and a seaport in the southern coastal plain of Ereẓ 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 thereby that it served as a center for mercantile activities. Ashkelon is first mentioned in the Egyptian Execration Texts of the 11th dynasty (c. 20th–19th centuries) as Asqanu. The city would appear to have been a Canaanite city-state under strong Egyptian influence throughout the 18th to 20th Dynasties. Ashkelon appears in several *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 reliefs at the Karnak temple. It was again captured by Pharaoh *Merneptah approximately 1229 b.c.e., as indicated on 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). In the eighth century b.c.e. the size of its kingdom was substantially reduced by the Assyrians, who referred to it as Iskaluna or Askaluna, and it was eventually brought under their suzerainty by Tiglath-Pileser iii in 734 b.c.e. A first unsuccessful rebellion by the King of Ashkelon against the Assyrians led a severe punishment in 732 b.c.e. Later, Sidqia, king of Ashkelon, became one of the participants in another rebellion against Assyria led by Hezekiah. 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 the rulers Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. They used the city as a base for their campaigns against Egypt (end of the seventh and early sixth centuries b.c.e.) and the hardships that the city endured were mentioned by the prophets (e.g. Zeph. 2:4; Jer. 25:20). 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), who deported many of its inhabitants. 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 – Ascalon as it was then known – was included in the Ptolemies' domain and it became a free port and an autonomous city. 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. In 111 b.c.e. it was minting its own coins. 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 who were unsuccessful in their bids to conquer the city. In the Roman period it was considered a "free and allied city" (Colonia Ascalon liberate et foederata). Pagan cults included the worship of Isis, Apollo and Heracles, and of Atargatis/Derceto – a goddess with the face and upper body of a woman and the lower body and tail of a fish – whose temple contained pools for sacred fish (Diodorus, 2:4; Pausanias, 1:14, 16).Although not included in the territory ruled by Herod, he nevertheless built market places and public baths there and adorned the town with gardens – perhaps 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 (see below). 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.
Neolithic and Chalcolithic remains have been reported in the vicinity of Tel Ashkelon (Ar. Tell el-Hadr) and substantial Early Bronze Age I remains have been uncovered in the Afridar neighborhood of the modern city about a mile to the north of the ancient mound. Tel Ashkelon has been the focus of archaeological excavations ever since the first probes made there by W.J. Phythian-Adams and J. Garstang in 1920–21 that brought to light Hellenistic and Roman remains – including remains of a large building identified as a council-house (bouleuterion) or forum, as well as earlier Middle Bronze fortifications and pottery in fill layers indicating the links that the city had with Aegean and Cypriot cultures. During subsequent archaeological investigations a remarkable painted tomb was discovered by J. Ory bearing scenes of two nymphs in a Nilotic landscape, the god Pan playing a syrinx, a dog chasing a gazelle, a Gorgon mask, etc. Dating from the Byzantine period are the remains of a church and a synagogue with a chancel screen decorated with menorot. From 1985 large-scale excavations were initiated at Tel Ashkelon on a yearly basis by L.E. Stager. Apart from scanty remains from the Early Bronze ii–iii, an impressive Middle Bronze ii defensive system and a well-preserved gate flanked by towers were uncovered. Nearby a small shrine (the "sanctuary of the silver calf") was uncovered. Late Bronze Age building remains and sunken burial vaults are known from the site. Philistine remains are represented by fortifications dated to 1100 b.c.e. The discovery of vats suggests that one of the occupations of the inhabitants was wine production. The Philistine city was destroyed in 604 b.c.e. Persian remains of the fifth century b.c.e. include the discovery of an unusual dog cemetery; the town was destroyed c. 300 b.c.e. In addition to these remains, signs of later occupation represented by public buildings and dwellings were also revealed from the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic periods. A bathhouse/brothel dating from the fourth century c.e. was found with the bones of hundreds of newborn babies in the underground sewers. A hexagonal Byzantine church with decorated mosaic floors has also been uncovered. An inscription from 1150 b.c.e. relates to the refortification of Ashkelon under the Fatimids. These walls, however, did not prevent the eventual capture of the site by the Crusaders.
[Michael Avi-Yonah /
Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]
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-Ḥarizi 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.
Modern Ashkelon is located 2 mi. (3.5 km.) northeast of the ruins of ancient Ashkelon. The Egyptian governor Ibrahim Pasha founded the town of Majdal (c. 1830) and settled Egyptian weavers there. Nearer the shore and the site of the antiquities was the fishing village of al-Jūra. During the Israel War of Independence (1948), the invading Egyptian army took Majdal but had to evacuate it by sea when Israel forces closed in on it from the land side (October 1948). Shortly after the war, the inhabitants of Majdal left the town for Gaza. After a short time, a Jewish settlement developed known as Migdal-Ashkelon. From 1949 on, Jewish immigrants from many countries settled there. In 1952, on the initiative of the South African Zionist Federation, the South African Jewish War Appeal undertook the implementation of a planning program, based on the concept of self-contained neighborhood units, and in 1955 Ashkelon was granted city status. Its municipal boundaries, as then laid down, included an area of 17 sq. mi. (43 sq. km.), which subsequently increased to 21 sq. mi. (55 sq. km.). Its five neighborhoods were the town of Majdal (Migdal), which was the commercial and market center; the Afridar quarter, linking up with the hotel area near the bathing beach; the Southern Hills quarter of immigrant housing; the residential Shimshon (Samson) quarter; and the Barnea quarter. The industrial zone was located on the eastern fringe of the town. In 1969 an oil pipeline was constructed from Eilat to Ashkelon. Tourism and recreation, including a camp of the French Mediterranean Club, constituted an important part of the city's economy. In the beginning of the 21st century the city's economy was based on industry, administrative services, commerce, and tourism, employing some 40,000 people and making the city a regional center. About 40 factories and 1,000 workshops operated in the city's three industrial areas (which included an 8,000-acre industrial park), engaged in metalworking, plastics, wood, electronics, food, baked goods, chemicals, and prefab construction.
The city had a branch of *Bar-Ilan University with 180 students in attendance in 1968, which in 1990 became Ashkelon College, a regional institute. In 2000 the college was accredited academically, with a student body of approximately 6,000. The city's population rose from 38,000 in 1968 to 73,000 in the mid-1990s and 103,200 in 2002. Among Ashkelon's population, 33.5% were new immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union, with others from Ethiopia, France, and Latin America.
The area of ancient Ashkelon, including the archaeological findings, has been converted into a National Park.
[Efraim Orni /
Shaked Gilboa (2nd ed.)]
M. Ish-Shalom, Masei Noẓerim le-Ereẓ Yisrael (1965), 94–95, 97; Mann, Egypt, 2 (1922), 198–201; Ben-Zvi, Ereẓ Yisrael, index; Sefer ha-Yishuv, 2 (1944), 4–6; J. Prawer, in: Eretz Israel, 4 (1956), 231–42; 5 (1958), 224–37; B. Mazar, in: em, 1 (1965), 769ff.; Schuerer, Gesch, 2 (19674), 119ff.; J. Garstang, Joshua, Judges (1931), 357ff.; idem, in: pefqs (1923); J. Ory, in: qdap, 8 (1939), 38ff.; Beyer, in: zdpv, 56 (1933), 250ff.; Z. Vilnay, Ashkelon ha-Ḥaḍashah ve-ha-Attikah (1963). add. bibliography: W.J. Phythian-Adams, "History of Askalon," in: pefqs (1921): 163–71; idem, in: "Report on the Stratification of Askalon," in: pefqs (1923): 60–84; L. Stager, "Ashkelon," in: neaehl 1 (1993), 102–3; idem, in: Biblical Archaeology Review, 17 (1991); P. Wapnish and B. Hesse, "Pampered Pooches or Plain Pariahs," ba, 56 (1993), 55–80; B.L. Johnson and L.E. Stager, "Ashkelon: Wine Emporium of the Holy Land," in: S. Gitin (ed.), Recent Excavations in Israel (1995), 95–109. For a comprehensive list of later historical sources, see Y. Tsafrir, L. Di Segni, and J. Green, Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea – Palaestina. Maps and Gazetteer (1994), 68–70. website: www.ashkelon.muni.il.