Take a quick glance at Ashkelon, and you might never know it is one of the oldest cities in Israel. Renowned as a resort city with its extensive shoreline and immaculate beaches, Ashkelon has a 5,000-year history that belies its modern appearance.
A port city along the Mediterranean Sea, Ashkelon is located approximately 30 miles south of Tel Aviv, and about 8 miles north of the Gaza border. In biblical times, it gained prominence for its position along the Via Maris—the main trade route between Egypt and Syria.
Originally a Canaanite city, it came into Philistine possession around the 12th century BC. After a series of sea invasions forced the Philistines to migrate to the land, they settled in five cities: Gaza, Ashdod, Gath, Ashkelon, and Ekron. Ashkelon was the largest of these cities and the only one which held a valuable position along the Mediterranean coastline.
Since its capture by Israeli forces in the 1948 War of Independence, Ashkelon has evolved from a melting pot for waves of immigrants to a tourist destination known for its aquamarine waters and its bustling modern city, which surrounds the ancient tel.
Ashkelon has several mentions in the Old Testament, in particular with reference to the conflict between the Philistines and the Israelites. In fact, the tribe of Judah laid siege to the city during the time of the Judges, only to be later recaptured by the Philistines (Judges 1:18). In Judges 14:19, Samson went to Ashkelon, killed 30 men and gave the spoils to those who solved his riddle. In 1 Samuel 6, the Philistines captured the sacred Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites, drawing rebuke from God, who commands them to send it back to the people of Israel, along with guilt offerings for each of their cities—including Ashkelon.
The fate of Ashkelon—as well as other Philistine cities—is also mentioned in the prophetic books of Jeremiah, Amos, Zephaniah, and Zechariah.
After the fall of the Philistines, Ashkelon was ruled by many civilizations, including the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs and Crusaders, before it was destroyed by the Mamluks in 1270.
Many who have visited Ashkelon claim it to be one of the most fascinating cities on earth. It is one of the many places in Israel where you can walk where the Bible happened. The city’s past and present blend easily in its streets and parks. There is plenty to do and to see—visitors can readily access public transportation and may not even require a car to get around. The Ashkelon Marina offers spectacular waterfront views and access to nearby beaches, restaurants, and shopping malls.
What to See
- Ashkelon National Park – Located along the Mediterranean shoreline, the park is the heart of the ancient city. It contains interesting archaeological artifacts, including the world’s oldest arched gate, the Canaanite gate. Nearly 4,000 years old, the mud-brick gate was constructed as part of ancient Ashkelon’s fortifications. You can also see the remains of different civilizations that lived in the area.
- Ashkelon Khan and Museum– Found in Hatzmaut Square in Ashkelon, the museum highlights various archaeological finds over a period of 5,000 years, among them a replica of Ashkelon’s Canaanite silver calf. The magnificent khan (inn or hotel) also has an art gallery which features the work of local artists.
- The Outdoor Museum – Originally created to showcase sarcophagi from the Roman period, the Outdoor Museum features two marble Roman burial coffins depicting various scenes of battle and hunting, as well as famous mythological scenes.
- Byzantine Church – In 2014, archaeologists uncovered the remains of intricate mosaics on the marble slab floor of a 4th-century Byzantine church. One of the mosaics bears a Christogram—letters that form an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ—surrounded by birds.